Off the Cuff - Moving away from racism

SUNDAY'S "moments of madness" in Kuala Lumpur when a group of about 100 men went amok to show support for a man whom police had arrested for stealing a handphone, goes to show how fragile the situation can become when the spectre of racism is invoked.

It all started when the 22-year-old man was caught the previous day by workers at Low Yat Plaza, Malaysia's premier IT-related gadget centre, and handed over to security personnel. Also caught was an accomplice and both were later detained by the police.

According to Inspector-General of Police Tan Sri Khalid Abu Bakar, the police officer who handled the arrest of the two men released the accomplice without referring the matter to a superior.

It was this accomplice who fabricated a story that a shop assistant had cheated them by selling a fake product, and such rumours went viral on social media.

Under normal circumstances, what's the big deal about a clear-cut theft, let alone of a mere handphone in a city, like any other city in the world, where crime is pervasive?

But this one led to people going on a rampage on Sunday as videos on the social media showed, resulting in five people being injured, including two journalists who covered the incident, with some RM70,000 worth of electronic goods and equipment destroyed.

Unfortunately, postings on the social media were quick to add a racial profiling to the shopping centre ostensibly due to its name.

And it was quick action by the police that prevented an escalation of the fracas with some 30 arrests made, including a blogger and a politician.

I take the liberty here as we celebrate Hari Raya today to salute Datuk Seri Nazir Razak, the youngest son of our former prime minister, Tun Abdul Razak, for calling on the government to outlaw racism.

Writing on his Instagram account, the brother of Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak wants racism to be made illegal, saying he fears for the future of Malaysia.

"When a silly handphone theft results in racial brawls, I fear for their future. Let's define and make racism illegal to bring us closer together," said Nazir, the group chairman of CIMB Bank.

Nazir has of late gained a lot of traction by being vocal on some of the major issues plaguing the country, especially that of corporate governance.

It will be interesting to see if Najib will heed his brother's call.

Former de facto law minister Datuk Zaid Ibrahim is also on the same wave length as Nazir. He wants Najib to legislate against groups promoting hatred and violence.

It was obvious Zaid was referring to some race-based NGOs seen as spewing statements against retailers at Low Yat Plaza.

Some friends told me that they left their WhatsApp groups after the chat forums were inundated with remarks that could undermine racial harmony.

The mob attack came just days after the launch of a book We are convinced – Time for a new Malaysia away from Racism. The book published by an NGO called Pusat Komas is a compilation of 30 articles on race relations derived from speeches at national conferences organised by the NGO over the last eight years.

Jerald Joseph, a board member of Pusat Komas, in a foreward to the book, says it is sad to realise that Malaysia has not evolved out of race-based politics, but continues to exist as a racialised and polarised society.

"I think we owe this to our regressive brand of politics that has governed us till today," he wrote, while asking the government not to allow hate speech, racist and bigoted statements which are "a threat to national harmony and security".

The book also contains an article based on remarks I made at a panel discussion at Komas's first national conference held in 2011.

Among other things, I said a lot could be learned from Sabah and Sarawak where racism or hate speech just doesn't exist. And where the inclusive tenets of the 1Malaysia concept espoused by Najib soon after he became prime minister, are a way of life there.

As someone born in Sarawak, I said in the article that I got a cultural shock when I moved to Peninsular Malaysia over 30 years ago because people were very sensitive about their racial identities.

"One can sense that the racial balance and harmony is quite fragile here. Sometimes when some provocative issues or racial or religious issues are being bandied about, people get so worked up that you get scared that something might happen," I said at the 2011 conference. In some ways, the Low Yat Plaza incident reflected this.

Media practitioners, politicians, bureaucrats, business people and the influential stratum of society should be encouraged to view issues of ethnicity in relation to the economy from a more holistic perspective that takes into consideration the interests and feelings of others.

But let us all build a better Malaysia and let us move on and move away from racism.

Azman wishes Muslim readers of theSun Selamat Hari Raya. Comments: letters@thesundaily.com