Beyond the Wall - Racist remarks getting more toxic

AFTER a break of several months, I feel compelled to write about the latest race-relations scenario plaguing our multi-ethnic country.

After all, I started a column for this paper writing about race issues in Malaysia and around the world, under the name "Beyond Race" in November 2008, just after the election victory of the first black president of the United States, Barack Obama.

I would like to quote several paragraphs from my first article to show its relevance in the current race debate.

THE election of Barack Obama as the first black president of the United States has inspired people not just in the US but also the world over on the issue of "looking beyond race". Obama has been elected to represent not just his own "kind" but white Americans and other minorities such as Hispanics and Asians as well.

Our government leaders have welcomed president-elect Obama as someone who is likely to be more sympathetic to developing countries. Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi said any citizen can be prime minister of Malaysia while Foreign Minister Datuk Seri Dr Rais Yatim added that Obama's victory proved that Americans were able to look beyond race and religious beliefs in electing their leader.

Open and even rational debates on any race issue have tended to be muted. Even in this so-called modern civilised world, many people are still governed by their baser instincts of irrational fear and insecurity that a person of one race cannot be trusted to truly represent or look after the interests of other races. The use of race and religion in history for politics has tended to reinforce this prejudice till today.

More recently at home, when former prime minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad condemned Zionism and its strong influence in the West at the 10th OIC Summit in October 2003 (just before he stepped down), there were many criticisms against him for being anti-Semitic, especially from the Western media. Hardly anyone came to his defence. I wrote an article in the local press to defend his stand and explain the history and ideology of Zionism (which the UN had even resolved to be a form of racism). I highlighted the terrible injustices against and sufferings by the predominantly Muslim Palestinian people since the creation of the state of Israel.

Dr Mahathir wrote to me to express his gratitude over the article, saying that "not many have done this or argued based on reason". A non-Muslim friend had questioned me and found it hard to accept that as a non-Muslim, I could be so strong in my stand on what was perceived as basically a Muslim position. My reply was that I am a human being first, everything else next. Fighting injustices and oppression or defending universal rights or values should transcend one's race, religion or nationality.

In our local scenario, excessive race-based politicking is becoming counter-productive, self-destructive and often plain stupid because they undermine the collective strength of our racial diversity and our economic competitiveness as a nation.

The winds of positive change are sweeping not just the US but the world in general, our country included. With much greater access to education and the freer flow of information and knowledge, the younger generations are also becoming more open minded, less gullible and smarter in looking at various issues.

With the recent changes on the local political landscape, our local race-based parties, which were created out of political expediency during the times of our Independence, will need to reform or even overhaul themselves by "looking beyond race", otherwise they risk becoming irrelevant.

Now let's look at the current debate of the red shirts' rally versus the Bersih one.

Based on reports, many statements (including banners and posters) made at the red shirts rally were rather explicit and if the police and public prosecutor were to strictly apply the Sedition Act, many bloggers, writers, politicians, extremists and social thugs would be charged in court for promoting hatred towards another race.

We have an ex-minister trying to justify racism in the name of Islam and another racial activist proudly proclaiming to be a "constitutional racist". Such people have no idea what racism or racialism is all about and should learn from the Palestinian people or black South Africans how they have suffered under racism. The public outcry by many decent-minded people against such idiotic remarks shows that there is still sanity in our society. Everyone must realise that any racial conflict is bad for business, the economy and ALL Malaysians regardless of their ethnicity. It would undermine the very interests of their community that they (racial extremists) loudly profess to defend against unproven threats.

There have been no reports of the Bersih rally making any statements on race or religion. But they should have called a spade a spade and called it the "Anti-PM Rally". Also, the rally should not have gone ahead if they knew that there would be a lack of participation from the Malays or that it would be dominated by the Chinese.

While the political leadership crisis was essentially a power struggle among Malay leaders, it could easily be exploited and manipulated into a racial conflict, which is the last thing our country and economy need. So the non-Malay leaders should not appear to intervene.

Sure, there are broad governance issues involved but many rural Malays in Peninsular Malaysia may not perceive the issues in the same manner as the educated urban middle class and it is so easy to play the race card in our country. It is a no-brainer that even an uneducated bigot would know how to exploit the situation. But we have some smart and educated extremists waiting for the opportunity to cause an ethnic conflict.

History has shown that it does not require many such extremists to cause or escalate any conflict into a racial one, often with the help of some writers and bloggers who are good at playing with words and human psychology to confuse, distract and deceive readers.

The response of the red shirts should not, therefore, come as a surprise. For every action, there is a reaction, the bigger the action, the stronger the reaction. So, the proponents of Bersih should learn how to deal with it in an intelligent manner, without being drawn further into the "race trap".

I have also written on many occasions on the need to ban race hate speeches and tighten the laws against extremists and opportunists out to exploit or inflame a situation. Unfortunately, the policymakers do not seem to appreciate the urgency or need for such "no-platform" laws which are common even in the more developed democracies.

Germany probably has the toughest laws in the world in banning hate speeches and it has demonstrated that it has learnt well from the race-hate policies of its fascist Nazi past. Unlike Japan, it has certainly redeemed itself and set leadership-by-example of a developed country, with its initiative to take in and warmly welcome hundreds of thousands of Muslim refugees escaping from the violent sectarian conflicts in Syria and Iraq.

This refugee programme would cost the German taxpayers billions of dollars even though they have no role in the conflicts in Syria and Iraq. These Muslim refugees are not welcome or turned away by the other Muslim countries, so why should the German government reach out in such a significant manner to help these people of another race or religion? This is the best example of looking beyond race when dealing with any crisis or issue.

The writer, CEO of a think-tank and strategic consultancy firm, believes that we have much to learn on how to treat people of another race or religion from Germany today. Comments: kktan@thesundaily.com