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You can tell, I suppose, that elections are near when UMNO politicians start heaping praise upon our otherwise much-maligned citizens of Chinese origin.

No less than Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, in a speech delivered on his behalf on the occasion of the Kuala Lumpur Chinese Assembly Hall’s Anniversary Dinner recently, praised Malaysian Chinese for their “bravery, hard work and true grit” and their ability to turn things around with minimum resources. He also expressed admiration for their “spirit to never say no to challenges” and opined that “the Chinese community will continue to be the group that will carry the nation forward.”

Flattery & Brickbats 

Zahid’s lavish praise, however, passed without much comment from Malaysian Chinese themselves with many simply dismissing it as little more than lip service. The obvious, if unspoken message, is that mere flattery cannot undo the years of vilification and racial intimidation that has become the hallmark of UMNO politics.

It was not so long ago, for example, that UMNO-aligned red shirted bullies threatened to rain down mayhem upon Petaling Street. It was even more telling, for many Malaysian Chinese, that the red shirt leader was subsequently welcomed as something of a hero at the recent UMNO General Assembly. It only confirmed the perception of UMNO’s malice and hostility towards minority communities.

At the same assembly, UMNO stalwarts also demanded that the some of the miserably few positions that Chinese have in government and government-linked companies be taken away and given to UMNO members.

Worse still, the idea was posited that the Chinese pose an existential threat to the Malays. It might be just politics to UMNO but it demonizes a significant part of our populations simply on the basis of their race. It is not only dangerous but it goes against the very foundational principles of our nation. It is precisely this kind of mentality that is behind much of the chastisement of Malaysia’s minority communities as “pendatangs,” and as just so many unpatriotic and ungrateful interlopers.

It is simply mind-boggling that a dominant political party like UMNO would think that it can treat minority communities with such utter contempt and then expect to earn their allegiance and support at the polls with but a few blandishments.

A blessing to be appreciated

But, whether sincere or not, whether it was given grudgingly or otherwise, Zahid’s praise for the Malaysian Chinese community was well-deserved and long overdue. It may not be music to the ears of racists and bigots but the fact remains that Malaysia would be but a pale shadow of itself if not for the contributions of our citizens of Chinese origin.

They have been a huge blessing to us all and it is about time that they were respected and honoured for it.

If given half the chance to serve, if treated with genuine respect as fellow citizens rather than as interlopers and adversaries, the Chinese community, alongside Malaysia’s other communities, could well lift our nation to unparalleled greatness.

Instead of looking further afield to countries like China to boost our growth, we would do better to tap the acres of diamonds that our own minority communities represent.

Actions rather than words

If Zahid and UMNO want to genuinely show their appreciation for the contributions that Malaysian Chinese have made, they can start by being more supportive of the Chinese schools system.

After all, more than any other single factor, it is education that has transformed the Chinese community from a rag-tag bunch of indentured laborers, vegetable gardeners, petty traders, dulang-washers, rickshaw-pullers, nigh-soil carriers and terempoh-makers into a community that can now “carry the nation forward” as Zahid himself put it.

Besides, Chinese schools today are about the only bright spot in our otherwise dismal education system. Unsurprisingly, Chinese schools are the preferred choice of many Malaysian parents no matter their ethnic or religious background.

Those who make the argument that Chinese schools fail to foster racial unity and promote the national identity forget that Chinese schools are today far more multiracial than the so-called national type schools or, for that matter, religious schools.

Would that more Malaysians kids, particularly those from our floundering Indian community, enroll in Chinese schools.

It is a shame, therefore, that the Education Ministry remains so unsupportive of the Chinese schools system withholding even the meager RM50 million in maintenance that was allocated to Chinese schools last year, as was reported in the last few weeks.

As well, the Education Ministry’s refusal to recognize the Unified Examinations Certificate (UEC), something which Sarawak Chief Minister Adenan Satem called “stupid,” makes no sense given that it is already accepted by Australia, Britain, Canada, China, Taiwan, Singapore, France, Hong Kong, Ireland, New Zealand and the United States.

It is hard not to conclude, and certainly the perception persists, that the government’s whole approach to Chinese education is mired in racial prejudice more than anything else.

A museum of living history

Ways must also be found to breakdown the racism and prejudice that has become so ingrained in our society and correct the biased and jaundiced ethnic narratives that have been allowed to take root. Too little attention has been given to the contributions and the stories of heroism and hard work of earlier generations of Malaysians of all ethnicities.

To this end, consideration should be given to the establishment of a multicultural history museum, similar to the Canadian Museum of Immigration (Pier 21), that would record for posterity the history and the stories of all of Malaysia’s ethnic communities – Malay, Chinese, Indian, Iban, Kadazan, Bugis, Javanese, Arab, Thai and others – their origins, their culture, how they came to call Malaysia their home, their struggles, their hopes and dreams and their contributions to making Malaysia the remarkable nation it now is.

It could also be a living museum with digital boards for the descendants to trace their roots, remember their pioneering forefathers and add their own stories of life and citizenship in Malaysia.

It would certainly help all Malaysians to take pride in their history, culture and contributions while remembering that it took all our ethnic communities many long years of hard work, cooperation and sacrifice to make us what we are today, that we all have a stake in this nation for better or worse, and that if we stand together, we can make our nation the envy of all.

Unleashing our greatness as a nation

Instead of hollow gestures given grudgingly when elections are near, UMNO must decide, once and for all, which road it will take when it comes to dealing with Malaysia’s ethnic minorities – the high road to tolerance and respect for diversity that will allow all our ethnic communities to flower or the low road to bigotry that will drive them away and deprive the nation of the wealth, talent and experience that they have to offer.

UMNO can help to truly unleash the power, the strength and the uniqueness of our multiethnic polity or it can try to stifle it at every turn and rule over a diminished nation, a mockery of all that it could be.

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