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Deng Xiaoping once remarked to a visiting Malaysian delegation that if China could find a way to unleash the natural creativity and industriousness of the Chinese people, there would be no stopping China’s rise to greatness. That became a priority with him. Fast forward a few decades, and the results are on full display in the super-modern China we see today. I think even Deng would have been shocked by what his country has achieved.

Instead of creating an inclusive environment and a culture that valued, encouraged and rewarded talent and creativity, one that would unleash the full potential of all our people, we built a destructive and discriminatory environment  that drove away some of our brightest and most talented people. Instead of nurturing trust and cooperation and encouraging innovation and productivity, we created a racially divisive business environment that essentially pitted Malay and Chinese businessmen against each other. Instead of harnessing the full power of our diversity, we diminished it.

Festering issues

Centuries after Chinese and Indian settlers landed on our shores,  enriching the Malay language and culture, sharing their religion (Islam) with the locals, sacrificing their lives in defence of the nation, and helping Malaysia develop and prosper, we still have people who are unwilling to accept that we are a multi-ethnic nation. Sixty-one years after independence, we still have cretins arguing that minorities shouldn’t be allowed to occupy key positions in government or in the corporate sector because they belong to the “wrong” race or profess the “wrong” religion.

They’d rather have corrupt and incompetent people of the “right” race or religion in key positions than honest professionals of the “wrong” race or religion in high office. They go to the ends of the earth to look for managers (and sometimes settle for third-rate ones) to run GLCs but are loathe to give suitably qualified non-Malays the opportunity.

How can we ever hope to compete with the rest of the world when we are still shaped by such small-minded parochial attitudes?

New government, old thinking

We now have a new government and everyone is rightly excited and hopeful that things will change for the better. Old mindsets, however, are proving difficult to transform.

Our Defence Minister, for example, wants to recruit more non-Malays into the armed forces but he says the salary structure of the armed forces must first be improved to make it attractive to non-Malays, as if it is the lack of monetary reward that has reduced the armed forces to a largely single-race institution.

The Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department says the government is committed to ensuring racial balance in the civil service but insists that the “the current intake method based on merit is sufficient to give equal opportunities to all candidates and to ensure that only qualified candidates are appointed.” In a nod to political correctness, however, he said that he had also instructed the Civil Service Commission “to conduct a survey to find out why there is an imbalance in the civil service.”

This was the kind of obfuscation that the old UMNO government was much given to, always finding reasons to justify the racial imbalance rather than correct it, constantly  touting the falsehood that non-Malays were somehow more interested in making money than in serving their country.

Our armed forces were once full of non-Malays who fought and died alongside their Malay brothers-in-arms. That they are hardly represented in the armed forces today is not because of any lack of patriotism on their part but because they were deliberately shut out of the armed services or denied promotion opportunities.

The same thing happened in the civil service, the police force and in almost every other government institution. The racial imbalance is a direct result of racist recruitment practices and promotion policies. 

Some honesty please

The government doesn’t need to conduct a survey or establish a commission of enquiry to understand the racial imbalance in the civil service; they just need a little honesty and transparency. They don’t need to worry about the salary structure of the armed forces; they just need to talk to men like Brig-Gen (R) Mohamad Arshad Raji.

If we continue to operate on old stereotypes and assumptions, can we expect anything different? Create an environment in our national institutions where all are made to feel welcome, where all are respected and treated equally, and our national institutions will, soon enough, become more representative of our diversity.

Malay or Malaysian?

In the wake of Pakatan’s victory, many are, of course, hoping that we would finally start moving towards greater inclusiveness and tolerance, that the government would take steps to bring us closer to the dream of Bangsa Malaysia.

To be sure, it’s not going to be an easy ride especially as UMNO-PAS are now taking their bigotry and racism to new heights. There’s a psywar going on between Pakatan and UMNO-PAS; it’s a battle for the Malay mind. Will the fight be over who is more Malay or who is more Malaysian?

Thus far, we have not seen a concerted response from the Pakatan government to counter the insidious hate-filled propaganda of UMNO-PAS. Pakatan’s Malay leadership ought to be more vocal in challenging the racist narrative of UMNO-PAS and in leading the charge for a more inclusive national identity.

Sometimes, their silence can be deafening.

Hanging LKS out to dry

Take, for example, the latest smear against Lim Kit Siang (LKS), that he had tried to divide Peninsular Malaysia into two parts after the 1969 general election – the east coast for the Malays and the west coast for the Chinese. It is clearly preposterous, part of the continuing effort to demonise the DAP and by extension the entire Malaysian Chinese community.

And yet, in the new Malaysia, not a single Malay Pakatan leader has come out to rubbish these slanderous allegations and defend LKS. He has been quick to stand with them even at some political risk to himself (endorsing Anwar’s Port Dickson move, for example) but they have not seen fit to reciprocate his support.

What does it say of PH solidarity, and of its commitment to building a more inclusive nation, if they won’t even come to the defence of a senior member of their own coalition when he is slandered by racists and bigots?

Have they so quickly forgotten the sacrifices that LKS and his party made to help bring about Pakatan’s election victory, as CEP Chairman Daim himself recently noted?

Still a distant dream?

One thing is certain: if PH does not confront the racism and bigotry of UMNO-PAS, if it doesn’t position itself as the party of inclusiveness and tolerance, national unity will continue to remain a distant dream.

Racism is a cancer that’s eating away at the very soul of our nation. Unless we confront it and work to overcome it, we will never be able to realize Malaysia’s full potential or  become the powerhouse of innovation and creativity that we can be. We don’t have to agree on everything but we do have to agree that we are all Malaysian with equal rights and opportunities.

[Dennis Ignatius | Kuala Lumpur | 21st September 2018]

[Next: Rethinking race]