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A series of recent controversial foreign policy statements by Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad has exposed the increasingly deep divisions in our society. Malaysians are now so divided, thanks to years of UMNO-PAS racism and misguided policies, that our unity is fraying even in areas like foreign affairs, traditionally an area where Malaysians come together with at least a measure of unity and pride. It ought to serve as an urgent wakeup-call to policy makers.

Mahathir’s comments on the riots in Hong Kong, for example, resulted in a chorus of local criticism for interfering in China’s domestic affairs. His empathy for the plight of the Uighurs also earned him much animosity, largely because many Malaysians seem to have generally accepted Beijing’s version of events in Xinjiang.

Likewise, Mahathir’s comments on Kashmir and the recent Indian citizenship laws have not gone down well with Malaysians of Indian origin.

Rarely has there been such controversy over foreign policy issues as we are now seeing. Clearly, Malaysia’s minorities are so upset with Mahathir and have become so disgusted by the overt racism they see around them that they are in no mood to accept what they view as hypocritical foreign policy pronouncements by our leaders.

Many of those who criticise Mahathir’s comments on China and India insist that Malaysia should not interfere in the internal affairs of other countries using the long-established principle of non-interference as their benchmark. However, they tend to forget that the principle of non-interference is not morally defensible when there is genocide, ethnic cleansing, discrimination or oppression of minorities.

The old non-interference principle has, in fact, been superseded by the “responsibility to protect” doctrine which, simply stated, is that nations have a moral responsibility to intervene or, at the very least, speak out when human rights are infringed anywhere in the world.

Viewed from this perspective, it is immoral for the government of Malaysia to keep silent when hundreds of thousands of Uighurs are being persecuted, tortured and imprisoned in vast gulags. Although Beijing has strenuously denied these allegations, the evidence of gross human rights violations in Xinjiang is irrefutable.

As for the situation in Hong Kong, Mahathir was asked for his opinion and, Mahathir being Mahathir, he gave it. In fact, many international observers agree with him that one way out of the impasse is for Chief Executive Carrie Lam to step down as other leaders have done in similar circumstances.

The Modi government’s policies towards Kashmir as well as its new citizenship laws are controversial even in India. While many in Malaysia defend Modi, thousands of Indians of all religious backgrounds are marching in protest. Credible and well-known Indians like Shashi Tharoor, Arundathi Roy and Shahrukh Khan have also spoken out against the citizenship bill.

As Tharoor, with his usual eloquence put it, the citizenship bill “is an affront to the fundamental tenets of equality and religious non-discrimination enshrined in our Constitution and an all-out assault on the very idea of India….”

Mahathir may have got some of his details mixed up but he was right to express concern at recent developments in India which have led to further polarization between Hindus and Muslims.

In discussing these issues, many of my colleagues were quick to point out that Mahathir himself is responsible for promoting ethnic discord between Muslims and non-Muslims by his racist statements and policies and, therefore, has no right to comment on the situation in India or China.

Mahathir certainly has had his share of controversy; his remarks at the Kongres Maruah Melayu, for example, did nothing to promote national unity or give ethnic minorities a sense of inclusiveness but that, in itself, does not negate criticism of what is going on in both China and India. Mahathir’s policies and actions shouldn’t become the benchmark of what is acceptable and what is not. Principles must trump politics.

In fact, it can be argued that Malaysians, given our own history of racism and discrimination,  ought to be instinctively opposed to discrimination and injustice anywhere in the world. In turn, I would hope that other nations will speak up and act forcefully if minorities in Malaysia, God forbid, someday suffer the fate of the Uighurs.

It is worth recalling as well that when the ‘red shirt’ hooligans were threatening Petaling Street with a bloodbath, it was the PRC ambassador who intervened and warned that China would not sit idly by if its “interests” were threatened. UMNO quickly got the message and pulled back the red shirts. Was that interference? Of course. Was it helpful? Without a doubt. Should we sit idly by while the Uighurs are being mistreated? Absolutely not!

It is also surprising that Malaysians, who went through their own struggle for democracy via massive (though peaceful) street protests, appear to have so little sympathy for the protestors in Hong Kong. Violence is, of course, totally unacceptable and we should encourage the protestors there not to resort to violence. But, having gone through major street protests of our own, after facing razor wire, tear gas and chemical spray, it is sad that many Malaysians would now side with an authoritarian government instead of the people who are fighting for the same ideals that we fought for.

Whatever it is, I find it encouraging, even inspiring, that at least in India, thousands of Hindus and others are marching alongside their Muslim brothers and sisters demanding a repeal of discriminatory legislation. It speaks of their commitment to common decency, of their fealty to the “very idea of India,” as Tharoor put it.

Would our Muslim brothers here march with their fellow citizens when minority rights are threatened in Malaysia or speak out with similar passion when hateful things are said about minorities? In the end, that is the true measure of that elusive thing called national unity.

Part of the problem is that for years successive governments have pursued a foreign policy that prioritizes the interests of only one segment of our diverse population. Government leaders get all worked up when Muslim minorities are discriminated against or imperilled anywhere in the world (Bosnia, Myanmar, China, Europe, US) but remain indifferent when others (Christians in Pakistan and the Middle East, for example) suffer discrimination and persecution.

A sectarian foreign policy does nothing to engender national unity. In fact, it invites Malaysians to think in terms of their own ethnicity and religion (Malay, Chinese, Indian, Muslim, Hindu, Christian, etc) ahead of what serves our nation best. Any effort to build that Malaysia Baru we talk so much about must, therefore, encompass a more inclusive foreign policy, one that reflects the aspirations and hopes of all Malaysia’s diverse communities.

[Dennis Ignatius | Free Malaysia Today |Kuala Lumpur | 27th December 2019]