Wednesday, September 2, 2015

The elephant in the room ~ no unity without equality

Commentary by Gabriel Tarriba

As my Malaysian summer comes to an end, I decided to take stock of what I have learned during two eventful months of research, writing and travel in the country. I came to Malaysia knowing very little about the country: my original intention was to try to understand why this young multi-ethnic country has been so successful in developing economically over five decades.

Malaysia is today an example for many developing and emerging economies and I believe that all Malaysians should be proud of how much has been achieved in so little time. The country definitely offers many lessons for my own country, Mexico, which was spectacularly overtaken by Malaysia in economic and social development recently.

And yet, in spite of my admiration for the country’s economic trajectory, I must admit that on the political level there is something about Malaysia that I find frankly disturbing and incompatible with its image as a modern country.

It is the country’s original sin, a moral blemish so blatant and deep that even fifty years of sustained economic growth and a state machinery of censorship and intimidation have not been able to erase. It is the elephant in the room, the one element that sets Malaysia apart from the group of advanced countries that it wants to resemble.

It is also the source of national disunity and ethnic tensions, and it is intimately linked to the current political upheavals.

I am talking about the rejection of the principle of equality of all citizens contained in the Malaysian constitution. This legal anomaly underpins one of the largest systems of institutional racism of the modern world (if you prefer euphemisms you may call it ‘race-based affirmative action’. It is also the legal foundation of the New Economic Policy and all other policies that benefit one racial group over the others.

Like all forms of injustice, this inherently racist system is only viable if people are not able to discuss it; lacking any ethical and logical justification, the Malaysian original sin is underpinned by intimidation, censorship and repression. Racism stands no chance when reason is allowed to prevail.

Abdullah Zaik Abdul Rahman, president of the
fundamentalist Malaysian Muslim Solidarity NGO
In defence of the Malaysian racist regime, I must say that at least it is very blatant and visible. The Malaysian constitution contains its own version of the Orwellian dictum that ‘All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others’.

Article 8 of the Malaysian Constitution says that “all persons are equal before the law” but then the second point reads: Except as expressly authorized by this Constitution, there shall be no discrimination against citizens on the ground only of religion, race, descent or place of birth in any law relating to the acquisition, holding or disposition of property or the establishing or carrying on of any trade, business, profession, vocation or employment.

The first seven words of the previous sentence open up the door to legal discrimination. Article 153 then clarifies what forms of discrimination are expressly authorised (hint: a lot) on the basis of the ‘special position’ of the Malays and natives of East Malaysia).

A peculiar ‘social contract’

How did this system come into being? The short answer is that the Malays managed to coerce the Chinese and Indian minorities to accept a peculiar ‘social contract’ at the time of independence, through which they would become citizens, but without the same right as the Malays. The latter never recognised the Chinese and Indian as legitimate migrants, because most of them had settled in the Malacca peninsula in British colonial times.

These migrants, or rather descendants of migrants, could either accept this raw deal or face deportation and possibly statelessness. This makes the validity of the Malaysian ‘social contract’ highly questionable, just like any contract or confession obtained through coercion is void in a court.

Leaving aside the circumstances under which the ‘social contract’ was crafted, it is worth pondering the logic for which it stands. In a nutshell, the idea is that ethnic Malays, plus the native populations of East Malaysia, are the rightful owners of Malaysia because their ancestors arrived there earlier.

It doesn’t take a genius to realise how arbitrary, unjust and impractical this reasoning is. The distribution of human groups on the territories of this planet is the result of tens of thousands of years of migrations, conquests, forced displacements and the subjugation of one group by another. There is nothing fair or civilised about it.

The ethnic Malay, Chinese, Indian, Orang Asli, and all other groups that live in modern-day Malaysia arrived on these lands at different points in time. It is absurd to qualify their right to be here on the basis of their belonging to a certain group that was politically and militarily dominant at a specific point in time.

That is why modern countries don’t try to make such distinctions: they have only one class of citizens and they all have the same rights and obligations, regardless of where their ancestors come from.

Equality is the only way to achieve national unity. You can’t tell people to unite and live in harmony when you are the first one to discriminate and divide people by race when it comes to rights and opportunities. You can’t tell people that there is ‘1Malaysia’, when all the time you promote racism, segregation, resentment and envy.

If you are serious about national unity, harmony and a constructing a common identity, you have to accept that all Malaysians have as much of a right to be here as you do, and that you are not entitled to more than anyone else.

History shows us that all systems based on racial discrimination are unsustainable in the long run, because they can only survive while reason, ethics and empathy are repressed. As Malaysia’s political system becomes more democratic and participative, the issue of equality will start to be discussed openly and without fear.

Eventually, the absurdity of the system of discrimination will become apparent to everyone and equality will be embraced as an ethical imperative but also as the missing element to propel the country into a prosperous, democratic future.

GABRIEL TARRIBA is a Master’s candidate in Public Policy at the Hertie School of Governance, Berlin. Published 2 September 2015 in Malaysiakini