Wednesday, July 29, 2009

You Can't Teach an Old Dog New Tricks

Now don't get me wrong - this is not a criticism of Malaysiakini's report about Mahathir playing the race card again. But, the story reminded me of a common cliche about journalism: a story about 'dog bites man' is not unusual and not newsworthy - a story about 'man bites dog' however, is an unusual event and that's news. But then again, as we all know, Malaysiakini is not your common outlet for sensational news. Another this the report regarding Mahathir pandering to the racists reminded me of was the saying: you can't teach an old dog new tricks. On that note, you might find one of my previous pieces, On Racists and Bigots' below of interest.

As has been self-evident, not only has Mahathir been a pain in the you know what for the Badawi government, he seems intent on exploiting and stirring up racial tensions to suit his seemingly insatiable desire to dictate. Interestingly enough, this issue of race relations and racism is one that cries out for some candid reflection, and the persistence of our former dictator to once again hijack the nation to suit his predilections and tastes, provides an appropriate backdrop to address this issue head-on. Coming out of the claws of 22 years of a quasi-dictatorship, we Malaysians find ourselves searching for a sense of direction, purpose and, in my view, most importantly, a formula for moving forward. But I believe we will not find a common formula if we do not first face up to certain truths about racism as perpetuated by segments of our political establishment.

In a previous column, I noted that Mahathir’s rise and reign as premier had been all about exploiting racial politics, race-baiting and fear mongering. The irony as I noted was that in various instances, he demonized and banished his critics and opponents for precisely the same kinds of misdeeds of race-baiting and fear mongering that he indulged – and continues to engage - in. It’s not surprising that he got away with it and others, whom his government accused of it, did not. As we have seen lately, he has resorted to his familiar strategy of stoking the flames of Malay anxiety about the other races in order to undermine the present UMNO regime. For too long, not only have we been kidding ourselves about and ignored this reality of racial manipulation, we allowed him and his ilk to sell us a racist dogma while pretending that we were ‘progressing’ along as a mutually respectful pluralistic society.

Having seen the Mahathir regime exploit the once compromised status of Malays in order to create a Malaysian style racial apartheid, we find ourselves now unable to articulate and formulate an alternative paradigm of Malaysianness that transcends the racist dogma we consented to with Barisan Nasional, UMNO and Mahathir. To transcend it, we need to know what it is that we must consciously seek to avoid. For me, we must avoid and overcome this Mahathir style-racism, which has been essentially predicated on the logic that the Malay race, if remained ‘unprotected’ will be threatened and undermined by non-Malays. That to me, is fear-mongering and race-baiting, and the core of the racist dogma under Mahathirism. The offensiveness of such a notion, mind you, though no less racist in its implication, is the converse of the racial superiority dogma that often is the premise of the ideologues of racist systems: for example, white slavery and colonialism was predicated on the superiority of the ‘white’ race. Is it any wonder, then, that from early on in his musings in the Malay Dilemma to his periodic laments over the years about the Ali Baba syndrome, reflect his underlying condescension of Malayness. Yet, he pulled-off the political trickery of pitching and promoting himself to the UMNO base as the champion of Malay rights; always reminding non-Malays of the imperatives of Malay privilege he supposedly championed. Indeed, a convenient racially-based political strategy, but one that does not escape from the racist notion that Malays, without special privileges, will be undermined by non-Malays.

Much like (white) Afrikaans’ and white Americans’ racial superiority and economic privileges during the apartheid and segregation era respectively were legitimated on the heels of political domination, Malay ‘special rights’ during the Mahathir era were consolidated and taken to new heights on the basis of asserting Malay political domination. As the concept of ketuanan Melayu gained currency, it merely camouflaged the underpinnings of Mahathir’s own misgivings about Malayness.

However, in another absurd twisting of the facts, he continues to insist that in exerting Malay supremacy, there is no racism toward non-Malays. [Note the inherently erroneous logic in such rhetoric.] As the architect of the regime that designed and implemented so many discriminatory policies for the explicit intent to curry favour with one group and to discriminate against others, it seems rather convenient [not to mention bizarre] for him to now distance himself from the racist system [hence racism] he has had an active hand in designing and implementing. As a matter of fact, such demagoguery smacks of hypocrisy and again insults our intelligence by underestimating our ability to interpret what is rather self-evident. [Much like the communist regime used to try to convince East Germans how happy and progressive they were when, despite the dividing wall, they were well aware of how dismal their lives were in contrast to their other German counterparts.] While propaganda can be a powerful tool, it can also often be so transparently absurd and asinine. But that doesn’t seem to stop the propagandist.

Further, when non-Malays have expressed concerns about their treatment and diminished status in Malaysian society, they are accused of inciting racial tensions, race-baiting and destabilising national unity. Any wonder that when his political progeny, like Najib Razak, made inflammatory racist remarks they were not chastised. However, critics of his racial-based policies and politics were, and are, publicly dressed-down. Similarly, in more recent instances, he has accused Hindraf of stoking ethnic tensions. How absurd! When an oppressed and discriminated group responds to the racism it encounters and voices its grievances, these grievances are not only dismissed by him as unfounded, but he goes on to accuse them of being racist!

This would be analogous to the white Afrikaans during apartheid calling those protesting against apartheid as racist! Perhaps the former premier might be reminded that one can only implement a racist system, or for that matter, any system, if one has power: hence the white racist Afrikaans could practice and legitimize their version of apartheid because they had power. In a similar vein, during decades of segregation in the United States, whites could propagate and justify racism and racist policies because of their monopoly on power. Therefore, the first lesson in knowing about a racist system is to realise that it takes power to implement a racist system. And for the record, Mahathir, Hindraf has not been the one with the political power and nor has it been the entity that has been practicing and implementing racist policies.

For 22 years, however, you had power and, during that time, we saw a racist and discriminatory system put into motion and become institutionalised. Put the two together – that is, you in power for 22 years and racist policies during that time - and you get the point about where the inspiration for our recent institutionalised racism came from.

G. Krishnan