Malaysia: An overdose of stale tactics

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Sun Sep 7 16:39:13 UTC 2008

An overdose of stale tactics

We are 51 years old and we still do not know how to disagree
rationally, civilly, and intelligently. IN Barack Obama's inspiring
acceptance speech at the recent Democratic National Convention, he
used a line that I felt also described the state of public debate on
contentious issues in our country: "? if you don't have any fresh
ideas, then you use stale tactics to scare the voters." Over the past
few weeks we have had an overdose of this display in Malaysia. We are
51 years old and we still do not know how to disagree rationally,
civilly, and intelligently.

>>From the reaction to Tan Sri Khalid Ibrahim's proposal that 10% of
Universiti Teknologi Mara's (UiTM) enrolment be made up of
non-bumiputra and international students, to the Bar Council forum on
conversion to Islam, to the PKR's Malaysian Economic Agenda, those
opposed to alternative ideas could only respond in the only way they
knew best – scare mongering and demonising. Why the fear of open
discussion on issues of public interest?
Noisy dissent: From the reaction to Khalid's proposal that 10% of
UiTM's enrolment be made up of non-bumiputra and international
students, to the Bar Council forum on conversion to Islam, to the
PKR's Malaysian Economic Agenda, those opposed to alternative ideas
could only respond in the only way they knew best – scare mongering
and demonising. — Filepic

Why fly the flag of ethnicity and religion, questioning someone's
ethnic and national loyalties and Muslimness every time a person comes
up with an idea that you do not agree with or you do not know how to
counter with a better idea? Be it the issue of affirmative action for
the Malays, Islamic laws and policies, Chinese and Tamil education,
those who anoint themselves as protectors of these sectional interests
tactically reduce any attempt to discuss and redress the impact of
these policies on citizens' rights and national aspirations as moves
that, in the end, will kill the special position of the Malays, the
legitimate rights of the minorities and the mother of all accusations,
constitute an insult to Islam. These so-labelled traitors to the cause
should therefore be detained under the ISA or charged under the
Sedition Act or be declared an apostate.

This is not the way to move forward in our search for solutions to the
dire challenges we face today. That among those most obstructive and
most belligerent are political leaders themselves turns this into a
dangerous game. In the contest for power, it is easy to resort to race
and religion to demonise your opponent and totalise the discourse by
defining differing viewpoints as evil and dangerous. As Obama said in
his speech, one of the things that we need to change today in our
politics is "the idea that people cannot disagree without challenging
each other's character and patriotism".

Misleading accusations

To accuse Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim and Tan Sri Khalid as traitors to
the race for pushing for a more inclusive multi-racial agenda, or to
accuse Prof Mehrun Siraj as bersubahat (in conspiracy) with the
enemies of Islam for defending the right of the Bar Council to
organise a forum on the impact of conversion to Islam in a plural
legal system, is a strategy used by fascists and extremists to
appropriate truth only to their own discourse. Thus others are
demonised, their ideas portrayed as threatening to race, religion and
country and therefore all public discussion must be halted.

Actually, it is not that all public discussion must be stopped; it is
that those who hold a different viewpoint from the orthodoxy do not
have the right to speak out, lest their ideas take hold among the
voters who no longer believe in the traditional ideologies of the
ruling elite. Take the issue of affirmative action for the Malays. How
can we conduct a public discourse and minimise the polarisation given
the divergent ideas, beliefs and fears, founded and unfounded?

First, it would be helpful to generate a rational and intelligent
discussion on the New Economic Policy if we stop labelling those who
question, challenge, raise the shortcomings and abuses in
implementation, the unintended consequences of the policy and those
who offer alternatives as pengkhianat bangsa (traitors to the race),
merampas hak Melayu (seize Malay rights), menjolok sarang tebuan (stir
the hornet's nest) and other such sinister representations.

Second, it would also be helpful if the media stop inflaming public
opinion with such ominous language and headlines, without providing
any counter viewpoints.

What the media must do is to promote understanding and rational debate
with more fact-based understanding and analysis on why there is a
demand for a review of the NEP, even among the Malays.

It must research and verify whether the fears and dire consequences
articulated are supported by facts or mere gut reaction.

Third, it is necessary to build public understanding that any
affirmative action policy is temporary by nature.

Such a policy puts in place temporary measures to redress the unequal
and unjust status of a community that has historically been
disadvantaged – be it on the basis of race or sex or disability.

Questioning the NEP, its strengths and weaknesses, and its future
standing does not tantamount to seizing Malay rights or treachery to
the Malay cause or to the repeal of Article 153 of the Federal
Constitution. The NEP is but a policy instrument of Article 153.

What is being questioned is whether as a policy instrument it remains
the most effective and just means to achieve its twin objectives of
eradicating poverty and economic restructuring by eliminating the
identification of race with function.

Fourth, the time has come for the Government to channel all this
bursting energy and anger into a third National Consultative Economic
Council (MAPEN III) to develop a new national development agenda.

Given the contentious debate on the NEP and the way forward for
Malaysia to remain competitive in a new global environment, a new
consultative process must be established.

MAPEN I and II produced the National Development Policy and the
National Vision Policy respectively. In spite of the consensus
reached, there are obvious dissatisfactions from all sides with the
way these policy instruments have worked or not worked.

MAPEN III must also evaluate the escalating demand for a more
equitable policy based on need and whether this would be more just and
appropriate in a more challenging and competitive world.

Given the fact that bumiputras form the majority population and the
majority of the poor, any new policy instrument will still benefit the
bumiputra community the most.

Fifth, any review of the NEP must be an inclusive, collective and
transparent process if the outcome is to be credible and accepted by
all. It must reflect the views of a cross-section of Malaysian
society, rather than just ethnic-based political parties and the
business community.

If the Government does not have the will to take the lead on this,
then it is the Pakatan Rakyat's alternative Malaysian Economic Agenda
that will form the basis of demands for change to deal with the abuses
and injustices, perceived and real, of the NEP and the challenges of a
globalised world.

How is it today that what Anwar Ibrahim espouses – recognition of the
special position of the Malays and the legitimate interests of other
communities in the Malaysian Economic Agenda – seems like new reason
to the ears of many young Malays and most non-Malays, when this
so-called"ethnic bargain" has actually been constitutionally enshrined
since 1957 and formed the basis of negotiations within the Barisan
Nasional councils to resolve the competing demands of the different
ethnic groups?

Changed expectations

March 8 and Permatang Pauh have clearly shown that the language of
ketuanan Melayu does not work at the national level.

For confident young Malays who can stand on their own two feet, the
NEP is no longer the crutch they need to survive and thrive.

For disenchanted Malays who feel, whether rightly or wrongly, that the
NEP has been so abused to benefit Umnoputras and the ruling elite
only, the sense of fairness inherent in the "bargain" is something
they can live with.

Umno's leadership must decide whether it wants to share power fairly
and equitably with its partners in the Barisan Nasional like it used
to or it wants them to be subservient to ketuanan Melayu.

It behoves the leadership to go back to the country's and the
coalition's founding vision as enshrined in the Constitution and
re-formulated in the objectives of the Rukunegara:

> to achieve a greater unity of all her peoples;

> to maintain a democratic way of life;

> to create a just society in which the wealth of the nation shall be equitably shared;

> to ensure a liberal approach to her rich and diverse cultural traditions; and

> to build a progressive society which shall be oriented to modern science and technology.

Can we please begin to have an intelligent, rational and civil
discussion on the relevance of these objectives and the way forward in
today's confused and contentious times?

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