Home 2007:11 Hindraf: A reminder of our communal dysfunctionality

Hindraf: A reminder of our communal dysfunctionality

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Many social issues related to the Hindraf demands are, in fact, shared by the disadvantaged of all communities, points out Tong Veng Wye.If we can, it is far better for us to stand on the platform of our common humanity.

More than a century ago, when the Eiffel Tower was newly constructed, a well-known writer in Paris of that time became a very vocal critic of what he saw as the tower’s exceeding lack of pleasing appearance.  Everywhere he went he would make known his great dislike for how that new marvel of technology looked.

Yet every day he would have lunch inside the tower. That, naturally, led to him being queried why and how he could lunch daily within the very structure that he was so overly critical of.  He simply answered that was the only way he could eat in peace in Paris without having to look at the tower!

By choice and circumstance, Malaysians share a common nation and, hence, share a common destiny.  Like the Parisian writer, we constantly see our many imperfections.  But, unlike the Parisian writer, we probably do not have the luxury of criticising and then just happily have lunch. We could hardly do that; the Parisian writer was considered insane in the last years of his relatively short life!

Our society, like others, has both its appealing and its less than appealing aspects.  One of the least appealing is our enduring sense of racial separateness.  This article attempts to look at how that sense of racial separateness continues to press itself into our consciousness as Malaysians.  It also looks at how, what may be termed a communal industry, perpetuates that sense of racial separateness.  It then considers two examples from other parts of the world of how politics can influence the way people see one another in sweeping or prejudiced ways that, because of politics, can be played up, sometimes with violent results.

It finally attempts to remind ourselves to fight against the racial conditioning that is so much a part of life in Malaysian society and considers some simple things we could do towards that.

Racial consciousness

Racial consciousness seems indelible from our public and private persona.  Racial identification is pervasive throughout our politics, our elections, the government structure, the administrative forms we fill in from time to time, and even our sports.  Prejudice continues to exist in the way we think of, talk about and deal with members of other racial groups.  It affects the way we hire employees and it finds expression in the way we apply derogatory terms to members of other racial groups when we find ourselves in the false comfort and security of the company of members of our own group. 

Despite a laudable veneer of racial harmony enveloping us, we are accustomed to the idea that there is much that differentiates and separates us.  We, perhaps, even accept this as an unavoidable aspect of our society.  So we tolerate and accommodate.  This is, in a sense, a dysfunctionality.  It is our communal dysfunc-tionality, and it is manifested in the fact that we cannot think of Malaysian society without being conscious of how it is riven with racial consciousness.

In the same way that families are considered dysfunctional when relations are such that empathy between family members is replaced by suspicion or, worse, antagonism or anarchy, race relations are dysfunctional when apparent surface harmony is underlain by a mutual distrust and  sense that we are still far from being the family we are supposed – or sometimes claim – to be.

The Hindraf protests over an array of grievances serve as a reminder of our communal dysfunctionality as a society – grievances finding expression through intensely communal language and demands, on the one hand, and on the other, perceived by others to be communal and, hence, exclusivist.  One is not, here, attempting to disregard the fact that there are grievances that genuinely affect segments of a particular racial group.

Of concern here is how in the recent Hindraf protests it does not strike many of us as sad that Malaysians continue to have and express communal grievances. More significantly, it is also sad that issues related to low wages, poor living conditions, and increasingly unequal development that affect all races should find expression and protest through exclusivist race-based channels.  

The concern is how we seem to slip so easily into acceptance of communal grievances as normal in our society. We are both so subliminally and consciously communal in our minds that when we witness something that expresses itself in a communal way, we simply take it in our stride and accept it as a part of our inevitable social reality.

This is not surprising when we consider the historical genesis of independent Malaya.  It is even less surprising when we think of how the entire political system is built on communalism and that the everyday Malaysian grows up and lives under a pervasive atmosphere of racial consciousness. 

Issues of common concern

We should fight this; this cancer of racial separateness that can be found in our own minds and most certainly in our social and political system.  We have to consciously remind ourselves that there is an entire range of issues that simply do not respect racial boundaries.  Poverty and the increasing fissure between rich and poor affect all communities.  Rising costs of living affect all communities.  Large groups of workers are finding that their salaries cannot keep pace with rising costs – and this affects all communities. 

The lack of real channels for grievances to be effectively heard and addressed – other than the almost meaningless statements by BN politicians that people are free to vote if they are not happy – affects all communities.  The threat of a sullied judiciary perceived as lacking in independence and integrity affects all communities.  The threat of detention without trial and its abuse affects all communities.  The scourge of corruption affects all communities.  The unholy alliance between business and politics with the creation of a small group of so-called elites wielding disproportionate power and influence in the country is also a matter that affects all communities.

Indeed, there is much that we share in common values.  There is much in common in what we aspire for our families.  All communities share a common need for access to education.  So too with our religions and faiths, and at the level of religious philosophy, a great deal indeed can be said for common spiritual precepts that should bind us as a people.  At the same time, no one community cherishes justice more than another for we all do.  No one community yearns for good governance free of corruption more than another for we all do.  And no one community is more human than another for we share a common humanity.

Communal industry

Yet, we so easily become fodder for a system that thrives upon and ingrains in us communal thinking and sentiments.  There practically exists an industry – a communal industry – in our country that plants and nurtures seeds of communalism in Malaysian society. 

This industry has tentacles that extend into politics, government, administration, education, the media, public discourse – everything that has to do with the life and breath of society.  It is not a coordinated industry with a nerve centre but it is an industry all of whose parts play a role in making us very aware that we are Malays, Chinese, Indians, Kadazans, Eurasians, etc. 

Why, for instance, do we commonly refer to ourselves as Malaysian Chinese instead of Chinese Malaysians, Malaysian Indians instead of Indian Malaysians?  Why is it that, in public discourse at least, Americans who are ethnic Chinese refer to themselves as Chinese Americans and not American Chinese?  A subtle difference in the way we call ourselves but perhaps a significant reflection of the way we think of ourselves.  At root of this, of course, is how we primarily see ourselves.

The communal industry includes us, the ordinary citizens: ordinary Malaysians who think and act communally, whose actions are guided by ethnic prejudice, who employ according to ethnic prejudice and who vote along communal lines.  Ordinary Malaysians who will unthinkingly pass on their racial prejudices to the next generation and the next are very much part of the communal industry. Ordinary Malaysians who are given to stereotyping, often in a derogatory way, members of racial groups other than their own.

The most significant part of that industry, however, is the race-based political system in the country.  Political parties that are founded on race and which appeal and pander to racial identification are the life blood of our politics.  Race is the base from which the majority of our politicians and, hence, the government operates, and this seeps into our consciousness.  There is little that has not been influenced by race-based politics, and the influence is totalitarian.  There is little that we do or are that has not been touched by divisive race-based politics. 

The communal industry keeps us inwardly and outwardly conscious of our racial differences beyond a level that can be considered healthy.  In that way it is an assertion of power – but it is power of an invidious kind, for it is sectarian instead of universalistic, separating instead of unifying.

Effect of politics on understanding

Given the power over our minds exerted by the communal industry, it would be both interesting and useful to go further afield to understand how popular perceptions can be shaped by politics – even if those perceptions are factually wrong.  It is useful for us to understand that politics can create or result in distorted perceptions in the minds of people.

Ill-informed understanding feeds, suits and reinforces prejudices we may already have – especially in a society like ours where it would not be difficult for, say, non-Muslims to develop misconceptions about Islam and its role in history. 

Two examples from other parts of the world will show the importance of properly understanding history and the potentially distorting effects politics can have on inter-communal relations.

Muslim-Jewish conflict

An example to look at is the issue of Arab/Muslim–Israeli/Jewish relations.  It is conceivable that the incessant conflict between Jews and Muslims that we watch on TV and read about in the papers reinforces misconceptions we may have about Islam.  Such misconceptions may lead us to believe that Islam has a long history of violent behaviour against Jews. Let us consider this.

There are at least two factors why it would not be difficult to think that historically Arab Muslims and Jews have “always been fighting each other.”  One is the spectacle of the on-going, long drawn, and apparently intractable conflict between Arab Palestinians, most of whom are Muslims, and Jews in Israel.  The profile of the conflict is enhanced by the further spectacle of Palestinian suicide bombers killing Jews which seems to fit well enough into the image of Muslim terrorists driven by a radical religion. 

The other factor that engenders belief in a long historical, endemic conflict between Muslims and Jews is that it is not only Palestinian Arabs who have, at some point in modern history, been fighting the Jews of Israel but also Egyptian Arabs, Jordanian Arabs, Iraqi Arabs, and Syrian Arabs.  And where they have not actually fought, they have been antagonistic.  At the same time, the governments of non-Arab Muslim countries invariably support the Palestinian cause while condemning – rightfully – the excesses of Israel.  Thus, it seems, Jews can have no other form of relations with Muslims than conflict and antipathy.

Further, because Israel has been so closely supported by the US and various European countries at some point or other, it would not be too difficult to acquire the further notion that Jews and the West are somehow naturally aligned against Muslims.

But such notions are historically unsupportable. 

In fact, Jews have historically fared far better when they lived in lands under Muslim rule than Christian rule.  As a case in point, prior to the Spanish reconquest of the old Muslim territories of al-Andalus in 1492, the three religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam had been able to live together in relative harmony for 600 years under Muslim rule.  The Jews in particular had enjoyed a cultural and spiritual renaissance in Spain.  Unlike Jews in the rest of Europe, Jews under Muslim rule in Spain were not subject to pogroms, expulsions, and deportations. 

After victory by the Spanish Catholic armies over the Muslims, the Jews of Spain were forced to either convert to Christianity or to leave, something they did not have to do under Muslim rule.  Of those who left, many chose to go to the new Muslim Ottoman empire where they were warmly welcomed.

Thus, contrary to popular belief of endemic conflict and war between Jews and Muslims, historically, the two peoples have actually had far more peaceful and enriching coexistence than what we see today.

What we witness today is primarily the result of global politics and hegemony and not religious conflict as such.  In fact, it is instructive to note that in 1903, the sixth Zionist Congress actually voted to consider Uganda as a possible Jewish homeland.  What if that had carried through?  Would our conclusion then now be that black Africans (instead of Arab Muslims) and Jews cannot help but fight each other because conflict between them is congenital?

Even the forced conversions and inquisitional pursuit of Jews and their expulsions were not the result of religion as such but were the consequence of attempts by the Catholic monarchs, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, to weld together hitherto independent and separate kingdoms into a unified realm in the process of which they sought to enforce uniformity.  The consequence, in other words, of the pursuit of political objectives and not religion per se.

The Balkan War

In similar fashion, the Balkan war of the nineties that followed the break-up of the former Yugoslavia was visited by carnage – ethnic cleansing. It would not have reached the proportions it did had it not been for the way in which political propaganda played up those things that divide people and set them in fear of each other.

It is amazing that for all the fighting and atrocities that took place among them, Serbs, Croats, and Bosnian Muslims are ethnically the same: all South Slavs, and they spoke much the same language.  Of the population of the former Yugoslavia, 83 per cent spoke one language with differences between the literary versions resembling the differences between British and American versions of the English language.  And yet they fought on the basis of different nationalist identities.

We are not saying there were no differences amongst them; there were.  The most politically significant difference was religion; they were respectively Orthodox Christians, Roman Catholics, and Muslims.  But it was the differences that were politicised and presented as obvious and intrinsic.  Radovan Karadzic once remarked to journalists, “Why do you…keep insisting that Serbs must live with Muslims?  Serbs and Muslims are like cats and dogs.  They cannot live together in peace.  It is impossible.”

Yet, as with Muslims and Jews, history does not necessarily support such sweeping conclusions which assert that certain peoples cannot coexist but must fight and be separate. For the fact was Serbs, Croats, and Muslims had been neighbours for generations.  They had gone to school together, worked together, and to a significant extent even intermarried.  It took a lot of propaganda to make them first begin to fear one another and then slaughter one another.

As a case in point, during the Second World War, there was an SS unit of Hitler’s Nazis (called the Handzar Division) that was populated by Muslims.  It was a unit for whom the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem at that time helped recruit for the Nazis in Bosnia.  This was practically a fringe occurrence.  Of far greater significance was the fact that many, many more Bosnian Muslims fought and lost their lives fighting the Nazis.  In fact, in proportion to their population, Bosnian Muslims suffered the greatest losses of any national group in Bosnia during the Second World War.

But at the hands of propagandists and the communal fires they stoked, it was the fringe fact of the Handzar Division that was used to motivate and propel the murderous actions of young Serbs against Bosnian Muslims –  never mind the losses of the Muslims during World War Two. Serb fighters were fodder for a vicious propaganda machine.  They were told repeatedly, and falsely, that their comrades were being castrated, roasted alive on pits, and drowned in their own blood.  They had no alternative sources of information and before long they were replying in kind, retaliating against what they believed were Muslim atrocities as the propaganda had had them believe.

Breaking the mould

The point of all this is to emphasise that politics and the exercise of power exert a great deal of influence over how we think and what we believe.  It serves the purposes of institutionalised racial politics and politicians to maintain a high degree of racial consciousness and the sense of separateness amongst people.  We must fight against becoming fodder to a system of racial conditioning that encourages such consciousness.

The examples we looked at above are far larger and far more violent than what we have.  But the principle is the same; the exercise of power through racially sectarian politics can be and often is aggressive.  At the very least it is invidious.  By definition sectarian, politics will tend towards playing on differences.  In the long term that cannot be good.

The mould of enforced racial consciousness has to be broken.  It is necessary for us to try and break the stranglehold of racially sectarian politics.

We can start in small ways.  We could articulate a desire to have change by writing to the media. We could even talk over the dinner table and explain to our families and within our own communities why we disagree with the use of racially sweeping language or terms that not only do not reflect reality but also reinforce our ignorance of each other. We could explain that  sweeping prejudices simply do not promote understanding.  We could vote for an opposition candidate who evokes non-communal arguments that speak for all ethnic groups instead of an incumbent government candidate who promises development but whose candidacy is completely dependent upon communal politics.

For the upcoming elections we could organise and muster opinion groups within our constituencies. These could make known to the candidates by letter, petition, phone calls, SMS, and email that we reject communal politics and campaigning and that we see that as cancerous to society and inimical to the welfare of future generations of all races.  We should let them know we want them to represent the under-represented and to speak for the common interests and grievances of all Malaysians.

Our common humanity

Vol 27:No 9 of the Aliran Monthly contains an article by Jeyakumar Devaraj on how there are many – though not necessarily all – social issues related to the Hindraf demands that are not unique to the Indian community. Such issues are in fact shared by the disadvantaged of all communities. They are not difficult to see or identify. 

What is more difficult to do is for us to shake off the shackles of disproportionate racial consciousness so that issues that affect all races are articulated as such and not as issues exclusive to any one race or religious group.  Understandably, this is all the more difficult when we remember how, in this country, there is little that escapes getting filtered through some race- related sieve or other.

But if we can, it is far better for us to stand on the platform of our common humanity.

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