It’s that time of the year again, when we look back and reflect to discern the lessons learnt and look forward with new resolve to do better and be better.
As a nation, some say we are now at a crossroads, where we have to make a crucial choice as to which road we should take. The results of the recent general election suggest an increasing salience of not just race, but race coupled with a brand of ‘conservative’ Islam preached by the present Pas leadership.
This ‘green wave’, apparently swept in by new and younger voters, spilling out of traditional Malay heartlands into some west coast semi-urban areas, has triggered a range of reactions – from a newly found confidence among those hoping to finally establish an ‘Islamic state’ in Malaysia to anxiety and fear among those who believe this brand of Islam ala-Pas will cause greater injustice towards minorities and ‘liberal/progressive’ Muslims.
Some analysts have highlighted the increasing division, distrust and intolerance in Malaysia now, especially over social media.
I watched a Hindi movie recently that clearly brought home the message of how easily racial and religious tension and distrust can become a tinderbox. The movie Jogi is based on the 1984 anti-Sikh riots that took place across northern India, especially in the capital, New Delhi after then Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated by two of her Sikh bodyguards.
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Gandhi had launched Operation Blue Star and authorised the Indian army to enter the Golden Temple in Amritsar, the holiest site for Sikhs, to attack separatist militants who had remained in the temple to evade arrest.
After the assassination, public sentiment against the Sikh community changed literally overnight, with many Hindus turning against their Sikh neighbours and even their friends, resulting in massacres of thousands of Sikhs across northern India.
And yes, in the movie there is a politician who takes advantage of the acrimony and hostility and fuels the massacre to further his personal political ambitions.
While it was depressing and distressing for me to sit through the violence, injustice and betrayal portrayed in the movie, I drew inspiration from Jogi, the Sikh man who did all that was necessary – even removing his turban and cutting off his long hair – to save his family, friends and neighbours from being massacred. And he had a couple of Muslim and Hindu friends who helped him thwart the authorities and succeed in his mission.
How similar this is to our May 13 (1969) Malaysian story as well! Are we in danger of moving along that same trajectory again?
But then again, I read somewhere that “history cannot repeat itself because each moment of any era is contingent on its place, time and circumstance”.
They say hindsight is 20/20; there must be some things we have learnt from past mistakes that we can employ to shape our circumstances and not just become victims of circumstances.
So, here is my take for the way forward into 2023 for a better Malaysia:
Stay on the bus – don’t walk out of our own story
In the movie Rango (which I thoroughly enjoyed watching!), the Spirit of the West tells Rango, “No man can walk out of his own story.”
Many people say politics is dirty and don’t want to get involved or participate in any way, even boycotting elections. Some limit their political participation to just voting once in five years. Some blame the politicians for everything that goes wrong.
But our personal and collective story will be written, if not by us, then by others; even through our silence and ‘neutrality’, we are complicit and cannot walk out of the story.
So, let us consciously be the authors of our stories, and work towards transforming our visions into reality. The efforts to bring about institutional reforms and people-centric policies for a better Malaysia must continue – and we must each play our part in it.
Temper our frustrations – don’t incite anxiety
Many of us were anxious as the first few hours of uncertainty immediately after the election results stretched on for a few more days of uncertainty – as no one political party or coalition had garnered the simple majority needed to form a government, resulting in a hung parliament.
After almost five days of “unprecedented post-election crisis” (as one major daily put it), Anwar Ibrahim was appointed as the 10th prime minister.
While many may be frustrated with the choice of Pakatan Harapan’s bedfellows in the royally decreed ‘unity government’ as well as in the cabinet, I am thankful that the King and rulers were instrumental in prodding the different actors to join hands and resolve their issues quickly, in the best interest of the nation.
The prime minister has assured Malaysians of stability and unity under an inclusive government. He says he will not compromise on issues of governance and will focus on the economy.
We are basically in uncharted territory on many fronts, and so we should be realistic about our expectations and allow our democratic system the time and space to develop a mature and viable political culture and related institutions.
Too much pressure on the government at this juncture will, in my view, cause it to collapse like a house of cards.
Promote reconciliation; don’t sow discord
I believe it should be apparent to many now that adversarial politics is not the way to go if we want to quickly and adequately tackle the urgent national issues confronting us now.
A truly remarkable start was made when some DAP leaders apologised publicly for offensive actions and statements made in the past against political rivals.
We must promote dialogue and collaboration across the divides – including political, racial, religious, class and regional divides. Dialogue and collaboration can take many forms and can be carried out at many different levels. This is necessary to rebuild trust and civil society groups have an important role to play here.
But for dialogue and collaboration to succeed, it must be built upon a strong foundation of shared values. To quote the legendary Karpal Singh, “In politics there are no permanent enemies or permanent friends, but there must be permanent principles.”
Break the cycle – don’t perpetuate prejudice
As pointed out by organisational psychologist Adam Grant, we perpetuate prejudice when we judge others based on generalisations about the group they belong to, eg “the Malays/non-Malays”, “the Muslims/non-Muslims”, “Pas/PH supporters”, the migrants, the ‘conservative’ Muslim NGOs and the civil servants.
Even when identity politics seems to be the prevailing order of the day, we should not blame the group for the attitudes and actions of individuals from that group. We should hold such individuals accountable for their words and actions and not condemn the group they belong to. In this way, we will not demonise and alienate those within the group who don’t conform to the stereotyping.
While we each need to take personal responsibility for this, much more needs to be done at the organisational and societal levels by civil society groups, faith groups, political parties and the government.
The prime minister has made a good start at the governmental level by highlighting some of the racial and religious disinformation and negative stereotyping bandied about, especially in the run up to the general election.
So, as we reach the crossroads on our journey, let us choose wisely the road to take. And let us dream big to envision a better Malaysia, as we move forward with resilience and fortitude to reclaim our nation.
Mary Magdaline Pereira
Co-editor, Aliran newsletter
30 December 2022