“More Malays must speak up!”
“The Malays are not doing enough against the unfairness and incompetence of the government!”
How often have you heard such refrains?
And this, despite Malays like Dr Bakri Musa, Professor Tajuddin Rasdi, Mariam Mokhtar and Siti Kasim (to name just a few contemporary ones) writing and speaking out for years against the excesses of government, and often critical of the Malays themselves.
Yet, there are some non-Malays who continue to complain that “not enough Malays” are doing so!
But who are “the Malays”? Many presume the Malays are a homogeneous entity, when they are, like most communities anywhere, of many shades and ever-changing. We also tend to overlook the different socioeconomic status levels of the Malays.
What about the non-Malays? In my view, most non-Malays do not have the courage to speak up openly against the excesses of government or injustice anywhere, including in the workplace.
To be fair, both Malays and non-Malays may actually have valid reasons for not speaking up. But at least today, the anonymity that social media offers has given ordinary Malaysians the space and courage to speak ‘publicly’.
I remind myself often that my personal experience – even if it includes teaching Malaysian politics and working for 30 years in a Malay-majority organisation, engaging with human rights activists and taking part in many forums over 45 years – is still limited and not representative of the whole reality.
Who and what we hear and ‘know’ depends on what we read, where we get our information from and who we socialise with. In my circle, I have met many more Malays who not only speak up publicly but also act on it. I have read caustic and sometimes vulgar comments on Facebook and Twitter from Malays against Malay politicians from both sides of the divide. So, it depends where we look.
However and undeniably, we often live in our own echo chamber and seem to be unaware of our own biases. As the Franciscan priest and writer Richard Rohr says, “There is no such thing as an unbiased position. The best we can do is own and be honest about our own filters.”
I believe the more we aim for a 360-degree perspective of any issue or situation, the better our understanding of it and the closer we come to the truth.
So, how much is ‘enough’? It will always be ‘not enough’ for some people. Yes, it is a matter of perspective; where I stand, I see a glass either half full or half empty. But let us not ignore the facts.
The indomitable Ambiga Sreenevasan recently said non-Muslims must speak up when human rights are infringed. “Everybody should loudly condemn” any breach of fundamental rights.
Yes, majority rule in a democratic system must not be at the expense of minority rights; minority rights must be equally protected.
But what is the tipping point (if any) or size of the critical mass needed to bring about change?
One scientific study, led by Dr David Centola from the University of Pennsylvania, found it only requires 25% of the relevant group to stand up for an issue to shift group norms. Simply put, “a minority group of change-makers can have a profound, powerful, and lasting impact.”
Wow, that’s music to my ears! This just strengthens my belief in the ‘power of one‘.
We actually saw evidence of this in the 2018 general election. Most Malays continued to vote for Umno and Pas, but the other Malay votes were ‘enough’ – about 25% to 30% of them voted for Pakatan Harapan in 2018 – to bring about a major change at the ballot box, which most people did not expect or predict.
How long do we ‘fight’?
I remind myself regularly that building a better Malaysia will always be a work in progress – as with most things. The ‘fight’ has been going on from before I got into it and will continue even after I leave.
Many Malaysians have been doing that for decades, often paying a heavy personal price for it. Thank God for all those who continued the good fight from the early 1970s, many of whom did not live to see Barisan Nasional lose its two-thirds’ majority in Parliament or the Opposition govern a string of states at state level.
We owe them a lot. They fought for the rights of others – even sacrificing their personal freedom and livelihoods for the majority who did not have the guts or the inclination to speak up or even show some support.
Over the years, I have heard many people say Malaysia is “beyond redemption”. Ironically, some of these same people have actually prospered in Malaysia!
We should stand up and fight for justice, even if no one seems to be listening. Everyone lives in the real world, but we each handle the real world in different ways.
Yes, there are many policies that discriminate against the non-Malays. But it is not a simple, clear-cut, one-dimensional Malay versus non-Malay situation, with one group taking all at the expense of the other.
The rich, from all the various ethnic groups, are often able to benefit disproportionately or can choose to get out of the system or mitigate the effects of discrimination.
Remember, there are many Malays and other bumiputras who are unable to access the ‘special privileges’ to buy a house or shares, to get contracts or to go to college. They struggle to put food on the table, even today.
Everyone blames the politicians, but who put the politicians there? And how are we going to kick out the crooked politicians? Do we ‘fight’ only if or when we can ‘win’ or because it is the right thing to do?
So, rave and rant, gripe and groan all you want. That is your freedom of expression.
But aim to be fair while you are at it and don’t just stop there. People have different ways of getting involved in the ‘fight’. Not everyone can speak out publicly like Siti Kasim or write like Professor Tajuddin Rasdi or lead a Bersih street protest like Ambiga Sreenevasan, let alone walk 5km!
All we need is for people to do their part, according to their abilities, within their own circles of influence and in their own way, as there are many ways to contribute to change.
For example, there are Malay groups and individuals who are trying to re-educate the Muslims on the actual teachings of the Quran, emphasising justice and integrity.
There are people who are collaborating to expose and prevent corruption.
There are groups working together to forge a real ‘Bangsa Malaysia’ identity.
I choose to support and collaborate with those who are doing so much more to bring about a better Malaysia, both from within and from outside Malaysia. Many Malaysians have been involved in that endeavour for decades, as individuals or collectively.
So I am cautiously optimistic with realistic expectations. While I agree wholeheartedly with political scientist Dr Johan Saravanamuttu when he says there is still hope for Malaysia’s fragile democracy, where “the glass can be seen as half full, not half empty”, we should go a step further and ask, “How can I help fill the glass?”
It is a question we must all ask ourselves.
Mary Magdaline Pereira is an Aliran executive committee member based in the Klang Valley