One way of moving forward is through the vision of an egalitarian economy with a focus on rural-urban integration with the aid of technology and social entrepreneurship that serves the common good, writes Ronald Benjamin.
Debate has raged in the media lately in support for and or against the ratification of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination.
It is obvious this issue has been debated by certain ethnic heroes in a way that pits one ethnic community against the other. The simple truth is ethnic discrimination is happening daily in Malaysia, and it is in not only the public sector but also the private sector.
True, ratifying the convention will check racists of all communities. But it has to be constructed in way that is not simplistic by taking into account the structural realities in Malaysia, especially the strong rural–urban divide with a feudal, ethnic and class flavour. We need to analyse issues from a perspective of not just equal opportunities, but also the complex structural realities including the rural-urban divide.
One way of moving forward is through the vision of an egalitarian economy with a focus on rural-urban integration with the aid of technology and social entrepreneurship that serves the common good.
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The debate on the convention will not lead anywhere until Malaysia has in a place a gradual structural transformation programme.
This is due to historical factors originating from a feudal system that continues to construct multi-ethnic unity from the perspective of Malay-Muslim dominance. Unity built on this basis is not only against equality, but also unsustainable because it is unable to leverage on merit, which is vital for the nation’s progress.
In the political context, the previous Umno-led government and Pas have always reinforced historical insecurity among the rural Malay community by creating non-Malay bogeys. They have also used the emotions of religion as a political tool to create strong identity politics of dominance that closes an eye to abuses of power as long as one is from the same race and religion.
Many rural folks have little or no information and knowledge about the impact of corruption and abuse of power among the Malay elites. While there has been a change of government, the rural and East Coast states, made up of a significant Malay majority, are still holding on to the narrative of Malay-Muslim dominance.
In the urban setting, while there is a lot talk about equality, there is strong ethno-centric prejudice among certain segment of non-Malays in the business establishment. This is prevalent in employment opportunities and business where they employ people from their own ethnic group to prominent positions or enter into business partnerships without proper consideration for merit. They may also leverage their ethnic strength in business by giving other ethnic communities an unfair price advantage in the supply chain. This is compounded by a class division where economic prosperity is recycled among dominant elites.
It is necessary therefore to lay the foundation for equal opportunity and structural reforms to bridge the intra-ethnic and inter-ethnic divide in urban and semi-urban areas. Without such a foundation, the country would be less prepared for the implications of ratifying the convention.
Structural reforms are vital for ensuring a level playing field for access to information and for the building of a common bond that can overcome extreme identity and class politics. Such reforms require policies that can forge rural-urban integration.
The Pakatan Harapan government, with the cooperation of NGOs, educationist and social entrepreneurs, should place more emphasis on rural areas. In these areas, infrastructure development could help bridge the knowledge gap between urban and rural communities.
High-speed broadband and cellular networks, combined with more sophisticated mobile devices, can also help in forging rural-urban integration. With the internet and cellular networks as a backbone, a small rural town can improve schools with video classes, keep hospitals open, operate businesses whose main customers are in cities, make connections for selling goods worldwide, create videoconferencing facilities, and provide entertainment such as movies or concerts.
We also need to nurture more rural social entrepreneurs for rural-urban integration to bear fruit. This would help create equal opportunities on an equal terrain, besides reframing issues from a common perspective with less ethno- religious identity politics. So the ratification of the convention requires rural-urban integration.
Ronald Benjamin is executive secretary of the Association for Community and Dialogue.