Democratic politicians in Malaysia and elsewhere should understand one simple fact: that democracy is not a licence for every sectarian grouping to come forth and make exclusive sectarian demands for itself and at the expense of the rest of the nation, warns Farish A Noor.
Now, I haven’t given up with the idea of democracy yet; though I would have to say that even as the best of political arrangements there are still some bugs in the system. The most obvious bug is the tendency for democratic politicians to pander to the whims and demands of every constituency that comes forward and says “now if you give us this, we will vote for you”. The run-up to the American Presidential election has witnessed just one such prolonged bout of horse-trading, as the Presidential candidates were forced to deal with demands from every single lobby and interested party, be they disenfranchised single mothers to the looney gun lobby.
Democratic politicians are therefore inclined to that most distasteful and indecorous of habits, which is political posturing. Its all part and parcel of the pathetic attempt to win votes at any cost, though the costs – social and political – are many as they are high. Add to political posturing the plural climate of a multicultural society and you have the formula for disaster.
In many post-colonial societies like Malaysia, we see the same perilous path being walked by all parties. At present the uncertain fate of Malaysia hangs in the balance as nobody knows for certain who or what is going to be running the country by 2009. Added to that is the increasingly vocal cry of so many dissonant voices demanding different things: The vernacular educational lobby is demanding separate educational streams where students will be taught in their mother tongues, be it Malay, Chinese or India . The religious lobby is likewise divided amongst themselves as Malay-Muslims demand Islamisation and more mosques, while the other communities are demanding protection of their churches and temples. Malaysian politicians, being the craven lot they are, are conceding to all the demands and promising everything under the sun as long as they are voted into office.
Now of course all of this posturing will lead us to that fateful day when the electorate says, “Now that you have won, where are the things you promised us?”
Can any Malaysian government- regardless of who leads it- really deliver on all these promises? Can any Malaysian leader really deliver more Malay-Muslim, Chinese and Indian schools at the same time; or more money to be spent on mosques and madrasahs, churches and temples, at the same time?
And even if all these demands are met, hasn’t anyone had the common sense to look at the realities on the ground, note the fact that Malaysians are less inclusive and accommodating compared to what they were like in the 1970s, and note that in Malaysia’s universities Malay, Chinese and Indian students are not even sitting down and eating together in the canteens?
The nightmare scenario that may be the outcome of multiculturalism gone wrong is the day when a Malay-Muslim in Malaysia can be born to a Malay family, live in a Malay home, have Malay friends, speak Malay, read the Malay papers, watch Malay TV shows and movies, live and die in a Malay neighbourhood without ever – throughout his or her life – ever having had a serious meaningful conversation with a non-Malay. The same concerns can be extended to Malaysians of Chinese and Indian origin, and multiply this on a scale of 20 million and you will have the Malaysian nation-state falling apart before our eyes.
Democratic politicians in Malaysia and elsewhere should therefore understand one simple fact: that democracy is not a licence for every sectarian grouping to come forth and make exclusive sectarian demands for itself and at the expense of the rest of the nation. While Malaysia’s race and religion-based lobby groups have been calling for their own specific interests to be met, when was the last time any Malaysian group called for a simple thing like a playground, a common neutral space where Malaysians of all races and religions could come together on a universal basis, as citizens?
If Malaysia ’s multicultural society seems to be growing further apart, the time has come for Malaysia ’s democratic forces to get its act together and insist on the widening and deepening of the country’s shrinking neutral democratic space.
Populist politicians may get political mileage by pandering to the demand of bigots and sectarian-minded exclusivists when it suits their electoral prospects, but politicians are leaders who should lead, not be led. They can start by leading the way back to an inclusive neutral democratic culture where citizenship, rather than parochial ethnic and religious belonging, is the defining feature of our plural politics. Failure to do so means that they are just taking us down the path to the Balkans, or worse still, Rwanda.