Dealing with the ‘curse’ of race and religion in politics

PETALING JAYA: Academics have said that policy driven decisions, not racially motivated ones, are needed to push the country forward and avoid the development of extreme views that can stem from ethnic divides.

Political scientist and social activist Chandra Muzaffar told FMT that the enduring presence of ethnic influence in Malaysian politics is understandable given the multicultural makeup of the country, but could be dangerous if left unchecked.

“We can’t run away from it, but what we should be concerned about is how we can ensure our policies address issues that really matter for the well-being of all the people.”

He said that governing the country along ethnic lines fails to address divisions within those communities, and said enacting policies that solve issues in their entirety, without biases, will appease all ethnic groups at once.

Stereotypes that stoke ethnic tensions

Chandra Muzaffar wearing a suit and tie: Chandra Muzaffar.© Provided by Free Malaysia Today Chandra Muzaffar.

“Let’s go beyond ethnicities, and look at communities more deeply and solve the problems that are found, rather than looking at broad generalities like ‘the Chinese have all the money, or the Malays have all the power’.

“There are poor Chinese and there are powerless Malays who can’t be forgotten about.”

Chandra said these generalisations and stereotypes stoke ethnic tensions, which could lead to some thinking or acting in extreme ways when relationships become fraught and groups feel marginalised.

At a public forum last week, UN special rapporteur Ahmed Shaheed called racial discrimination a precursor to extremism, and said the politicisation of racial supremacy helps embed these ideas. He called for a move away from racial discourse in politics and discriminatory policies.

Divided opinion is healthy

Political scientist Wong Chin Huat of the Jeffrey Sachs Centre on Sustainable Development said that division is healthy as long as it centres on the right principles.

Wong Chin Huat wearing a suit and tie smiling at the camera: Wong Chin Huat.© Provided by Free Malaysia Today Wong Chin Huat.

“Democracy is about productive division. If politics is divided over government intervention in the economy and the free market, or over development and environment, then who is left to fight over ethnicity and religion?

“We can’t ask politicians to not play up ethnic politics when they know too little about policies, or when talking about policies doesn’t help to win votes when you are the opposition or a government backbencher,” he said.

Sociologist Syed Farid Alatas of the National University of Singapore called racial and religious influences a “curse” of Malaysian politics, and said that “nothing good can come of it”.

Fear of losing power

Syed Farid Alatas wearing glasses and smiling at the camera: Syed Farid Alatas.© Provided by Free Malaysia Today Syed Farid Alatas.

He added that a shift away from race-based politics should be easy to do, but said a fear of losing political power allowed the status quo to continue as it has long been “the safer route because it has worked in the past”.

“If various sectors of society demand these changes, including Malays, the politicians will scramble to champion multiracialism. But because there is no demand from the ground, things remain the same.”

However, he noted that the 2018 general election had shown that the demands of the people were changing, and said the government may soon be forced to reflect it.

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