The counter narrative

TO begin to understand racism it is necessary to dissect the official counter narrative. This consists of several key elements. The first has been to ignore its reality by deleting mention or reference to the word in the official national documentation.

Search of the nation’s governmental and administrative documentation including that related to social policies and laws and regulations shows up a black hole in the official literature.

It is as if the word and concept of “racism” does not exist in the nation’s bureaucratic and political vocabulary. Or that it has been thoroughly expurgated to deny the existence of this belief and its mindset which holds that groups of people possess different behavioral characteristics and hence should be differentiated.

At the same time this deliberate purge of the word and term has been accompanied by a continuing avalanche of writing aimed at reinterpreting Article 153 of the Federal Constitution to justify policies of differentiation.

These twin processes of terminological and analytical ideology development are repeated and reinforced so that they can become entrenched as the nation’s operative truth.

We have seen from elsewhere how a racist mindset and political system results in the condoning of actions and policies of discrimination and antagonism towards others defined or seen as belonging to another race. This construct provides the backdrop to understanding the resistance to it by the “Black Lives Matter” movement.

Why has this now routine and troubling omission of racism happened in Malaysia awaits more research and analysis. Our political linguists, historians and social scientists may have their explanation on why the term is not found or has been expurgated or appears to be a taboo one despite the fact that it is to be found in the governmental and policy documents of other multiracial countries, and in the United Nations and other international bodies.

But for now it may be sufficient to note that although use of the term is not proscribed or banned, the official denial to its construct has made it much more difficult to deal with it and to oppose its manifestation in public and private life.

Another more serious consequence is that Malaysians may have become more biased or are inured to its displays and practices. Thus rhetoric or actions rooted in racism are seen as acceptable; and vitriolic public displays of racism which would not be tolerated by an earlier generation are regarded as justifiable and applauded by certain quarters.

What does racism look like?

This inability to look at ourselves hard in the mirror or to look the other way when confronted by racist actions may perhaps explain why a recent survey which asked the question “how big of a problem is racial discrimination in the country where you live?” ranked Malaysia as the second most racially discriminatory country of 76 countries covered in the survey.

The online survey had a very small sample size of residents. It will be interesting to find out what a national survey by the Department of Statistics or another government agency on the subject and how to combat discrimination will produce in the way of the perceptions and attitudes of the public.

Will there be significant differences if the findings are analysed by race, class, educational level, rural/urban location, state and other critical variables? What does the public see as the main sources of racism? Is it equally pervasive at individual, systemic and institutional levels?

The national educational system, for example, has been identified as a source of intolerance and breeding ground. Malay and non-Malay primary schools have come under scrutiny by critics from both sides of the racial divide. Charges have been levelled that SJKs and SRJKs are responsible for the lack of racial unity and integration. What is the truth in these allegations clearly needs to be a subject of policy prioritisation by the Ministry of Education. A professional survey conducted by an external reputable organisation should be able to provide findings and suggestions on how we can recalibrate our schooling system to produce a younger generation of Malaysians less sickened by the virus.

Meanwhile we cannot leave it to the government and bureaucrats to open up the Pandora’s box. That has not happened since we became independent and is unlikely to happen anytime soon.

Other stakeholders must put the issue out into the forefront of public consciousness and discourse. They also need to be proactive on how best they can fight it within their own constituencies and spheres of influence.

Alternative voices

There are at least five important groups of voices that can shine their own light on the issue and provide guidance on how we can combat it. These are:

1. The religious institutions by raising the consciousness of their religious constituencies in rejecting racism.

2. The academic community through the study of policies, practices, laws and institutional structures that create or perpetuate it.

3. The media through news coverage and commentaries.

4. The think-tanks in identifying ethno-populist and ethno-supremacist ideologies and ideologues and rebutting their interpretation of policies and conduct

5. Civil society organisations through identification and rejection of related policies and programmes in propagating a multi-racially inclusive society

For now a start can come from the nation’s political parties vying in the next general election. They can begin by working into their party manifestos a statement of their party position on the issue and provide a detailed plan on how the nation can begin the long journey needed to counter it and discrimination.

This is the second article in a series on racism in Malaysia. Lim Teck Ghee’s Another Take is aimed at demystifying social orthodoxy.

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