Many would say race politics is wrong. Many more would go further and point out that race politics has served as a mechanism through which the elite subjugate the masses; and within the context of Malayan history, there is a reason to believe that.
The main purveyors of Malayan nationalism in the wake of the Second World War were an amalgamation of youth & women groups, political parties and trade unions that came together in 1946 to form PUTERA-AMCJA.
PUTERA-AMCJA was the first of its kind. It was a left-leaning coalition advocating for immediate self-government, common citizenship (under the name ‘Melayu’), and democratic elections for state legislators.
More importantly, it was a multi-ethnic coalition built upon class-issues. It brought together the Malay paddy farmers, the Chinese miners, and the Indian rubber tappers, through concerns of an economic nature.
At this point, the story can head one of two directions.
The commonly-held narrative is that PUTERA-AMCJA, as a result of its close ties with trade unions and class-based rhetoric, were Communist sympathisers, and thus a threat to national security. In 1948, most of its leaders were detained, and its component groups dissolved.
PUTERA-AMCJA’s collapse enabled the rise of ethnic parties like UMNO, MCA, and MIC. These parties were led by aristocrats and wealthy businessmen. They were far more moderate, more open to compromise, and thus more appealing to the British. It is alleged that a bloodless Merdeka could only have been possible with this level-headed group at the helm.
Alternate historians suggest the following story instead.
PUTERA-AMCJA was on a roll. Rally attendances allegedly numbered hundreds of thousands, the party succeeded in organising crippling strike action in factories and plantations, and the momentum existed for an early Merdeka.
The British did not like this. They were open to decolonisation, but not to an independent Malaya held by leftist nationalists.
Apprehension also existed amongst Malay elites and rural folks, uncomfortable with the views of some non-Malay leaders of PUTERA-AMCJA. These included the gradual stripping of royal power and status, in addition to ‘jus soli’ citizenship. In the case of the Malay elites, a strong multi-racial political force was also a threat to their long-entrenched political position.
Hence, a relationship of convenience emerged. The British would throw their support behind the elites with the promise of eventual independence, as long as the elites quelled the unruly masses.
The truth, of course, lies somewhere in between.
The British weren’t lying about a security threat. Chin Peng’s Communists were mobilising with great effect, and Ahmad Boestamam had openly published an article calling for ‘Merdeka with Blood’. These left-wing nationalists weren’t peaceniks. Many were threatening war.
Simultaneously, the Malayan elite (of all races) were undoubtedly concerned about the security of their societal position and privileges. Keeping these privileges hinged on convincing their communities that there exists an invisible wall preventing racial cooperation and that they were needed to overcome it.
Sadly, selling this idea involved, among other things, spreading misinformation and popularising racial scapegoats. Which leads us back to the present.
Although Pakatan Harapan’s GE14 success has been hailed as the culmination of a decades-long struggle to overcome ethnic politics, the past suggests that we’ve always had it in us.
In fact, we’ve been fighting for sixty years just to overcome a self-imposed artificial ethnic barrier. This particular fact is extremely important because of recent events.
The backlash against ‘Malaysia Baharu’ (the New Malaysia) or the supposedly multi-ethnic politics has begun, and it is being fronted by a number of race-based and religion-based parties and NGO’s.
However, accusations of anti-this-religion and pro-that-race are strewn around recklessly especially on the social media with worrying frequency. Pakatan and its supporters cannot afford to screw their handling of this up, because Malaysia is at a critical juncture.
Over in the West, political polarisation is destroying the United States from the inside.
When members of the American ‘Right’ proclaimed discomfort with the LGBT communities, the ‘Left’ unleashed a blanket accusation of bigotry.
When the American ‘Left’ questioned gun culture, the ‘Right’ hurled sweeping accusations of anti-patriotism.
This phenomenon is frightening because social issues are not just yes-or-no debates, and yet it has been reduced to exactly that.
Malaysia cannot afford to head in such a direction.
The key to combatting racial and religious radicals and avoiding an American situation is to shift discourse elsewhere. In fact, the hint lies in our history.
PUTERA-AMCJA was successful not because it campaigned on ‘bringing races together’, but because it campaigned on economic issues, problems which are universally understood. The fact that it brought members of all ethnic communities together under one umbrella was a happy happenstance.
Perhaps, this is how Pakatan needs to position itself. Not so much as the party for all races or even social equality, but as the party for economic justice.
I’m not saying we should shed any and all social aspects of the manifesto; those are important, but they are also sensitive.
Social change does not take place overnight. Decades of built-up biases and preconceived notions do not disappear in five or even ten years. Addressing these matters responsibly will take even more decades, and we must do so with patience and an open mind.
For now, we must focus on building up goodwill. Shine the light on issues of good governance, transparency, and people-minded economics. In other words, the very things that won Pakatan the election.
What seems to have been lost on a lot of people is the fact that racial and religious rhetoric is more often than not just a cover for issues rooted in economic realities. Address the economy, and the scapegoats lose weight.
The purveyors of ‘Malaysia Baharu’ need to realise that they cannot go toe-to-toe with the old guard on racial and religious issues.
So, don’t. Let’s rise above them.