Sunday, 9 August 2009 – Prince Phillip Lecture Theatre, Melbourne University, Australia.
Thank you for inviting me to speak at this event.
Distance, home and reflection
1) The opportunity to study abroad is a gift. I remember my days as a student in Belfast so long ago. Now as then, overseas study gives us the chance to be educated at some of the finest, best established institutions of higher learning anywhere, and to be exposed to the best that has been thought and done, and to measure ourselves against the highest standards. It is an opportunity to see the world.
2) Travel and living abroad takes us far away from home, but in doing so it also brings us closer to ourselves, and closer to home. Have you experienced this? Have you felt time and distance making you more conscious of how unique and precious the places, relationships, colours, smells and yes, tastes, of home are? Distance can help us see things more clearly. Home is such an immediate, dense and total experience that we often need to go away to see its contours. Home is such an emotional experience that we often understand it better in the coolness of distance. We sometimes need the elevation of distance to see the map of our own country.
3) I want to use this privileged distance that we now share, here in Melbourne, to speak frankly with you today about a matter that is usually so tightly wound up, so emotional, that at a national level we have not been able to have a rational discussion about it.
4) I want to invite you to look across this distance at the map of the life in common that we call our country. I want to look across the distance of fifty two years of independence, across changes over my own lifetime, to understand where we have come from as a nation and where we are going. My topic is race and racial consciousness in Malaysian life, and especially in our politics.
Race in the political life of Malaysia
5) Our social and political life is racialised to a degree seen in few other countries in the world. There are historical reasons for this. Malaysia was, at its birth, a country deeply divided along communal lines. We negotiated and attained independence with a power-sharing arrangement between the leaders of the three major racial communities as represented by the Alliance coalition. The agreement and cooperation of these leaders ensured peace and stability while we modernised our economy. The skill and integrity of these leaders, and their clear authority among their own communities was key to the success of this model, which is sometimes described by political scientists as consociational democracy.
6) This arrangement lasted only twelve years. After the traumatic riots of May 1969, we underwent a period of rule under the National Operations Council before Parliament was restored. The New Economic Policy was drafted and put into action. A new coalition, the Barisan Nasional, was put together to ensure that every community had a place at the table. Once more, the idea was to resolve conflict within a consociational power-sharing arrangement. Each community was to have a place at the table. Conflicts were to be solved between the leaders of these communities, behind closed doors. This arrangement was useful and effective for its time, but we have to wake up to the fact that it no longer works.
It is important to understand why:
7) It was never meant to be a permanent solution. Our method of racial power-sharing is primarily a system for resolving conflict in a deeply divided society. It was designed as an interim work-around, an early stage on the way to “a more perfect union” and not as the desired end-state. Over the years, however, we have put up barricades around our system as if it were a fore-ordained and permanent ideal. In doing so, we have turned a half-way house into our destination, as if we must forever remain a racially divided and racially governed society.
8.) Instead, our ideal must be to become a free and united society in which individuals can express their ethnic and religious identities without being imprisoned in them. We must aim for a society in which public reasoning and not backroom dealing determines our collective decisions.
9) The power-sharing model that we started life with is an elite style of government justified by the virtue and competence of natural leaders of their communities. It needs special conditions. It does not work when political parties are led by the ignorant and the corrupt who have no standing in the communities they claim to represent.
10) It needs genuine agreement and cooperation between leaders who command support in their own communities and are universally respected. It will not work if the power-sharing coalition is overly dominated by one person and the others are there as token representatives. Our founding fathers negotiated, cooperated and shared responsibility as equals and as friends within a power-sharing framework. The communal interests they represented were articulated within the overarching vision of a united Malaysia. In the intervening years, as power came to be concentrated in the Executive, we preserved only the outward appearance of power-sharing. In reality we have had top-down rule and power has become increasingly unaccountable. Each of our political parties has also become more top-down, ruled by eternal incumbents who protect their position with elaborate restrictions on contests. Umno itself has become beholden to the Executive.
11) Our decades under highly-centralised government undermined our power-sharing formula, just as it undermined key institutions such as the judiciary, the police and the rule of law. Our major institutions have survived in appearance while their substance has eroded. Seen in this light, the election results of March 8, which saw the Barisan Nasional handed its worst defeat since 1969, was just the beginning of the collapse of a structure which has long been hollowed out.
The end of the old, but not quite the new
12) The racial power-sharing model now practiced by Barisan is broken. It takes more honesty than we are used to in public life to observe that this is not a temporary but a terminal crisis. An old order is ending. Our problem is that while this past winds down, smoothly or otherwise, the future is not yet here. We are caught in between. Despite our having become a more economically advanced society, with many opportunities for our citizens to express richly plural identities, our races have become increasingly polarised. Large numbers of our electorate still vote along ethnic and religious lines. Much of our political ground is still racially demarcated. Although we have made some progress towards truly multiracial politics, both the Government and the Opposition are largely mobilised along racial lines. It is not yet time to herald a new dawn. Instead, we are in a transition full of perils and possibilities.
13) You are this generation caught between. You are the generation of transition. You will play a key role in determining its outcome. However well a certain kind of politics of racial identity may have served to reduce conflict in the past, it has come to the end of its useful life. We need a new beginning to racial relations in Malaysia, and you must pioneer that beginning. We need to re-design race relations in Malaysia, and you must be the architects and builders of that design.
14) In coming to that new design I hope you take advantage of the perspective of distance that your overseas education has given you to not take as your starting point the tired answers that are passed on as conventional wisdom. You must reformulate the questions and come up with your own answers. When it is clear that one generation may have run out of steam, it is time to generate your own. Where do you begin? May I suggest some perspectives and principles. Whatever the answers we come up with, I think the following elements are important:
a) Begin with our common humanity. Respect our common humanity must override all lesser affiliations, including race. One of Islam’s most powerful contributions to human civilisation has been its insistence on the equality of all human beings. Islam tolerates no notions of racial superiority or inferiority. All human beings are equal before God. That same principle of equality is absolutely fundamental to democracy, and democracy is a foundational principle of our Constitution. Democracy is part of what makes us who we are as a nation. Even if we might still gravitate towards racial groupings, our allegiance to these groups must never overshadow our allegiance to the Constitution, and to the claims of equal dignity that it establishes firmly and permanently. Political parties based on race or religion must never be allowed to do or say anything contrary to justice and equality.
b) We must anchor ourselves in the Constitution and restore its primacy. This founding document of our country establishes definitively the equality of citizenship that is the bedrock of democracy. It gives us the framework of law and order within which we become a nation. It establishes the primacy of the rule of law, the sovereignty of Parliament, the independence of the judiciary and civil service and of our law enforcement agencies. These are the institutions which guarantee the freedom and sovereignty of the people.
c) We should acknowledge that while race is a category that unites people in common feeling, it can also divide, and divide disastrously. While it unites people who possess a set of social markers it often divides the same people from other communities. We should appreciate not just the fact that we are diverse but diverse in different ways. What I mean by this is that we are not diverse in the sense of being merely Malay, a Chinese, an Indian, a Kadazan, Iban and so forth. Each of us inhabits these particular identities in different ways. Each of us is not just a member of a race. There are other classifications which matter to us, such as location, class, social status, occupation, language, politics and others. We would be terribly impoverished as persons if our identity was given ahead of time and once and for all merely by our membership of a fixed racial category. I would be a very dull person if you could tell who I was simply by looking up my race. We would never have unity if that is primarily how we regard one another. If you reflect on yourselves, you might find that all kinds of identity matter to you: that you are a graduate of such and such a university, that you speak these languages, support this football team, enjoy certain food or music, love to travel, can write computer code, have read such and such books, and have so-and-so as friends. Just reflect on how you identify yourselves in your facebook profiles. Is race the only thing you regard as important about yourselves? Is it the most important thing? To expect our politics to be given by our race is to make cardboard images of ourselves, it is to retard our growth as individuals and hence as a society. Similarly to see no more of others than their race is to turn them into stereotypes and maintain a view of the world bordering on racist. I want to urge you, as the makers of the new social landscape we need in Malaysia, to reject taking race to be a unique and fixed categorisation, to reject race as a central category of social and political life.
i) Race is a constructed category, in the sense that people shape what they count as a “race” according to time, place and purpose. There is no unique and rigid concept of it the way there is a rigid concept of buoyancy, double-entry book-keeping, equilateral triangles and photosynthesis. I would be offended if you tried to measure and determine my racial identity, and it would tell me that there was something deeply wrong with your worldview. I am not Malay in the sense in which water is H2O.
ii) Race is merely one among many identities we take up in life. We may not have much choice over how others categorise us, but we certainly have a choice about the relative importance to place on our own and therefore on the others’ racial identity. We have a choice in how much weight we put on it, and in how high in our scheme of values we put it. The contrast I want to draw is between the view that makes race out to be a unique and fundamental category, and a view that sees race as one out of many kinds of identification we could prioritise. If we see race as a watertight category, then you are either of race X or not, and everything else: your habits, thought-patterns, loyalties and politics must all follow from that. Then race becomes destiny. The politics of this kind of conception of race will always divide, and the ultimate solution to intra-racial problems it leads us to is, in the end, violence. It is easy to identify the practitioners of this kind of racial politics. They will rely on veiled threats of communal violence even as they take part in democratic politics. However, if we understand that racial identity is just one of many identities we have to balance, then it becomes our duty as thinking persons to set relative priorities on all these identifications. We need to ask ourselves whether we want to draw our moral values and perspective from our common humanity or from our racial identity. As educated, reasoning people, we cannot but find our common humanity the more fundamental value. We cannot but find rationally chosen universal values more important than inherited tribal affiliations.
iii) The ability to root ourselves in our common humanity first and foremost is the prerequisite for the development of a democratic society in which policies are decided by public reasoning rather than determined by violence and manipulation. This is because open public reasoning can only be carried out where there is equal respect for the dignity and rights of all citizens, and such respect must be firmly rooted in an understanding that despite sometimes clashing interests and identities, we are united by a more fundamental common identity: that of a shared humanity created by God. Our common humanity gives us moral obligations to one another, regardless of our lesser affiliations in a way that racial identity does not.
d) We need to arrive at new ways of mediating conflicting claims between the races, new ways of bringing people to the table, of including everyone in the decision making process.
e) These new ways must be based on more open conceptions of who we are. Malaysia’s major races have lived together not just for decades but for centuries. Their cultures have interacted for millenia. In that time there has been mutual influence, admixture and cross-pollination at a depth and on a scale that our politics, popular culture and educational curriculum has largely pretended does not exist. In my own parliamentary constituency, jungle covered, far inland and one of the most remote in the peninsula (it used to be known as Ulu Kelantan and covered half the state, and when I started there I had to travel to it by boat), is a six hundred year old Chinese community, perhaps the oldest in the peninsula, living in peace with their Malay and Orang Asli neighbours. Why pretend that we do not owe so much to each other that we would not be ourselves without each other? At the level at which people actually live we are already inextricably linked to each other. It is time to embrace this real diversity in our political and personal lives. Our racial identities are not silos in a cornfield, forever separate, encased in steel, but trees in our rainforest: standing distinct but inexplicable without each other and constantly co-evolving.
16) While giving room to whoever wants to organise and advocate political interests according to our ethnic and religious affinities, we must now, very firmly, assert that such affinities must always recognise the priority and primacy of our common citizenship, our equal dignity, and above all, our common humanity before each other and before God. First we are human beings who are open to one another.
17) My young friends, I am not recommending anything novel. These are cardinal principle of our Constitution and the faiths we profess, most especially of Islam, and of reason itself. Let us have the sense of perspective to see our ethnic identities against these cornerstone principles of religion and ethics, and let us now educate our young, apprentice our youth, and conduct ourselves according to these principles. And then let us have a new beginning for Malaysia.
Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah
Seminar Pembangunan Insan
Kelab Umno Melbourne