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Debating M’sia’s ethnic, religious divisions

 | August 27, 2011

Al Jazeera interviews Marina Mahathir, Khairy Jamaluddin and Nik Nazmi Nik Ahmad on Malaysia's ethnic and religious divide.

PETALING JAYA: Malaysia’s delicate issue of race and religion was put under the global spotlight in an interview programme aired by international broadcaster Al Jazeera yesterday.

The programme – the daily run The Stream, aired live yesterday – touched on recent controversies which brushed Malaysia, including the issue of the use of the word “Allah”, the proselytisation of Muslims and the “racist” 8TV advertisement.

The programme was hosted by Derrick Ashong who interviewed well known political commentator Marina Mahathir, Umno Youth chief Khairy Jamaluddin and PKR’s Nik Nazmi Nik Ahmad for their views on how to tackle the nation’s most prickly problems.

Despite having differing views on who was to blame over the issues, all three agreed that Malaysia must move away from race and religion based politics for the nation to move forward.

Khairy, who is also the MP for Rembau, said ethnicity was gradually becoming a less important basis for politics and government.

“In Malaysia, people are moving towards post-modern politics that is not based on race and religion. It is not to say ethnic and religious issues are not important and do not gain traction among people, and of course it is being exacerbated by politicians.”

“But I would say, going forward in 10 to 20 years, ethnicity and religion as political issues would play less of an important role especially when people are more inclusive in their world view and the
future of the country,” he added.

When posed a question on how Malaysia could promote the 1Malaysia concept when the ruling BN was still practicing race-based politics, Khairy rejected the accusation that BN could not bring about unity.

“I think that’s a very common criticism of the BN. I disagree vehemently with that categorisation. I don’t think BN is incompatible with national unity,” he said, adding that even the opposition has a party that was based on a single religion and another dominated by one ethnic group.

Streamlining the NEP

Khairy said despite having ethnic-based parties, the BN “works because we govern on the basis of consensus” and said “ultimately it is the policies that matter and the agreements between the parties for national interest”.

He was also asked as to how government policies can be fair if the federal constitution “enshrines an inherent bias”, to which Khairy said there was not a single political party currently willing to say that they would abolish Article 153 from the constitution.

“The constitution says specifically certain things are accorded to Malays and some to non-Malays. However, some of the policies have expanded that into other areas of economy and it has become
overreaching. These are some of the things we can work on, these policies we can reform in the
future,” said Khairy.

Khairy added that the government was trying to streamline the NEP to ensure it doesn’t distort the market, become an impediment to economic growth and that necessary help goes to deserving Malays.

“It is a valid criticism in the past that it went to undeserving bumiputeras and the politically connected. What we are trying to foster is an environment of merit and competition within the Malay community so eventually we can scale back some of these provisions to ensure a level playing field for all,” he said.

BN still in the past

Nik Nazmi, who is PKR communications director, meanwhile put the blame on racial and religious politicking squarely on the BN.

He said that in Malaysia, times have changed and people have moved on, but “BN has not moved with the times and that creates the tension today.”

To a question on the government’s control of the media, Nik Nazmi said that the ruling coalition has used the race card to built a “seige mentality” in the population, which was very unhealthy.

“Race issues are consuming our attention disproportionately in Malaysia at the expense of discussions on health policies, economic policies and so forth,” he said.

Nik Nazmi agreed that ethnic based politics could only be done away with when there are no more ethnic-based parties.

“This model is something of the past, it is destroying the Malaysian politics. It was said that a Malay politician may not have a single chauvinist bone in his body but in order to rise he has to play the race game.

“This is what happens in Umno. In multi-racial parties like PKR for example, I can’t be racist because I’ll be voted out,” he said.

Nik Nazmi said that the constitution may have its “idiosyncracies” that were unsymmetrical between the rights and freedom between the different communities, but added that the country was much fairer in the past.

“Equality is also one of the fundamental rights in the federal constitution. That is what we find increasingly ignored and forgotten,” he said.

Marina worried

Marina lamented the fact that race and religion were what politicians talked about all the time but said that Malaysia has “worked pretty well all this time”.

However, she said, the issue now was “whether that balance that our forefathers envisioned are being disturbed, because now communities perhaps are taking bigger space, insisting and constantly griping about not getting their dues”.

Asked if she was referring the the Malay population, Marina said there were some politicians who continue to insist that they always have to have more.

She expressed her worry that the future looked bleak if the unhappiness of the non-Malays persist, the braindrain continues and the Malays continue to have higher birthrates.

“Unless we have leaders who are really committed in ensuring the continuation of the Malaysian diversity, that’s the way its gonna go, sadly.”

Watch the web interview here


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