Excitement about the elections in six states is building up. The silly season, and the scary season, too, is upon us.
I’m not a politician so losing an election (or winning one, but on the losing side) doesn’t scare me. I‘ll just roll my eyes and sing the “I’ve seen all these before…” song and bore everybody to tears.
But elections nowadays, in Malaysia or even elsewhere in the world, are scary. The extreme levels of polarisation, lack of respect for people and institutions, and the corrosive impact of social media and other spawns of the internet, have gone off the charts.
Race has always been at the core of Malaysian politics. Religion had never been at the front and centre, though always there in the past. That’s all changed now. Islam has been dragged into daily politics.
There’s the Islam that’s in the hearts and souls of all good Muslims who care about fulfilling their duty to God and to each other, and fear nothing in life except straying from the true path.
Another kind of Islam has risen in the past few decades, a political Islam which has become synonymous with Malayness. We’ve all by now seen the many variations of the “Malay is Islam, Islam is Malay” slogan.
Leaving aside the question of whether that’s a heresy, hence also leaving aside contorted attempts to justify the notion that the two are conjoined, let us focus instead on how that’s muddying up our national politics.
Much has been written about the earlier efforts in the 1980s by Dr Mahathir Mohamad, then prime minister, and Anwar Ibrahim, his then deputy who is now prime minister, to aggressively take the battle for the Malay soul to the religion-based opposition parties, particularly PAS.
That has ended badly for us, regardless of how well-intentioned we were. The country has become even more “Islamic”, albeit one focused on rituals and power. But what caused our good intentions to be derailed?
The cause of the rot is in the Malay psyche – the vast fear and insecurity within it. Today, in spite of outnumbering everybody else and holding almost all reins of power, Malays still fear being swamped in their own Tanah Melayu, the “Land of the Malays” by the “Nons”, meaning non-Malay and non-Muslim people.
The racial memory of Malays is dominated by shame – of being invaded, conquered and colonised time and time again. Such invasions could be via ships off the shore unloading soldiers, or ships unloading strange new people. For the Malays, shame is a very powerful emotion indeed.
We have become insecure and fearful deep inside by not having exorcised such humiliations through a heroic (even if failed) fight for freedom like our kinfolk in Indonesia and the Philippines, or like the Siamese, who through wiles and cunningness – and the occasional throwing of neighbours under the bus – were never colonised at all.
We could’ve just said the current generation will not have to answer for the past, as that reponsibility lies with our ancestors. However, we can and must determine what is clearly ours – the future.
A simple principle, but certainly not a popular one; you’ll never become a leader of the Malays prescribing such strong medicines.
But that’s how I see it. I’m not responsible for the Melaka Sultanate succumbing to the Portuguese, but I’m responsible for my own life’s journey and for setting the stage to help my own children and descendants.
Rewriting history to glorify ourselves doesn’t help. So much of our so-called history today is just embarrassing fiction. Much of it even runs counter to our own recounting of history back in the days when there was no competition to out-hero the last hero by inventing an even more glorious past.
Sadly, focusing on this “glorious” past is like taking addictive and hallucinatory drugs. Our fears and insecurities, stoked by a feudal legacy that never went away, make us easy “khayal” and docile subjects in the hands of any demagogue skilful at using religion to scare us into submission.
By using race and religion, it’s possible nowadays for any blathering idiot with the intellect of a tree shrew and the cunningness of a crocodile to routinely ascend to the top of our politics. Just look around us.
I’m surprised to see, even among many Malays who’ve achieved much, and who’re good enough to hold their own on a level playing field against anybody anywhere, those still being haunted by this insecurity that says “be careful of those people – they want to take over everything”.
Because playing around with such fears pays such great dividends, our politicians keep on ratcheting the stakes. One day we could end up getting what we say we want, and perhaps by then deserve – a Tanah Melayu but one without its wonderful diversity, vitality and energy.
But by then, it’ll really be a tanah Melayu as it stood a century ago – shorn of many of the people who can make it great, and in all likelihood, shorn off the other half of Malaysia across the South China Sea, who even now are keeping a wary eye on the unhealthy developments here in the peninsula.
If that happens, it’ll be the fault of those who betray the ideals of the founding of Malaysia in 1963, who insisted on bringing us back to an imagined glorious past all because they’re afraid of the present and fearful about the future.
These same people unashamedly use God and Islam as a cover for their political ambitions and machinations, while acting in an ungodly and unIslamic way on their way to power and riches and perceived glory, as the country itself slides into mediocrity.
Some of you may find it unbelievable, but there are many among the Malays for whom living “free” in a failed and backward nation is preferable to living as they do now, perpetually scared of their wits against an imagined enemy.
TO BE CONTINUED.
The views expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT