Everybody wants to change Malaysia but nobody wants to change himself – William Leong

DECEMBER 23, 2013

Merdeka Center reported recently that Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak's approval rating of 52% is an all-time low compared with the 65% when he launched the New Economic Model (NEM). The NEM was a response to Anwar Ibrahim's New Economic Agenda replacing affirmative action based on race with one based on needs.

After two pre-election budgets when Christmas came early, the post-election budget has turned Najib from Santa Claus to the Grinch that stole Christmas.

Many (the 53% that voted Pakatan Rakyat) seek solace from the crippling price hikes in the thought that economic hardship will knock some sense into those who retained BN in power (the 47% including the newly-minted voters of foreign origins) to mend the error of their ways in the next general election (GE). I was also of the same mind until I read the words printed on my son's T-shirt:

"Everybody wants to change the world but nobody wants to change himself"

This, I discovered, is a quote by Leo Tolstoy, author of War and Peace and Anna Karenina.

His book, The Kingdom of God Is Within You and the idea of non-violent resistance have been acknowledged by Mohandas Gandi and Dr Martin Luther King Jr to have inspired and influenced them in their struggle against oppression.

This quote struck me that no matter how bad the economy is going to be, we are not going to change Malaysia, not in the next GE and the GEs to come, if we, Malaysians, do not first change ourselves. We cannot hope for a multicultural and equitable society, if we do not first get rid of the racial prejudices within us.

We have never been one Malaysia, we have as many different Malaysia as there are ethnic groups, each living separate lives. Each group has no real idea how the others live.

Malaysians have been separated and segregated in a manner that discourages peoples of different ethnicity to interact with each other in a meaningful and positive way.

Fifty-six years of racial politics has poisoned, dehumanised and desensitised us. We cannot remove Barisan Nasional (BN), if we cannot remove the fear and ignorance Umno instilled in the 47%.

We cannot remove the fear and ignorance, if we cannot remove the prejudices, preconceptions and preconditions in us. To do so we must firstly know how ethnicity is used, organised and structured by Uno to mobilise political support. The events this December is instructive.

As leaders of the world gathered in South Africa to pay homage to Nelson Mandela who fought racial discrimination, leaders of Umno gathered in Malaysia to pay homage to Ketuanan Melayu.

The unkindest cut to Nelson Mandela's memory is the shameless comparison in likening Umno's Ketuanan Melayu to Mandela's struggle against apartheid. As Tengku Adnan said playing the race card at BN party meetings are normal.

The Umno general assembly is the annual tribal gathering for ritual racial diatribe, ethnic histrionics and minority bashing. It is the yearly affirmation of historical legacies of mistrust, the reinforcement of the mentality of victimisation and the propping up of feelings of shared deprivation.

Umno Youth Exco member, Fathul Bari, told delegates there is nothing to worry if people called Umno racists because "we are only protecting our rights".

Penang Umno Bukit Mertajam division chief, Musa Sheikh Fadzir wants the 1Malaysia slogan to be replaced by 1Melayu to teach non-Malays a lesson for ditching BN in GE13. Umno Youth Chief, Khairy Jamaluddin condemned non-Malay companies for not hiring Malay chief executives.

At last year's assembly, Tokyo Umno club representative, Ariff Yassir Zulkafli sang Lagu Warisan the lyrics translated to English is as follows:

"A small child plays with fire
A desolate heart burns
Tears, blood and sweat (yet)
His land belongs to outsiders"

It is the signature song of Malay patriots yearning for a return to the Malay motherland free of pendatang. The song became the emotional and psychological high point of the assembly bringing tears to the delegates who joined in spontaneous rendition. But nothing is comparable to Hishamuddin Hussein Onn brandishing his keris to cries from the delegates not to just wave it but to use it.

Dr Lim Teck Ghee has observed that Lagu Warisan and the keris waving encapsulates the Umno mind and mentality in propagating the doctrine of "Blood and Soil" nationalism. Blood and soil nationalism refers to an ideology that focuses on ethnicity based on two factors - descent and homeland.

David A. Lakefield and Donald Rothchild in Containing Fear: Origins and Management of Ethnic Conflict said competition for resources lies at the heart of ethnicity.

Property rights, jobs, scholarships, educational admissions, language rights, government contracts and development allocations all confer benefits on individuals.

All such resources are scarce and thus, become objects of competition. Where ethnicity becomes the basis for identity, group competition becomes a struggle along ethnic lines.

Politics matter because the state controls access to scarce resources. Groups that possess political power gain privileged access to goods and benefits. The groups struggling for political power compete on their visions of just, legitimate and appropriate political orders.

John M. Richardson and Shinjini Sen in Ethic Conflict and Economic Development explained that in a typical scenario, leaders of a dominant ethnic group gain office and then use state institutions to distribute economic and political benefits preferentially to their ethnic brethren.

Discrimination against subordinate groups, often portrayed as less deserving human beings, accompanies this preferential treatment.

When force is needed to impose discriminatory practices and quell subordinate group resistance, it is exercised by police officers and soldiers recruited almost exclusively from the dominant group, who often view themselves as "ethnic soldiers".

In democracies, a dominant group that is a majority often uses its voting power to entrench discriminatory practices by legal or quasi legal means. When a dominant group is the minority, it typically imposes discriminatory policies by force as in apartheid South Africa.

Historical legacies of mistrust, a mentality of victimisation and feelings of shared deprivation make group members more receptive to simplistic appeals from extremist leaders and encourage those vying to be leaders to make such appeals.

Nelson Mandela and FW de Clerk in South Africa have shown how courageous leadership can reduce ethnic tensions. Unfortunately, political leaders in a diverse society more often than not are less courageous.

Such political leaders play a divisive role by appealing to ethnic sentiments and use rival groups as scape-goats in order to enhance personal political power and win or retain political office.

Historical legacies of mistrust are used to kindle and stoke present day fires based on memories of "ancient hatreds".

In the Middle East, ethnic differences are traced to biblical times.

In Northern Ireland, historical clashes between Protestants and Catholics are relived in annual festivals that often become violent.

Sri Lankan schoolchildren are reminded of the pivotal clash between Sinhalese Prince Dutugemunu and Tamil King Elaric that re-established Singhalese dominance on the island.

For Serbians and Croatians, the incursions into Europe of Ottoman Sultans are a living reality along with the ethnically divisive policies of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the atrocities instigated by ethnic-based regimes.

A victim mentality helps to unite group members behind their leaders and justifies present sacrifices.

Moreover, members of a victimised group feel justified in victimising others. In South Africa, white Afrikaners viewed themselves as victims of British colonialism redeemed by ruling over the inferior Blacks, Indians and Coloreds.

In Sri Lanka, Sinhalese majority also viewed themselves as victims. They resented the favourable treatment given to Tamils under British colonial rule. In the words of world historian K.M. de Silva, the Sinhalese were a "majority with a minority complex".

This attitude fueled political support for Sinhalese nationalist leaders whose policies convinced many Tamils there was no alternative to secession ending in a disastrous tragedy for all.

Relative deprivation is a perception that due to the historical legacies of mistrust and victimisation mentality, the members of the group believe they are not being provided the benefits to which they are justly entitled.

Feelings of relative deprivation are intensified not only when benefits including political, religious and language rights as well as economic well-being decline but also when expectations increase.

Feelings of deprivation resulting from declining benefits or unrealised expectations will be interpreted as an ethnically motivated injustice. It is this relative deprivation that justifies the ethnically motivated leader to re-establish a "more equitable social-economic order".

In Sri Lanka, both S.W.R.D. and Sirimavo Bandaranaike won democratic elections by appealing to Buddhist-Sinhalese nationalist sentiments and denigrating ethnic Tamils.

In the United States, appealing to white racist sentiments is a staple of political campaigning in racially-divided Southern states.

Similar tactics were used by leaders such as Slobodan Milosevic, of Serbia and General Tudjman of Croatia who won their presidencies by appealing to the most divisive aspects of Serbian and Croatian nationalism.

John M. Richardson and Shinjini Sen were referring to Rwanda, Serbia, Croatia, Sri Lanka and Ethiopia but Malaysians will easily recognise the same things are happening in Malaysia.

On September 14, 2013, Najib reversed the NEM following pressure from right-wing extremist group Perkasa, to launch the Bumiputra Economic Empowerment Programmes. Najib's experiment in moderate politics ended when he declared:

"Therefore, the Malays and Bumiputras as the core of the national agenda could not be denied by anybody, indeed, any matter which is national in nature, which does not take into account or neglect the agenda of the Malays and Bumiputras is not fair and just"

"…[for] the support given by Malays and Bumiputras at the 13th general election recently, today the government decides to make a big shift to implement concrete and total strategies and approaches."

"... All these we undertake to look after the lot of the Malay and Bumiputra communities, since the past, presently and forever."

David A. Lake and Donald Rothchild said ethnic conflict is most often caused by collective "fears of the future, lived through the past". They suggest it is important to reassure the different groups of both their physical and cultural security by demonstrations of respect and confidence building measures.

In Malaysia, there is no chance of this happening because we are not dealing with just individual racism but also institutional racism.

Administrative officers often are at the very least sympathetic to the Umno cause. The close relationship between the bureaucracy and the party date back to Umno's founding.

In the 1955 elections, 80% of the Umno candidates were former officials of the civil service. Of the seven Malays in Tunku Abdul Rahman's cabinet, six were former civil servants.

Based on complains received, it was revealed that the Birotata Negara civics course trained graduates to implement racist and religious discriminating policies. In the Mid-Term Review of the Ninth Malaysia Plan, it is reported that 1,016,749 participants benefitted from the BTN programmes.

Those who viewed the "Listen, Listen, Listen" video will note the majority of the students applauded Suara Wanita 1Malaysia president, Sharifah Zohra Jabeen Syed Shah Miskin's castigation of Bawani, the lone objector to Sharifah's arguments. The others, Bawani said, were too fearful to stand up and speak out for their rights.

To counter ethnic politics, right thinking Malaysians must break the chains of fear and ignorance holding back the 47%. Malaysians have to undergo a personal internal reformation.

Pakatan Rakyat holding more public rallies and giving speeches will come to naught if Malaysians are unable to make this internal reform. This is the key factor.

We have to make this change in order to touch the hearts of those Umno are holding in their grasp.

Lip-service and fine cosmetic words cannot do it. We must remember "out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks", means that not only our words but our attitudes toward each other must come from our genuine heart-felt feelings.

All the talk of wanting our country to change will not happen if our emotions and feelings toward another of a different race are not changed. The most effective and lasting change in racial politics can only take place when we reform in our hearts.

It is not our mind that so much needs to change as our heart, to excise the prejudgment, preconceived notions and predisposition we have of another race.

There must be a paradigm shift in us. This type of change emerges from an understanding and practice of genuine justice.

Genuine justice is based on fairness. John Rawls in his book A Theory of Justice advocated distributive justice to compensate for social and economic inequalities.

Thus, genuine justice is based on need. Racism on the other hand is nothing but the systemic indifference justified by biological or cultural differences.

Since people's needs differ due to differing socio-historical circumstances, true justice spring from what they need.

Oliver Wendell Homes said: "There is no greater inequality than the equal treatment of unequals"

At the heart of justice is affirmative action based on need. It is based on the principle of redress that undeserved inequalities call for rectification.

Since inequalities of birth are undeserved these inequalities must be compensated for.

Therefore, in order to treat all persons equally and provide genuine equality of opportunity, society must give more attention to those born into or placed in less favourable social-economic positions.

It cannot be based on discredited and debunked notions of racial supremacy or inferiority. It is only when Malaysians can get to this point will Malaysia be able to change.

To get to this point requires compassion. Compassion is the counter to racism.

At the heart of compassion lies "respect" the process whereby the other person is treated with deference, courtesy and compassion in an endeavour to safeguard the integrity, dignity, value and social worth of the individual. It means treating people they way they want to be treated.

To counter Umno's racial politics, Malaysians have to find the compassion to reach out to the less fortunate Malays and Bumiputras especially those in the rural areas and in the interior of Sabah and Sarawak.

The best way to unmask the racial lies and clean up bigotry is to show Malaysia is a caring society assisting all irrespective of race or religion.

I commend the Rotary Club of Petaling Jaya in organising a health clinic in Batu Arang village where all residents in need irrespective of race were given free health, dental and eye sight tests.

If more follow this example, Malaysians long walk to freedom will be one more step closer to its destination. – December 23, 2013.

* William Leong Jee Keen is the Member of Parliament for Selayang.

* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insider.