An overdose of stale tactics
Sunday, 07 September 2008 08:30am
©The Sunday Star (Used by permission)Sharing The Nation by Zainah AnwarWe are 51 years old and we still do not know how to disagree rationally, civilly, and intelligently.
IN Barack Obama's inspiring acceptance speech at the recent Democratic National Convention, he used a line that I felt also described the state of public debate on contentious issues in our country: "? if you don't have any fresh ideas, then you use stale tactics to scare the voters."
Over the past few weeks we have had an overdose of this display in Malaysia. We are 51 years old and we still do not know how to disagree rationally, civilly, and intelligently.
From the reaction to Tan Sri Khalid Ibrahim's proposal that 10% of Universiti Teknologi Mara's (UiTM) enrolment be made up of non-bumiputra and international students, to the Bar Council forum on conversion to Islam, to the PKR's Malaysian Economic Agenda, those opposed to alternative ideas could only respond in the only way they knew best – scare mongering and demonising.
Why the fear of open discussion on issues of public interest?
Why fly the flag of ethnicity and religion, questioning someone's ethnic and national loyalties and Muslimness every time a person comes up with an idea that you do not agree with or you do not know how to counter with a better idea?
Be it the issue of affirmative action for the Malays, Islamic laws and policies, Chinese and Tamil education, those who anoint themselves as protectors of these sectional interests tactically reduce any attempt to discuss and redress the impact of these policies on citizens' rights and national aspirations as moves that, in the end, will kill the special position of the Malays, the legitimate rights of the minorities and the mother of all accusations, constitute an insult to Islam.
These so-labelled traitors to the cause should therefore be detained under the ISA or charged under the Sedition Act or be declared an apostate.
This is not the way to move forward in our search for solutions to the dire challenges we face today. That among those most obstructive and most belligerent are political leaders themselves turns this into a dangerous game. In the contest for power, it is easy to resort to race and religion to demonise your opponent and totalise the discourse by defining differing viewpoints as evil and dangerous.
As Obama said in his speech, one of the things that we need to change today in our politics is "the idea that people cannot disagree without challenging each other's character and patriotism".
To accuse Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim and Tan Sri Khalid as traitors to the race for pushing for a more inclusive multi-racial agenda, or to accuse Prof Mehrun Siraj as bersubahat (in conspiracy) with the enemies of Islam for defending the right of the Bar Council to organise a forum on the impact of conversion to Islam in a plural legal system, is a strategy used by fascists and extremists to appropriate truth only to their own discourse.
Thus others are demonised, their ideas portrayed as threatening to race, religion and country and therefore all public discussion must be halted.
Actually, it is not that all public discussion must be stopped; it is that those who hold a different viewpoint from the orthodoxy do not have the right to speak out, lest their ideas take hold among the voters who no longer believe in the traditional ideologies of the ruling elite.
Take the issue of affirmative action for the Malays. How can we conduct a public discourse and minimise the polarisation given the divergent ideas, beliefs and fears, founded and unfounded?
First, it would be helpful to generate a rational and intelligent discussion on the New Economic Policy if we stop labelling those who question, challenge, raise the shortcomings and abuses in implementation, the unintended consequences of the policy and those who offer alternatives as pengkhianat bangsa (traitors to the race), merampas hak Melayu (seize Malay rights), menjolok sarang tebuan (stir the hornet's nest) and other such sinister representations.
Second, it would also be helpful if the media stop inflaming public opinion with such ominous language and headlines, without providing any counter viewpoints.
What the media must do is to promote understanding and rational debate with more fact-based understanding and analysis on why there is a demand for a review of the NEP, even among the Malays.
It must research and verify whether the fears and dire consequences articulated are supported by facts or mere gut reaction.
Third, it is necessary to build public understanding that any affirmative action policy is temporary by nature.
Such a policy puts in place temporary measures to redress the unequal and unjust status of a community that has historically been disadvantaged – be it on the basis of race or sex or disability.
Questioning the NEP, its strengths and weaknesses, and its future standing does not tantamount to seizing Malay rights or treachery to the Malay cause or to the repeal of Article 153 of the Federal Constitution. The NEP is but a policy instrument of Article 153.
What is being questioned is whether as a policy instrument it remains the most effective and just means to achieve its twin objectives of eradicating poverty and economic restructuring by eliminating the identification of race with function.
Fourth, the time has come for the Government to channel all this bursting energy and anger into a third National Consultative Economic Council (MAPEN III) to develop a new national development agenda.
Given the contentious debate on the NEP and the way forward for Malaysia to remain competitive in a new global environment, a new consultative process must be established.
MAPEN I and II produced the National Development Policy and the National Vision Policy respectively. In spite of the consensus reached, there are obvious dissatisfactions from all sides with the way these policy instruments have worked or not worked.
MAPEN III must also evaluate the escalating demand for a more equitable policy based on need and whether this would be more just and appropriate in a more challenging and competitive world.
Given the fact that bumiputras form the majority population and the majority of the poor, any new policy instrument will still benefit the bumiputra community the most.
Fifth, any review of the NEP must be an inclusive, collective and transparent process if the outcome is to be credible and accepted by all. It must reflect the views of a cross-section of Malaysian society, rather than just ethnic-based political parties and the business community.
If the Government does not have the will to take the lead on this, then it is the Pakatan Rakyat's alternative Malaysian Economic Agenda that will form the basis of demands for change to deal with the abuses and injustices, perceived and real, of the NEP and the challenges of a globalised world.
How is it today that what Anwar Ibrahim espouses – recognition of the special position of the Malays and the legitimate interests of other communities in the Malaysian Economic Agenda – seems like new reason to the ears of many young Malays and most non-Malays, when this so-called"ethnic bargain" has actually been constitutionally enshrined since 1957 and formed the basis of negotiations within the Barisan Nasional councils to resolve the competing demands of the different ethnic groups?
March 8 and Permatang Pauh have clearly shown that the language of ketuanan Melayu does not work at the national level.
For confident young Malays who can stand on their own two feet, the NEP is no longer the crutch they need to survive and thrive.
For disenchanted Malays who feel, whether rightly or wrongly, that the NEP has been so abused to benefit Umnoputras and the ruling elite only, the sense of fairness inherent in the "bargain" is something they can live with.
Umno's leadership must decide whether it wants to share power fairly and equitably with its partners in the Barisan Nasional like it used to or it wants them to be subservient to ketuanan Melayu.
It behoves the leadership to go back to the country's and the coalition's founding vision as enshrined in the Constitution and re-formulated in the objectives of the Rukunegara:
> to achieve a greater unity of all her peoples;
> to maintain a democratic way of life;
> to create a just society in which the wealth of the nation shall be equitably shared;
> to ensure a liberal approach to her rich and diverse cultural traditions; and
> to build a progressive society which shall be oriented to modern science and technology.
Can we please begin to have an intelligent, rational and civil discussion on the relevance of these objectives and the way forward in today's confused and contentious times?
Set as favourite
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