FROM: TimeOut KL
The insider: Dr Azly Rahman
The writer, academician and columnist for Malaysiakini and Malaysia Today chats with us about the race issue in Malaysia. By Surekha Ragavan
Is there such a thing as an ideal state of unity in Malaysia?
There is no such thing as an ideal state of unity, it’s constantly evolving. Society evolves to the state of ideal when they give and take differences, or when they draw the strength of these differences to bring them together in an evolving and continuous forum of multiculturalism. This must be done through peaceful dialogue and education. The only powerful means to personal and social progress is education.
So education is the answer?
It is vital. We must implement education based on ethics, creativity and a vision that can see the good in human beings no matter who they are. Race is merely a construct; to imagine someone as this race and that race has limitations and dangers.
Are there connections between racism and conservatism?
These are two very different, difficult concepts to define. Racism is an excess of self-identity, you become ethnocentric and, in the extreme, you go to the point of ethnic cleansing. Conservatism can mean that you conserve your cultural identity and you take pride in the ethics of conserving it.
How much does class have to do with the separation of races in Malaysia?
It has always been about class. The artificial divisions of race are used as a political tool to divide and conquer – it was a British colonial strategy. I think Malaysians are beginning to see that it’s not about racial differences but about class. If you look at the protests around the world from Wall Street to the Turkish protest against neo-liberalism, they’re always about class.
Is this realisation about class especially prominent post-GE13?
GE13 was the beginning of the coming together of people who do not wish to look at politics based on race. It’s about transitioning from the old order to a new one. The old regime is now trying to use their ideas to build a new perspective of their own governance, because after 50 years, you have to move on and look at the reality of what it is. And the reality is that it’s a problem of social class.
The PM attributed the party's narrow win to a Chinese tsunami. What are the consequences of him declaring a statement like that?
Sometimes it’s very difficult to lay down a cause and effect, because the PM said it’s a Chinese tsunami, and you have people who want to boycott the Chinese businesses. It’s like a butterfly effect. When something happens, there’s always something that counters it. In this case, it was just a statement of political frustration because of the outcome of the election, I think it’s no more that that. People in the lower social class continue to survive as they are, it’s the political elite that are playing these language games.
In your book, you mention that the debate on the use of the word ‘Allah’ is a childish one.
I call it childish because people do not research enough on this matter. The word ‘Allah’ means ‘The God’ and it’s a very generic term. The name manifests in many different languages, and we are essentially in a spiritual reality that’s very much dependent upon the language we use. If people look at the evolution and history of the word itself, they would say ‘What is this argument?’ Who can argue spiritually? You can’t put a legal title on it. It’s childish, it’s ridiculous. People can move out of this sensitivity with dialogue and research; my suggestion is for them to perhaps start reading Karen Armstrong’s ‘The History of God’.
Taking from the ‘Allah’ example, how sensitive are Malaysians in discussing issues of race and religion?
I think we’re becoming better in terms of dialogue; Malaysia’s becoming more mature because of education. But why don’t they produce movies or such that can give dignity to those who are oppressed or marginalised? So that children can watch these movies and feel proud, like ‘Wow I can see the evolution of my people and it makes me proud’. Rather than making the children feel ‘this is how horrible my race is’. It’s dehumanising.
Are these 'dehumanising' materials challenging the promotion of racial togetherness?
Whoever owns the media can and will produce artefacts that will sway the vision of the future generation. It’s my worry, my concern. There’s a plan to create a TV series based on ‘Interlok’, that was reported as an unsuitable and racist novel for schools.
You talked a bit about the current Malay dilemma.
The dilemma of thinking, meaning that they have to expand themselves out of the Malay -ness. We should look at the Malays as being able to understand other races rather than being about having to fight other races and exert their Malay-ness to the point of enhancing racism, and producing groups that are ultra-Malays at the same time. These groups do not project the true Malay identity. The peaceful Malay ethos is very different from what we see on the media.
How relevant is the Malay fight for economic equality in this day and age?
It was necessary to a certain extent, some people say. But it’s no more a Malay dilemma, it’s a Malaysian dilemma that spans all races. Again, it’s social class that we have to focus on. Malays cannot think like Malays anymore, Chinese cannot think like Chinese anymore, we have to all think like Malaysians.
You also mention that Malaysia is entering a postmodern Malay mind.
We’re moving on to a global, cosmopolitan Malay mind, meaning that Malays should be well-equipped with reason and rationality. We should be able to argue socially, politically and philosophically, and be able to use the knowledge by helping others of different races. To look at people from the point of view of the human race, rather than race. We have to level the playing field and create a wise society regardless of race and religion. We are all more constructive than our DNA.
Dr Azly has published works about the history and future of race relations in Malaysia, and has over 20 years of teaching experience in Malaysia and the US. His latest book, ‘The “Allah” Controversy and Other Essays on Malaysian Hypermodernity’ is available in bookstores at RM35. His latest book, Dark Spring, on Malaysia's 13th. General Elections is forthcoming