Unmasking the hornets

September 30, 2008 at 1:07 pm Leave a comment

Sim Kwang Yang | Oct 9, 04, Malaysiakini

It would seem to be a clear case of sedition when a political butterfly dressed up in hornet’s armour tried to revive the ghost of May 13 in the recent Umno general assembly, to the thunderous applause of all those present.

Speeches during Umno general assemblies are more likely to be carefully orchestrated representations of their mainstream thinking, rather than the spontaneous cut and thrust of creative ideas. So we – who are excluded from the inner sanctum of Umno faithful – have to assume that their perennial call to arms is an integral part of Umno ideology. After all, May 13 was the cornerstone upon which the grand superstructure of the NEP had been erected for the past 35 years.

It is no use to lodge any police report against this outburst of outright sedition, since the person in charge of the Home Ministry is also Umno president. Pak Lah is obviously made from a different cast from that of the pseudo-hornet, but his tenuous hold on the party means that he has to endure the political baggage inherited from his predecessor, including the strange ideology of mengamok expounded in the Malay Dilemma.

Generally, the subject of May 13 is a social taboo in Malaysia, at least in public discourse. It is the tacit understanding of reasonable citizens that the topic is too sensitive for public discussion, especially among mixed company. Mixed, that is, in racial terms.

But I have a nagging question for decades: can we discuss the May 13 incident in a way that will not promote hatred and incite violence, with the purpose of excavating hidden truths and promoting national reconciliation?

The South Africans under their first ANC government thought so. Once the native Africans came to power after a bloody and protracted struggle, they did not persecute their white minority population as Robert Mugabe did in Zimbabwe. Instead, the first ANC government established the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, confronted their ugly past face to face, and wrestled their infamous national demon to the ground.

Widespread ethnic conflict

Today, the government of South Africa has to deal with many problems that come with the territory, high unemployment, high crime rates in their cities, persistent incidence of poverty and 4.5 million citizens infected with AIDS. One thing they do not have to do is to threaten their former white masters with violence in order to cover up their failure or to legitimate their political struggle.

Unfortunately, what works in South Africa in this respect rarely works elsewhere in the world.

In his monumental work Ethnic Group in Conflict, Donald Horowitz has this to say in the preface to the first edition:

“By one reckoning, ethnic violence since World War II has claimed more than 10 million lives, and in the last two decades ethnic conflict has become especially widespread.


“Ethnicity is at the centre of politics in country after country, a potent source of challenges to the cohesion of states and international tension.”

He should know; he has done meticulous study on some 150 best-known ethnic riots all over the world, with extensive references to the situation in Malaysia.

So, while distinguished scholars all over the world are trying to make sense of this perennial source of human tragedies, our home-grown Umno luminaries are still parroting the by-now ancient polemics of racial exclusion and communal bloodshed. What and how are we going make sense of this exercise of self-bloating gung-ho, towards an understanding of how we are going to think and act reasonably in the immediate years ahead?

Some unpleasant critical questions will have to be raised.

First of all, do we know all there is to know about the May 13 incident? All we have so far, in the private sphere, are a motley collection of rumours, old wives’ tales, rather sketchy press reports from the time, and personal recollection from eye witnesses and participants, whose memory of the events may have been distorted by the passing years. These are necessarily scattered and not always reliable accounts.

For the helicopter view, we have the government version as contained in a White Paper published shortly after the event. This brief document purported to summarise the facts of the case, as lingo jargon would have it. Lacking an independent enquiry, the facts have to be accepted as they are – official facts.

The silent premises

As for why it happened, and who made it happen, the power of interpretation has always been monopolised by Umno, and the Umno-dominated government. The narrative has since been immortalised in the Malay Dilemma, and has become the silent premises upon which Umno dictated our nation-building programmes since.

What I am questioning, is not that something horrible did happen, and that racial tension at the time and the election results of May 10, 1969 had a lot to do with the communal violence then. What I am wondering is how the Umno narrative of the event has assumed the validity of the sole truth, especially with respect to the causes of the violence and their prescription of the cure.

The explanatory account given in the Malay Dilemma is not entirely invalid, but not entirely without glaring over-simplification either.

For a start, the book that cast in stone the direction and nature of the political struggle of Umno in the subsequent decades does not do justice to the Malays. It is an unfair reduction of a very complex phenomenon called ‘Malayness’. Not all Malays are like that, especially in the contemporary world today. The author’s metaphysics is obviously faulty.

(Among enlightened circles, a debate is raging, on whether there is such a real entity as ‘Malayness’, ‘Chineseness’ and ‘Indianness’. There are those who will argue that the idea of ethnicity is a theoretical construct that has meaning only within an inter-subjective totality of myth. But we will leave this contentious issue for another occasion.)

What is clear is that the Malay community is a far different phenomenon from that of 1969. The archaic notion of what made the Malays tick then may not be relevant today.

Nowadays, you could say that there is not one homogenous Malay ethnic community. There is only a plurality of many Malay communities, all seeking their respective path of self-definition, and all vying for the limited public space to articulate their interpretation of their respective life-world.

The political manifestation of this plurality is clear for all to see.

Pak Lah has struggled to redefine a new era for what Umno stands for in terms of his rather vague concept of Islam Hadhari. PAS seems bent still on their religious orthodoxy based on a traditionalist literal interpretation of the Quran. Anwar Ibrahim’s proposal of Masyarakat Madani, on the other hand, signals a middle ground between Umno and PAS, thereby completing this ideological troika of our Malay world in Malaysia.

Release of Anwar Ibrahim

The purpose of any ideology is dominance. The ideology of Malay dominance embraced by Umno in the past half-century was first directed against other, ‘immigrant races’. Political implementation of programmes subsumed by this ideology has driven successive Umno-dominated governments to re-construct our rational bureaucratic state during the period covered by the NEP.

The will to power of the rational bureaucratic state is blind. It is a matter of time when the awesome power of the state will also be turned inwards toward the plurality of Malay communities. Inevitably, Umno – the self-professed champions of the Malay race – will be drawn into using the apparatus of the state against other Malay groups, and the Malays in general.

Thus in recent years, we have seen how the victims of the ISA and other forms of political repressions are no longer those who are labelled as “extreme Chinese chauvinists”. These days, the targets of state repression are more likely to be Malay elements, notably dissidents from Parti Keadilan and PAS, as well as groups classified as “Islamic extremists”.

In short, Malay politics is now undergoing a critical change, and the release of Anwar Ibrahim has added numerous variables to that process of change. This fundamental structural transformation in Malay politics will eventually exert radical impact on the direction and the discourse in Malaysian politics in general.

There will be new faultlines along which inter-communal and intra-communal conflicts will jostle along. The years ahead will be full of uncertainties. The one viable way ahead is to seek peaceful and democratic means for the resolution of our conflicts, and all suggestions of violence, irrespective of where they come from, should be consigned to the dustbin of history.

As Horowitz remarks, by way of a conclusion, “The rise of ethnic conflict has gone hand in hand with the decline of democracy in Asia and Africa. The problems of reducing ethnic conflict are at many points connected to the problem of fostering democracy, so much so that the success in the one will probably mean a measure of success in the other as well.”

It is in the spirit of nurturing a democratic dialogue that the false regime of truth parroted by false hornets must be turned on its head.


Entry filed under: Comment.

May 13 Diary from Magick River Time for a non-race based agenda

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