From fear to hope
Browsing through a major bookstore in Kuala Lumpur some years ago, I chanced upon a book with a catchy title: World on Fire: How Exporting Free Market Democracy Breeds Ethnic Hatred and Global Instability.
Amy Chua, the author, is a Chinese Filipino currently living in the US. She argues fervently in the book how indigenous populations the world over resent the control of the economy by a ‘market-dominant ethnic minority’. In Southeast Asia, it is the Chinese; in Latin America, the Whites (mostly of Spanish or Portuguese descent); in East Africa, the Indians; and in Russia, the Jews.
I found the book very interesting and readable, for it contains a wealth of information on ethnic conflicts. The book was then almost forgotten, lying somewhere in my study.
And I only plucked it out of oblivion when Ibrahim Ali (right) of Perkasa recently warned that an economy dominated by the ‘minorities’ and ‘taukes’ would lead to political instability and social chaos, precisely the leitmotif in Chua’s book.
To be fair, World on Fire is an excellent overview of how globalisation has exacerbated ethnic disparities in wealth now that the ‘market-dominant minorities’ enjoy disproportionate rewards. But what Chua has failed so miserably to do is to provide a credible alternative to what she sees as an unjust economic system through which a select few enrich themselves at the expense of the majority.
While she did propose affirmative action she fell short of spelling out how abuses could be minimised to ensure that such a policy benefitted the target group. The Yale professor of law also made a mistake that is commonly shared by most journalists – failing to see the wood for the trees.
While it may be true that the Chinese, who make up 3% of the population, control as much as 70% of the Indonesian economy, the majority of Chinese Indonesians are just ordinary breadwinners like everyone else.
This is because not everyone can become a Bob Hassan and a Liem Siow Liong, whose fortunes were made possible by their close links to the ruling elite in the past. Just like in Malaysia, the enormous wealth generated by YTL, Vincent Tan, Tiong Hew Kiing and Robert Kuok is not shared by the average Chinese.
Fear of instability
But Ibrahim’s cunning employment of populist – if fear-mongering – language may be effective in terms of driving the wedge between the Malays and the rest. He confronted the public with the amassment of wealth by the non-Malay tycoons, yet consciously avoided names like Syed Mokhtar, Mohd Nizam Razak, Mohd Nazir Razak and Mukhriz Mahathir.
The Malaysian economy is indeed monopolised by a tiny group of elite, but these ‘market- dominant minorities’ are increasingly multiracial in nature, while the population at large is made to bear the brunt of rising costs but worsening standards of living. This is a crude reality that Perkasa and other ultra-Malay NGOs refuse to face up to. Perhaps they would rather see a few Malay billionaires ‘walk tall’ among others even if much of the Malay populace becomes worse off.
In resorting to the decades-old language of ‘us vs them’, Ibrahim reinforces the fear factor in our society. What begins as an economic threat, ie, the relatively advantaged position of the Chinese, would then develop into a mental fear under much racist agitation, which could eventually give rise to actual physical harm, or racial commotion along the lines of May 13.
Therefore, political fear is not just a matter of perception but also a mental and psychological reality. The Malays live in fear of being ‘swamped’ by the non-Malays (especially the Chinese), while the non-Malays react with a siege mentality, under a constant fear of instability and even bloody conflict. All these negative thoughts then tear us apart, making it virtually impossible to reach out to one another for rational debate or discussion.
The wanton use of draconian laws by Umno has also successfully intimidated the public into submission. Because of this profound fear of the unknown, Malaysians generally choose to run away instead of fight back. It is a tactic exploited to the full by not only the ruling class, but by many others also, including members of the opposition front at times.
Malaysians are never taught to think for ourselves. During our formative years, we are not encouraged to question the underlying assumption of things: why must the country be confined to three races? Why did the teacher never tell us that the ethnic composition of Sabah and Sarawak is much more colourful and harmonious than the Peninsula? Why are we told to be grateful to the government despite the rising crime rate?
Finding the courage
So, we end up having ‘well-educated Malaysians’ who are nothing more than a group of people with a good memory capacity but not the ability to think out of the box. It is therefore not paradoxical to witness top students rallying behind the Internal Security Act and the Universities and Universities Colleges Act!
But things are slowly changing since March 8 general elections two years ago. We may still be afraid of ‘threats’ that could destroy our livelihood and way of life and property but more and more are now finding the courage to speak out and make a stand. The reason is simple: it is either we fight a good fight (in a civilised manner, of course) and confront the bigots of all kinds, or hang on to the elusive peace and stability of the present but risk ruining the nation’s promising future.
One may disagree with Ibrahim’s words but should welcome his willingness to at least engage a liberal news channels where he has been able to vent his frustrations and angers. I suppose it is a healthy therapy for a man full of helpless whimpers.
Coming back to Chua’s book, it is still informative and thought-provoking to some extent, but falls short of suggesting alternatives. As far as Malaysia is concerned, having a handful of Chinese tycoons working closely with the ruling coalition does not solve the dilemma of the Chinese community; neither does it benefit the country as a whole.
Similarly, those who are genuinely concerned about the future of the Malay people should sit down and ponder as to whether the current system that permits a select group of Malays to dominate the economy would truly be sustainable in the long run.
How about the social-democratic model of Scandinavia, where we may not necessarily see one or two tycoons walk tall but where the people continue to enjoy one of the world’s highest incomes plus a comprehensive safety net?
JOSH HONG studied politics at London Metropolitan University and the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. A keen watcher of domestic and international politics, he longs for a day when Malaysians will learn and master the art of self-mockery, and enjoy life to the full in spite of politicians.
Entry filed under: Uncategorized.