Is Madani govt playing fiddle while the nation burns?

Malaysia’s rising temperature, grappling with racial and religious polemics, is, unfortunately, not new. KK Mart’s fiasco has garnered disproportionate, extra-judicial vigilantism, racism- and hate speech-filled postings on social media, driven most likely by the repeated inflammatory instigations by those whose political mileage and political capital are dependent on racial and religious rhetoric. Religion and race are two ideological components that have prompted many individuals to act indecisively and violently in the name of upholding the dignities that they encapsulate. While I concur with Gus Dur’s remarks that God needs no defending, the primordial aficionados assume the role of protecting the protector. Rather puzzling. Would the omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent Almighty be at the mercy of mere mortals?

Every time politicians, political parties and key opinion leaders aggravate ethnoreligious sentiments, the people should pause and raise these pertinent questions before engaging in violent, extra-judicial vigilantism. Would you want to risk punitive repercussions for a mere adrenaline rush and spur-of-the-moment satiation?

During this intense period, which has disrupted the relatively peaceful atmosphere that Malaysia has maintained for many years, the ruling government has shown a limited response, at least to our naked eyes. They have mainly relied on occasional and ineffective press conferences to address the situation. It remains uncertain what the MADANI government has to offer to combat and eventually abate the flaring tensions. Let’s remember that the two consecutive attacks on different KK Mart outlets took place despite Bukit Aman’s warning to “stand down”. Do the stars have to align before a serious move is taken? The National Unity Minister, on the other hand, had gone invisible after pointing fingers at the Home Ministry.

The general public expects the authorities to act swiftly in this testing time. While it is reasonable to avoid generalising the actions of a few individuals to a community as a whole, the ruling regime must spearhead faith-bridging actions and act sternly against instigators and perpetrators. This would allow the public to be forthcoming in expressing human solidarity. An important point to ponder is whether there was a force that combatted and regulated right-wing ideologies in the past that we could learn from and move forward as a national community.

Moving away from the past

Past occurrences serve as indicators of the red flags that have been hovering above our heads. One who fails to learn and evolve with a pinch of salt is doomed to repeat history, either as a tragedy or a farce. Malaysia routinely confronts a perilous legacy, as exemplified in Pusat Komas’s Malaysia’s Racism Report (2024):

“Over the past nine years, incidents related to racial and/or religious politics continue to dominate the scene in Malaysia. Additionally, racism, racial discrimination and xenophobia in other sectors continue to persist. Despite the lower total number of incidents reported as compared to 2022, there has been an increase in the total number of reported cases in other sectors – provocation, education, xenophobia and other areas.”

The report is not at all surprising given the nation’s strong ethnoreligious sentiments, which persistently interfere in political issues, governance and and administrative procedures. In other words, the separation between religion and politics has blurred since colonial days. The colonial empire’s Machiavellian strategy of divide and rule became a textbook reference for post-colonial ethnoreligious political parties whose political capital relied heavily on the colonial empire’s model of distancing and confusing the masses by exaggerating differences along ethnic and religious lines. Superficially, consolation in the form of nation-building sloganeering campaigns, ranging from Bangsa Malaysia to MADANI-sation, has been present for the past six decades. It is ironic that ruling regimes based on race have boasted of secularism and national unity in their slogans but have been conspicuously devoid of these ideals in practice.  

Class-based left movements

Historically, pro-democracy left-wing movements have functioned effectively as a formidable antithesis to the ethnoreligious mainstream politics of the country. However, under the leadership of UMNO/BN, with the support and encouragement of the colonial empire, various left-leaning political parties were subject to systematic harassment, persecution, and even erasure from Malaysian mainstream politics because of their ideological underpinning.

Political parties such as Parti Buruh Malaya and Partai Rakyat Malaya (which formed the Socialist Front coalition); Malay-based parties such as Angkatan Pemuda Insaf (API), Angkatan Wanita Sedar (AWAS), Parti Kebangsaan Melayu Malaya (PKMM) and Hizbul Muslimin, together with non-Malay parties like the Malayan Democratic Union (MDU) formed an inter-ethnic alliance called PUTERA-AMCJA. Their appeal to the impoverished rural and urban populations was evident in their local government election victories and massive membership. Post 1969, local government elections were suspended for reasons of maintaining inter-ethnic harmony, which has been contested and dismissed numerous times.  The same people who once championed it have remained silent on the issue of restoring local government elections. 

The state’s coercive and ideological institutions were mobilised to suppress and intimidate both the leaders and supporters affiliated with the left-leaning political groups. The aim was to instil fear in the general population and co-opt them into subscribing to the dominant ideology of the day—ethnoreligious politics—and adhering to the ruling regime’s political power. In summary, the public was coaxed into perceiving leftist ideology negatively, and opposing the left was rehashed as an indication of patriotism.

One could not fail to prophesise whether the Malaysian political environment and political language would have been extremely different from what they are today. The extremes of ethnoreligious politics would have been confronted by class politics that emphasise working-class solidarity. Could this be the future of Malaysia if the collective wishes to make a difference? At the moment, major political coalitions that exhibit superficial dissimilarities but share identical DNA will continue to dictate the nation’s course. 

What needs to be done?

Since we have not yet entered a phase of interregnum characterised by the demise of the old political system and the emergence of a new one, the struggle remains a long and exhaustive path.

Today, we advocate for rigorous measures to create a peaceful and harmonious Malaysia. Nonetheless, this should not serve as a justification for the ruling regime to maintain antiquated and discriminatory legislation, such as the Sedition Act of 1948, which seeks to abuse democratic rights under the pretext of maintaining peace.

Alternatively, it is opportune (and urgent) to introduce laws that establish a mechanism for victims of racial and religious discrimination to voice their discontent, complaints, and concerns in order to safeguard Malaysians from such hostility. For instance, the G25 group suggests the implementation of the ‘Racial and Religious Harmony Act’, which criminalises the act of provoking racial or religious animosity. In the same vein, the Malaysian Bar proposes three distinct yet complementary legislations: the ‘Racial and Religious Hate Crimes Bill’, the ‘National Harmony and Reconciliation Bill’, and the ‘National Harmony and Reconciliation Commission Bill’. These laws aim to facilitate, alleviate, and enforce measures that are reasonable and address racial discord.

Despite the fact that legal channels and statutes are crucial, they typically function as redress in post-action or incident situations. Ethno-religious animosity is entrenched in the Malaysian psyche and is exacerbated by certain factions that command widespread public support.  In light of this, the nation necessitates a fresh form of leadership that fosters a public and private sphere through which interethnic and interreligious similarities and distinctions are expressed via dialogue in the path of understanding one another.

Such measures are crucial for a developing multicultural and multiethnic society.  These are critical strategies for confronting and resolving detrimental conservative ideologies. We must learn to coexist without prejudice against one another, remain steadfast in our humanity, and uphold the virtues that define humanity as a species.

Ilaiya Barathi Panneerselvam