It is time, as CIMB Group chairman Datuk Seri Nazir Razak said recently, to outlaw and criminalise hate speeches and racism. The first step towards banning racism is to recognise its existence and this must come from the political leadership, which we saw in the United States when President Barack Obama told the nation in a televised address that it was difficult for America to hold its head high as a world leader in democracy and to lecture other nations on human rights when there were frequent incidents of hate shootings by whites against blacks and when there is racial discrimination in workplaces or university campuses.
He had used the derogatory word “nigger” to refer to blacks (a word no longer polite to use because of its insulting meaning), saying they were regarded as inferior people because they were descendants of slaves.
His strong words pricked the conscience of the nation and led to the momentous decision by the South Carolina state legislature, following the hate shooting by a young white male who killed nine black worshippers in a church, to pull down the Confederate flag from the grounds of the State Capitol.
A rally against school integration in the US in 1959.
The flag had flown in public for over a century to commemorate the state’s leading role in the civil war, which the Confederate south fought against the north to demand the right of whites to use slaves.
When the flag was pulled down in a ceremony a few days ago, the event was viewed as a historic break from the past, a symbolic admission of guilt over the unfair treatment of the black population. It also gave closure to the families whose loved ones died for no other reason than being black.
In Malaysia, we have to emulate the US to ban words used as racial slurs. For example, the word pendatang is as insulting to Chinese and Indians as the word “nigger” is to African-Americans.
Then we have Biro Tata Negara (BTN), which has been criticised because its training programme, ostensibly aimed at instilling love and loyalty in people for the nation, is tainted with racial bigotry to remind civil service trainees and government scholarship holders that this country owes its progress and existence to Malays.
BTN is like the Confederate flag mentioned above, a reminder of racial supremacy of the majority over the minority. Further, we have textbooks on history and civics whose contents sound racial to the discerning ear. I am sure others will have better ideas on what other symbols we should pull down to eliminate racial as well as religious supremacy.
Let us not hide the fact that racism exists in our schools and universities, in the civil service and other institutions of government, with overzealous bureaucrats and little Napoleons imposing their social and religious values on Malaysians.
Often the excuse given for their racist actions is that based on their interpretation of the constitution, “social contract”, New Economic Policy, and special position of Malays and Islam, what they are doing is right. It’s just too bad that non-Malays have shunned national schools, government service, police or the military because they cannot accept the system.
This ambivalent attitude towards the segregation of races cannot go on if we want the races to study, work and live together. We should look at the US Bill of Rights to study how they did it to end segregation and unite whites and blacks in schools and in workplaces.
Today, although racism exists in America, it’s no longer institutionalised. An employer in America and Britain can get sued if he discriminates against an employee on grounds of race, colour or religion.
Nowadays, you see many black faces at the White House and many Asians at the British Parliament. That shows how far the Americans and the British have come in their struggle to improve race relations.
The lesson for us in Malaysia is that although it’s human nature for one race to find fault with other races and there is nothing the government can do about personal prejudices, but what the government can do at an official level is to not condone racism in the law and in the system of justice as well as in the functioning of the government.
In fact, it is incumbent upon the government to condemn hate speeches, racial and religious bigotry among school heads and teachers and discriminatory practices in the civil service to demonstrate that such behaviour will not be tolerated under the law.
Racism is bad but institutionalised racism is scary in a multiracial country like Malaysia. Investors and businesses and our managers and professionals will lose hope for the future and abandon this country, putting us back to where we were at the time of independence.
If Malaysia becomes a failed state, those who suffer most are Malays. If Plaza Low Yat is closed for ever, tourism will be affected by the bad publicity across the world and many Malays will lose their jobs. In this regard, the public is most grateful to the inspector-general of police for his firm action in arresting the culprits responsible for the Low Yat violence, without fear or favour.
The police action has restored confidence in the area for business to resume. This is a change that we hope will lead to other improvements in dealing with those who issue hate speeches to incite racial clashes.
Our leaders must start with educating the civil service, government ministries and religious authorities that they have to accept change as a part of national development.
Those who walk the corridors of power have to discard racial and religious ideologies and, instead, think of the larger interest of the nation.
As the experience of Greece is showing us, it’s better that we make the change ourselves before it is forced on us by external forces. My heart would bleed if a prime minister of this country were to face the same situation as the Greek prime minister, who had to plead with Parliament to pass the law to accept the austerity measures imposed on Greece by foreign creditors and their demand for immediate reforms.
We in Malaysia should undertake economic, education and religious reforms while the going is good. We must not let race and religion be the cause of our Greek tragedy.