The following article is submitted to the editorial of MalaysiaGazette by Political Commentor, Na’im Brundage
After 64 years of the nation’s independence, many Malaysians are still grappling with the fact that racial politics still exists and persists in Malaysia’s political scene. Some, especially the ones living in cities where there are more inter-racial interactions between the different races may feel that it is about time to shed the old racial politics of the past and embrace a new form of politics based on values and ideas.
Others, however, argue that there is still some utility to racial politics, and such is why it continues to exist and will continue to be so in the future. To discuss such a contentious issue such as racial politics objectively will require us to first define racial politics and differentiate it from racists politics:
Racial politics is a form of identity politics, it is the phenomenon in which a group of people from a particular race forming an exclusive political alliance.
Racists politics is a form of racial politics that capitalize on prejudice, discrimination, and antagonism of other racial groups for political gains.
It must be noted that racists politics is always bad whilst racial politics can either be good or bad depending on its application. I’m sure many of you are now wondering, under what circumstances can racial politics be good? It can be contended that there are some circumstances in which racial politics is good, the most obvious is when a racial group organizes to form political movements to fight against oppression, discrimination, or any form of challenge that is unique to the particular race.
A good example of this phenomenon is the civil rights movement in the US in the 1950s and 1960s. The decade’s long campaign engages in a form of racial politics by African Americans and like-minded allies to end the discrimination, disenfranchisement, and racial segregation in the country. The movement, albeit can be considered as a form of racial politics, did not engage in a form of racist politics as it did not attempt to sow discrimination and prejudice against other racial groups. The movement was instead focused on empowering the black community from centuries-long oppression.
Now that we have cleared the nuance between positive racial politics and negative ones, let’s explore why racial politics exist. Political organizations are often formed by a group of individuals who shares similar ideas and may use the platform to promote specific ideological or policy goals. As people of a particular racial group often face similar realities (shared language, environment, history, culture, values). That makes it attractive for people to form political parties along racial lines to achieve policy goals that would exclusively benefit the people who share those realities.
It is worth noting that all of the different racial groups in Malaysia may have policy goals that are unique to the particular races. The Malays may exclusively share the policy goals such as achieving inter-racial economic equality. The Chinese may exclusively share the policy goals of defending vernacular schools. Whilst the Indians may exclusively share the policy goals of increasing the urbanization rate of the Indian communities from the estates. All of these policies that are unique to the different racial groups make it attractive for them to form political organizations in an attempt to achieve them. As such, it can be argued that until all of the races in Malaysia can move away from racial-driven policy goals to more inclusive Malaysian policy goals the existence of racial politics will continue to exist.
Racial politics may also take on different forms. Either in the form of race-based political parties, single-race-dominated political parties, and electoral candidates selection based on race. Racial-based political parties are common in Malaysia, the longest-serving ruling coalition in the country was made up of a few racial-based political parties such as UMNO (Malays), MCA (Chinese), and MIC (Indians). There are also parties in the country that claims to be multiracial albeit inclusiveness is rarely portrayed in their membership list, leadership structure, and policy goals. The most prominent of these is the DAP that portrays itself as a multiracial party despite its being dominated by a single race. Presently there are 25 Chinese in the party’s Central Executive Committee out of a total of 31 people (80%) and 32 Chinese parliamentarians out of 42 members of Parliaments (76%). This signifies that the non-Chinese especially the Malays are largely underrepresented in the party. Whether the party can reinvent its image as an actual multiracial party that can mimic the demographic of Malaysia in the future is still a question mark at this juncture.
It is important to note that not only racial-based or racial-dominated political parties engage in racial politics. It can be argued that almost all political parties in the country engage in a form of racial politics when they choose to field candidates based on the racial demographic of the voters within the constituency. Multiracial parties in Malaysia can’t claim that they do not engage in racial politics when they consistently only field Malay candidates in Malay majority seats, Chinese candidates in Chinese majority seats, and Indian candidates in seats with the most Indian voter base.
Another factor that is impossible to ignore when discussing the continued existence of racial politics is the fact that politics are more often than not the reflection of society. In a democratic country like Malaysia, the people are free to choose to support or to withdraw support from any politician or political party. As such, racial political parties can only continue to exist and maintain relevance if the Malaysian people continue to support them during elections. Based on the observation of the electoral result of the past, it seems that this is still the case. It can be safely concluded that racial politics is not going anywhere anytime soon in the country, the most reasonable action to take to get rid of racial politics is to forge a strong national identity that transcends race. However, this is unlikely to happen anytime soon unless each racial groups are willing and ready to let go of a portion of their racial identities to achieve a greater national agenda.