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Taking a stand against institutionalized racism

CPI Writings

ins-forumThe Hindraf-Civil Rights Committee KLSCAH forum on ‘Institutionalized racism in Malaysia’ on 17 January 2012 brought into sharper focus the ways in which a system of inequality based on race has taken shape and come to dominate practically every sphere of life in the country.

Three speakers N. Ganesan, Dr Kua Kia Soong and Dr Azmi Sharom spoke to a packed auditorium of about 150 people at the Kuala Lumpur Selangor Chinese Assembly Hall in the two-hour session moderated by Centre for Policy Initiatives director Dr Lim Teck Ghee.

Dr Lim in his opening remarks stated that the system of institutionalized racism in Malaysia is not far off from the system found in some of the worst countries in this regard.

He pointed out that racism is built into public institutions as wide ranging as the civil service, GLCs, schools and universities, the Biro Tata Negara (BTN) as well as in policies related to education, trade and business, etc.

He called for a critical understanding of what is happening as the institutional racism besetting us - although subtle - is nonetheless pervasive and increasingly aggressive. He admitted that helping the public comprehend the true form of this institutional racism is not an easy task given the resources available to the supporters and beneficiaries of the current system, and their determination to muzzle any attempts at opening up public discussion on the subject.  He also attributed the longevity of the system to the acquiescence or passivity of victims and said that the system would continue unless there is a change in mind set of both perpetrators and victims.

Ganesan who is the Hindraf national advisor explained the movement’s position on combating institutional racism and its ongoing efforts to win national and international support for its campaign aimed at changing the social consciousness and values of Malaysians so that racism will be rejected.

He argued that the economic underpinnings of the system were a major element explaining why the system was so resilient and pointed to the National Feedlot Corporation (NFC) scandal as typifying the gravy train of the political elites that had used the system of institutionalized racism to enrich themselves.

As details of the NFC cow scheme slowly unravel, we are given glimpses of the impunity and arrogance with which the Barisan Nasional elites, particularly those from Umno, help themselves at the ‘feedlot’.

forum2On top of NFC’s irregular purchases of high-end condominiums and luxury car, and the over-the-top credit card expenditure as company expenses and the platinum salaries collected by the corporation CEO/executive director/director (all Umno minister Shahrizat Abdul Jalil’s children aged between 25 and 31), there have so far been no payback on the RM250 million soft loan granted on very generous terms.

Ganesan also noted that NFC’s 5,000 acres in Gemas, Negri Sembilan was in addition to a RM13 million grant received.

He compared this example of the government largesse obtained by                                          NFC with the plight of dilapidated, fund-starved Tamil schools. Such a large tract of land was alienated to NFC by a mere flick of the bureaucratic pen whereas many Tamil schools still do not sit on their own land and in one case – in Ladang Batu Kawan, Penang – a Tamil primary school is using metal cabins for classrooms.

Gross effronteries to the public purse like NFC have come about due to the elite patronage system built on party and race entitlement.

Ganesan also highlighted how the civil service is overwhelmingly Malay – almost all the secretary-generals of the ministries and the director-generals of the professional departments are Malay. The domination of academia at tertiary level by Malays (all the Vice Chancellors of the public universities are Malay) has constrained the role of the intelligentsia as conscientious public intellectuals.

Dr Kua, director of the human rights group Suaram, referred to an interesting fact about Article 153 (on the Malay ‘special position’) which might not have been known before to a majority of the public.

Clause 8A of the Article providing for the Malay quotas was amended in 1971 when the country was under Emergency rule.

The orchestrated coup d’etat of May 13 not only allowed for the authoritarian rule by a select National Operations Council instead of Parliament (at the same time that democratically elected Parliamentarians like Lim Kit Siang were held under ISA) but the post-1969 NOC squarely placed Malay centrism as the populist ideology.

This in turn paved the way for the covert and overt policies of discrimination against the minority races to be instituted, and enabled the Umno capitalist class masterminded by Tun Abdul Razak Hussein to spread its tentacles over almost all the state enterprises and national assets.

Since the ethnic massacre of 1969, the fascism of the far right has been manifested in several significant markers – the 1987 Umno rally in the Malay redoubt of Kg Baru, the 1999 Umno Youth demonstration against the Chinese civil liberties group Suqiu, and the 2001 Kampung Medan killings of marginalized Indians.

The dire consequences of institutionalized racism are evidenced in the treatment meted out to poor and disenfranchised Indians by state authorities. Dr Kua cited data on death by police shootings over the last decade (2000-2009) collated by Suaram to illustrate this disgrace.

Even though Indians form less than 8 percent of the population, they made up a disproportionate proportion of the killings. The obvious disparity in the figures according to ethnic breakdown is replicated in other trends such as custodial deaths, and torture and abuse of ‘suspects’ in police lock-ups.

Dr Azmi, who is with the Universiti Malaya law faculty and a Star columnist, said that a multi-prong approach, i.e. not just banking on “regime change” alone but empowering civil society and public institutions such as the judiciary, is required to reverse Malaysia’s institutionalized racism.

He stressed that a more pragmatic approach to resolving the current bane of self-centred communalism is to adopt the bigger picture and show how the loaded system adversely affects all races, Malays included.

Elaborating on the limitations and the lack of constitutionality in some of the quota processes that we are subjected to in all spheres of Malaysian life, Azmi suggested that judicial activism and taking test cases to court may serve to bring about a change to current practices and the public mindset.

The forum ended with speakers from the floor discussing a variety of strategies to tackle the institutional racism.

This included focusing on the big bang strategy such as rescinding Article 153 and capturing low hanging fruit through case-by-case efforts aimed at combating institutional racism wherever it appears, whether it be in the school history syllabus or the BTN and in the police force.

Panel speakers as well as commentators from the audience agreed that the time is right to question and reform the structures and processes that entrench institutional racism in Malaysia.

They also concurred that political parties courting our votes in the imminent polls should declare their stand on the eradication of institutional racism in their election manifestos as well as specify the measures and actions they would undertake to cure this malignant cancer.

 

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