Fanning the flames of racial politics

Dec 04, 2016 01.00PM |

by Bertha Henson

IT’S tough being sandwiched between two giants. There’s Malaysia to the north and Indonesia to the south and the talk in both nations is all about race and religion.

So Malaysian premier Najib Razak has raised the bogey of a “Chinese” country should the opposition Democratic Action Party come into power. He told his UMNO party faithful that agencies that deal with bumiputera rights and so forth would be folded if so.

If that’s not calculated to inflame, what else is? Of course, he doesn’t say that it’s really quite difficult to make G agencies disappear in a flash. There are laws and Parliament to contend with, unless he thinks that his Barisan Nasional will lose so many seats in the next election that it will no longer have any teeth.

At the same time, he’s supportive of a Private Member’s Bill by Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS) to introduce Syariah law.

“Non-Muslims must understand that this is not about hudud but about empowering the Syariah courts,” he told Malaysian media recently.

The Bill will allow Syariah courts to impose maximum penalties of 30 years’ jail, RM100,000 (S$32,000) fine or 100 strokes of the cane for offences under Islamic law. The fear that this is a backdoor to introduce the law wholesale for the rest of the country.

To soothe non-Muslim fears, he said in a speech that the Bill will be studied to ensure “no elements of dual punishment”. You wonder how dual punishment can even occur given that the laws are separate for Muslims and non-Muslims.

Then you have the demonstrations in Indonesia.

Half a million people (depending on whether you believe the Jakarta Post) turned up on Friday at Medan Grand Mosque to rail against the Chinese-Christian governor Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama. Much is being made about how the protest was incident-free with President Joko Widodo even turning up to join in the Friday prayers.

Ahok is facing blasphemy charges because he purportedly said in a video clip that people should not be misled by his opponents who cited a verse in the Quran to urge Muslims not to vote for a non-Muslim like himself. The protesters aren’t happy with just charges being levelled against him; they want him arrested. It’s not clear if this would rule him out of the gubernatorial elections in February.

Ahok, who spoke to media on Friday, said: “I ask you to pray for me so that the legal process is fair and transparent, and I hope I can get past this trouble as soon as possible.” In the Jakarta Post report was this line: Ahok’s statement struck a religious tone when he said he had surrendered to God and that he believed the fate of humans had been predetermined by the Almighty.

Oh dear!

Looking at the politics in the two countries, what are the chances that this would happen here? The G has always taken a strong position over chauvinism and religious overtones when it comes to appealing to the popular vote.

Some would say that it was far too hasty and heavy-handed in hounding the likes of Mr Tang Liang Hong, who was accused of appealing to Chinese chauvinist sentiments in 1997 GE or admonishing Jufrie Mahmood for references to Allah in the 1991 GE.

Singapore has a whole matrix of laws, such as the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act, to hold the peace among the races and religions. Any fire will be doused as soon as it starts.

But there’s one aspect which the G would do well to guard against: the coming Presidential Election (PE) which is reserved for the Malay community.

After years of being more or less colour-blind about who will be president, race will necessarily be a factor next year when the PE rolls around. The G must be absolutely sure that the majority Chinese community is fully accepting of the need to have a Malay president.

All it takes is a canny politician to fan the flames in the name of equal representation; masking the real issue of race. Some groundwork must be laid so that people are more sensitised to this change. It is not enough to say that the issue has been debated in and out of Parliament. People don’t really care about political issues until it comes to the point when they have to do something. In this case, when they vote.

Let’s hope the changes to the elected presidency will be a bulwark to safeguard multiracialism, rather than a spark to fire up tensions.


Featured image Oi Oi Oi! by Flickr user Vito Adriono. (CC BY 2.0)

If you like this article, Like The Middle Ground‘s Facebook Page as well!

For breaking news, you can talk to us via email.