The deadly white supremacists’ riot in Charlottesville, Virginia, on August 12, 2017, and the much less lethal but no less dangerous fracas at the Nothing-to-Hide 2 Forum in Shah Alam the following day, may have occurred at literally opposite ends of the globe and in a diametrically different cultural milieu, nonetheless the underlying racial and socio-political dynamics share many eerie and frightening similarities.
Factoring time zone differences, the two events took place at about the same time. There were other similarities but before pursuing them it is worth recalling the differences.
While mega terabytes were consumed by tapes of and commentaries on that Charlottesville riot, as befit a tragedy that shook and shocked the comfortable core assumptions of America, the Malaysian fracas was remarkable for the silence of the establishment and mainstream media, reflecting their tacit approval. Only with the vigorous alternate media was this shameful and glaring deficit exposed.
In America, no commentary touched me more than the brief and prescient essay by Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison. Written last November for The New Yorker’s series “Mourning For Whiteness” following President Trump’s marginal electoral victory, she foresaw early the link between that and the future Charlottesville riot.
To me, born and raised in Malaysia but now domiciled in America, Morrison’s “Making America White Again” illuminated as much about my adopted country as of my native land.
“The choices made by white men who are prepared to abandon their humanity out of fear of black men and women,” Morrison wrote, “suggest the true horror of lost status.” The status referred to is white privilege in America.
This “true horror of lost status,” even the hint or threat of, is also what drives Malays to a frenzy of abandoning their humanity out of fear of their fellow non-Malay Malaysians. It prompts young Malays into slipper- and firebomb-throwing riots while their leaders brandish their kerises, threatening to soak them with the blood of non-Malays.
Substitute “white privilege” for “special privileges,” or Ketuanan Melayu in local lingo, and the underlying dynamics are comparable and no less ugly.
Inflammatory words are uttered and crude gestures mimed by UMNO and PERKASA leaders invoking Ketuanan Melayu, not in the heat of emotional electoral debates or idle coffee shop talks but in the lofty air-conditioned halls of party headquarters and modernish ministerial suites at Putrajaya. Those in our public universities too are afflicted by this virulent virus.
“Immigrants to America know (and knew) that if they want to become real, authentic Americans,” observed Morrison, “they must reduce their fealty to their native country and regard it as secondary, subordinate, in order to emphasize their whiteness.”
“… United States holds whiteness as the unifying force,” she continued. “Here, for many people, the definition of ‘Americanness’ is color.”
The “whiteness” equivalence in Malaysia is not skin color (thank Allah, for Malaysians come in various hues!), rather its equally sinister correlate–race. In Malaysia that is also tied to religion, making for an extra toxic and very volatile brew.
In America during slavery, color ranking was obvious; there was little need to be explicit. Non-whites “knew their place,” or ought to! Breach that or in any way be seen as being uppity, and you would pay the terrible consequences.
In today’s post-civil rights America, “white people’s conviction of their natural superiority is being lost. Rapidly lost. There are ‘people of color’ everywhere threatening to erase this long-understood definition of America,” wrote Morrison.
We already had a black President. What more do blacks want, mocked Morrison. Another black President? A predominantly black Senate? Three black Supreme Court Justices? The threat is frightening.
What more do blacks want? That recalls Prime Minister Najib’s earlier chilling threat “what more do the Chinese want?” following his party’s near-death experience with the “Chinese tsunami” of the last general elections.
As in pre-emancipation America, racial identity (and the inevitable ranking) in Malaysia is explicit, enshrined in her constitution and institutions. At least our past leaders rationalized that on the need to ameliorate the socio-economic marginalization of Malays, the country’s largest ethnic entity. Today that provision is being exploited with a vengeance to ape the old colonial “divide and rule” imperative and imperialism.
With norms of human rights and racial equality becoming universal, Malays’ conviction of our natural superiority is being challenged, and fast being lost, echoing Morrison on white privilege.
Everywhere, Malaysia and America included, economic power and political realities on the ground trump established legal provisions and pat historical assumptions. Non-Malays, from the peninsula to East Malaysia, threaten to erase this long understood and accepted definition of Malaysia.
I do not presume to know what non-Malays want. A non-Malay Prime Minister? Appeals Court packed with non-Malay judges? Predominantly non-Malay cabinet ministers? As in America, the threat is both real and frightening.
Witness the raging controversy, public as well as in the rarified chambers of the Bar, to the extension of the due-to-retire Chief Justice Raus Sharif, an ugly manifestation of the fear that the top judicial post could go to a non-Malay, and from East Malaysia to boot.
To limit this possibility of untenable change, and restore Malayness to its status as a marker of national unity and defining character of Malaysia, a number of Malays are sacrificing themselves, like white Americans over their privileges. Malays have begun to do things we clearly don’t really want to be doing, as with abandoning our sense of human dignity and risking the appearance of cowardice, all in the pursuit of making Malaysia Tanah Melayu(Land of the Malays) again.
Much as Malays hate our behavior, and know full well how craven it is, we are willing to let, for example, Malay babies be abandoned rather than be adopted and showered with love by non-Malay families, desecrate the venerated symbols of other faiths, and engage in obscene behaviors in front of homes of non-Malay leaders. As shameful as such demonstrations of weakness are (make no mistake, those are expressions of weakness and desperation, not of courage or wisdom), we continue doing so.
To keep alive this Ketuanan Melayu illusion, Malays tuck our heads under the banner of Malay sultans and legendary heroes like Hang Tuah, while shunning the necessary hard work needed to prepare for modern realities and current challenges. No surprise then that we are over-represented among the socially dysfunctional. To them, Ketuanan Melayu remains a titillating tease at best and a cruel hoax at worse.
What Malays have done, egged on by our leaders, are not acts of courage or deeds of the wise. Quite the contrary. Only the frightened would do that, and the dumb.
Just as America of the Confederacy was very different than today’s Union (for one, it is considerably larger, with most states joining in after the Civil War; for another, more diverse), likewise today’s Malaysia is far different from the old Tanah Melayu. There is minimal Malayness today or in the past in Sabah and Sarawak, or Penang for that matter.
The path to genuine, laudable and enviable Ketuanan Melayu, in contrast to the mirage of Tuan perpetrated by our leaders or the crippled-on-crutches caricature portrayed by those contemptuous of us, may be difficult but is no secret. Get a good education, pursue something productive, and contribute to society. Then we could become Tuan even in lands other than Tanah Melayu and live Hang Tuah’s immortal words, Takkan Melayu Hilang Di Dunia! (Malays shall not be lost in this world!) Anything less and we are doomed to be hamba(slave) even in Tanah Melayu.
To the sons and daughters of my native Malaysia, on this the sixtieth anniversary of Merdeka, do not be led astray by the false prophets and delusional aspirations of Ketuanan Melayu. Unshackle yourselves. Modify the rallying cry of our forefathers from “Merdeka Tanah Melayu” to “Merdeka Minda Melayu!