Saturday, February 12, 2011

Why ex-USA envoy Malott has got it all so wrong about Malaysia

I FIND it mindboggling that the former United States ambassador to Malaysia, John R. Malott, could be so wrong in his assessment of the current state of racial relations in this country ("The Price of Malaysia's Racism" -- Asian Wall Street Journal, Feb 8). It was written sadly at a time when the US and Malaysia are enjoying their best ever relationship thanks to President Barack Obama and Datuk Seri Najib Razak. I can understand the ouster of then deputy prime minister Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim would still haunt Malott to this day. He has, of course, every right to make his own judgment of what happened back then. For the record, it took place 13 years and two prime ministers ago, historically speaking that is.

I am sure we have all moved on even if he has not. Too many things have changed since then. One positive thing Malott should understand is that freedom of speech and expression has reached new heights as a result of that incident. Malaysians are becoming more open, more vocal and more assertive. The Internet has changed the way people perceive the government, the media and themselves.

Malott should be proud of that fact if he is at all a supporter of all things free and open. The alternative spaces are widening, bloggers are having a field day and people's journalism is making inroads. We have seen the repercussions of that "open policy" -- Barisan Nasional was punished, rightly or wrongly, at the last general election. BN accepted the fact. But BN stands by its motto that this country is better ruled by a coalition of race-based parties than those based on chauvinistic dogmas and fundamentalist leanings.

It is so easy, if Malott had paid some attention while he was here, to play to the gallery. Just play the racial card. Portray oneself as the champion of a particular race. The temptation is irresistible. But BN and the parties in the coalition choose not to, the bigger agenda supersedes short term gain.

In a country like Malaysia, it is easy to create racial tension -- a cow's head, slices of pork, destruction of temples and mosques -- all hell can break loose. Just like that. But that is not the Malaysian way. We have survived despite our problems these many years. After all, we are not perfect. Just last week, I wrote about the imperfections that I noticed in race relations in this country over the years. In "a bubbling, bustling melting pot of races and religions", it is impossible to be perfect. We are just too diverse, too different. But that does not mean we cannot live alongside each other. We have a reasonably good record in race relations management compared with many other countries. But why should we compare ourselves with others? The US, too, has its racial problems the last time I checked.

Perhaps Malott spends too much time listening to a hotchpotch of diplomatic gossip and irresponsible murmurs, so much so that he finds it difficult to differentiate fact from fiction, truth from hearsay. He was here when Malaysia registered the best ever economic growth. He didn't sound a warning bell about economic discrimination back then. He saw what happened to the region in 1997. He can't blame it on bad governance here when South Korea, Thailand, Indonesia and Singapore were badly if not worse hit. But we did not see turmoil as experienced by some of our neighbours.

The fabric of our society was intact even during the economic meltdown. We have addressed the racial imbalance economically, thank God, after 1969, though the policy was said to discriminate. The Chinese tauke, the Malay tokoh korporat and the Indian businessman were all hit.

The New Economic Policy (NEP), despite being savagely condemned, had achieved some of its desired results. At least it addressed the very issue that has bedevilled all multi-racial societies -- the danger, as Amy Chua rightly pointed out in her book World on Fire, of "market-dominant minorities". The NEP was not carved out from the Robin Hood principle of stealing from others to give to the Malays. The others are prospering, in fact more so after the implementation of the NEP that some segments of Malay society felt they would forever be left behind. The policy favouring the Malays has helped the rise of a new middle class among them, many of whom, for the record, are not enthusiastic supporters of the government. BN has to live with that.

Why invoke Perkasa's position when even the Malays themselves are nervous about it? There are tendencies of raucous chauvinism in the vernacular press -- the trend, while unhealthy, is certainly in line with Malott's notion of an open society. The media -- mainstream or otherwise -- is pushing the envelope and cyberspace has become a lawless domain. The government is not in the business of closing newspapers, suing bloggers or even censoring the Internet. But openness and freedom must come with responsibility. You don't need to go to journalism school to know there is such a thing as the S-word here. There are sensitivities we have to observe or else we will end up with anarchy.

While I agree that many of our people are working outside the country, I find it hard to believe that just because millions of Britons, French, Germans and others work in the US, these nationals are abandoning their country or unhappy with certain policies. We are dealing with a global economy and this is a global phenomenon. People have been crossing borders for better lives since time immemorial.

While it is true many of those working abroad "are skilled ethnic Chinese and Indian Malaysians", let's not forget that the Malays are also complaining that their children are not coming back after their graduation overseas. The brain drain involves Malay young men and women, too. It is not that they love Malaysia less, it is the lure of better pay and opportunities. To cite that "500,000 Malaysians left the country between 2007 and 2009" is an exaggeration at best, irresponsible at worst.

It is easy for Malott to bring up one or two incidents involving ministers or aides to portray the government as not sensitive to other religions. To say that racial instability is one reason for foreign investors to shy away from Malaysia negates the fact that Malaysia remains competitive among many emerging markets. We are not expecting Malott to understand the economic reforms made by the prime minister or his 1Malaysia campaign to unite the people.

Sadly, this old Malaysia hand, if he wants to label himself so, is just too far away and too far off the mark to understand the changing dynamics of this country.

Read more: Why ex-envoy Malott has got it all so wrong

Read more: Why ex-envoy Malott has got it all so wrong
By Johann Jaffar, New Straits Times Kuala Lumpur

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