Archive for December 16th, 2009

What’s to happen to the Chinese after Ketuanan?

Malaysia without the Chinese: is it Malaysia?

Keluar? Sure. Many Chinese now know where to, how and, after Zhao Mingfu, dead or alive makes for little difference…

The Road Home 我们回来了

History left behind the Chinese in Malaysia, their lot thrown in with the Malays (and Indians and the mountain people), so it might be pertinent to go back to history to find a resolution to their present predicament. The other option,  the coming or the going, is never entirely up to the Chinese because they have to undo the process of history. So, when they tell the Chinese to “leave”, the Chinese hear neither arrogance nor intimidation; they hear stupidity. Leaving has always been an option and a viable one, which the Chinese know all along without the need of the Ibrahim of Sabris and Ibrahim of Alis to remind them. They will continue to take steps in that direction (recall the letter from the Malaysian Diaspora Seven?).

Moving a life, however, is not like moving furniture; it takes time, effort and determination. Once the Chinese are out (along with the Indians and the clever, decent Malays), and so leave Malaysia alone to the Ibrahims, they shall from the other shore watch them go down. They have seen it before: when some people or an entire community live on handouts, they eventually wither and pack up with it. The long, long history of the Chinese that a kid might learn in school is one of endurance, stamina, collective effort and mutual help for (surprise?) the individual survival; an essence of Chinese culture is to teach oneself  how to live, how to get a meal to the family, against the odds. It was that way during the reign of King of Zhou, during the time of Kongzi, and it is still that way in Malaysia. Elsewhere, you’ve only to visit the conditions in the Manila slums, in Palembang and in parts of Java to see the extent of their national corrosion in life and in soul, both of which were long ago subsumed and replaced by the Christianity of Spain, the legal institutions of the Americans, the laws of the British, the administrative apparatus of the Dutch and the Islam of the Arabs, yet now adrift without the guide of the north star. Malaysian apartheid may work with different conditions, that is, by a different route, but it delivers the same results.

“The fault, dear Brutus,” Shakespeare once wrote, “is not in the stars that we are underlings.” There, Shakespeare was wrong: people are underlings not because of tian, of course, but it was not in themselves either. This brings to the point Helen Ang has inadvertently raised – the future of the Chinese in Malaysia. Although the matter in her discussion concerns only the Chinese, its outcome (whatever that may be) would affect up to half the country’s population once the status of the Chinese is extrapolated to count in the Indians and the Sarawak and Sabah people.

The Helen Question is straightforward. To repeat, it is: What will be the Chinese like in 30, 50 years on? That question is deliberately rhetorical in order to encompass numerous facets of the Chinese existence to include his constitutional and political positions, economic well-being, and cultural life (language, education, family, traditions, and habits of custom).

One critical assumption underlies that question: the Chinese, without consideration for his existing circumstances, decides his own fate, almost as if arbitrarily and for no good reason. This is of course false and unrealistic. It is false for a number of reasons, but consider two.

The façade of democracy (choosing a government) and the apparent freedom to come and go (given a passport) offer the illusion that the future is in the hands of individuals. But, in numerous constituencies, as many as ten Chinese votes are equal to one Malay vote. Then there is that gerrymandering with electoral boundaries. This is coupled with land, housing, and town-planning policies designed to shift populations on ethnic basis.  Freedom of movement may permit you to leave your home, but not where you end up. Housing policies and employment and education opportunities (which university you go, from whom you may get a job) serve only to curtail movement. A Chinese is more likely than a Malay to grow up in a new village, and less likely to prefer Putrajaya because most of the jobs there are closed to that person. Place names are physical boundary markers. Owning a passport may permit the noodle vendor in Penang a trip to Hatyai for a weekend break and cheap shopping, but that’s as far as it goes. Perhaps the children will have better luck, for example, if they get a university place in Australia but not many qualify and, if they qualify, the tuition is unaffordable. Simply, the obstacles are too many to count – therefore, unrealistic. It is also unrealistic because race politics is already written into the Constitution, so that no amount of sloganeering and breast beating can change that.

If, given those circumstances, the Chinese cannot alone or individually determine their own fate then that question – what will it be like – becomes entirely inconsequential or irrelevant; his fate is already sealed. Somebody, or something, else has decided the future of the Chinese laobaixing, the old man still riding a cart in Batu Gajah and selling tofu deep into the night. He once worked the mine until one man named Mahathir Mohamad played the tin market in London, and lost badly. Nothing has been the same for him since.

Against this pessimism is a countervailing question: If not he himself and if not the stars, who or what then determines his fate? The Helen Question rephrased in this way is therefore answered by answering on the flip side: What will be Umno, the Malays, like in 30, 50 years? This question, oddly enough, is not hard to answer.

Ketuanan Melayu

Coming from Ibrahim Sabri, et al, the Umno hired hands backed by the home affairs minister Hishammuddin Hussein, this doctrine has to be taken not at face value (that is, sloganeering) but as an unstated government and party policy. The doctrinal sources in ketuanan are Islam and the Federal Constitution. Ibrahim for example invokes the ummah, that is, he speaks for the Muslim community so that puts Ridhuan Tee firmly in his camp. He speaks of Malay rights, and there is a plethora of that in the Constitution that singles out the Malays for special mention and treatment but ignores one half of the population, the Orang Asli included.

Alloy the religious and the constitutional positions, the result is ketuanan which, if the Ibrahims are to press further, they could say it is Islamic and indeed its syariah compliant. Hence, to be a good Muslim is to endorse ketuanan – and note that Anwar Ibrahim has not denounced the idea but only skirted it with an amorphous and redundant slogan, Ketuanan Rakyat which is like a gauze-sieve trying to hold the water. PAS, the Islam party, could only respond with the nebulous Ketuanan Islam.

Their common positions are not inconsistent with the ketuanan concept because in the Arab religion it does speak of slaves and free Muslims, infidels and the faithful. This means divisions. The divisions may not be ethnic but then in Malaysia there is barely a difference between ethnicity and religion. All this is to say that segregation, the logical extension of which is supremacy by one group over another, is permissible. Arabs practice it and, as followers of the Arabic religion, the Malays had received from them the instrument to serve the latter’s politics and economics. Why not use it? All the bleating by the Umno opposition that ketuanan is purely sloganeering or a political project is inconsequential. The point is that it is effective – even PAS would rather say nothing or it will risk losing even Kelantan.

A doctrine existing in a vacuum serving no purpose has no legitimacy and is pointless. What then motivates ketuanan (whether it is the ketuanan of Melayu, of Islam or of Umno they make for no difference)? There are probably as many reasons as they are in the post-modern definitions of the Malay, but in the context seen in parliamentary sittings and on street fights, the overarching or overriding theme is the subjugation of another ethnicity. Education, jobs, municipal rules, mortgage interest rates, and where you may sell or not sell pork or build temples are tools of the doctrine. Those are not the end-purposes, which many analysis and much talk have them confused.

Against this doctrinal attempt at subjugation, the options are: (a) you resist, (b) you capitulate (Ridhuan Tee, Khoo Kay Kim) or (c) you mitigate by knuckling down on the knees – to mortify yourself (MIC, Gerakan). The work of political parties like the MCA the last 50 odd years have been to knuckle down, negotiate their way out, and hope for the best, adopting non-existent or invented terms like the “social contract”.

If all that had work, why are the Ibrahims still shouting “keluar” and “ketuanan”? Aren’t the Malays already supreme by the fact of MCA hacks mortifying themselves to Umno? With all the tools of ketuanan at their disposal, even the results are plain for all to see – displacement of the Indians from the estates, Chinese emigration, transfer of equity and management control in entire industrial and agricultural sectors, the man still pushing the tofu cart in Batu Gajah, religious conversions, and after that the Ridhuan Tees and the Khoo Kay Kims stepping up to help them in their ketuanan efforts. What more do they want? Enslave every Chinese child? Turning young Chinese into Ahmad Zahid’s go-go girls who, if not performing on election nights for an Umno candidate, can be made to service the desires of the Ibrahims? How else will they be satisfied? Follow the path taken by Arabs with their black Africans and their imported dark-skinned Bangladeshi labour building oil monuments, glittering hotels for the private use of party princelings, arenas for artificial snow, skiing rings, and palm-lined ponds by the sea for gawking at blond women?

These are not far-fetched visions. If Mahathir Mohamad has his way he would have air-conditioned the entire country, Johor to Perlis, end to end, and which he has started in the middle with Putrajaya and whatever other Jayas there are. Here, however, is the problem: one needs money to subjugate, to be ketuanan, because talk is free so that deploying the tools of education and jobs and of the NEP are absolutely necessary to show to the Malays they are indeed supreme by the mere sight of the material possessions held in their name – cars, highways, bridges, houses, hotels, brothels, Disneyland, airports, palaces…. Razaleigh Hamzah is, of course, right about the oil and the cities build with it but he does not answer, why, why, why?

Here, now, is the problem: Mahathir nearly spent it all (Why and how? Here and here.)  What next then? What’s to become of the ketuanan project?

Before, when ketuanan could be witnessed – that is, to be seen, felt, even to be tasted (naughty you, thinking of go-go girls?) – there was no need to shout. Now it is shouted from the streets. The Ibrahims shouting ketuanan on the streets carry the exact same message as Hishammuddin Hussein kissing a keris in an air-conditioned Umno palace hall. The Ibrahims replace the Hishams, the street replaces the hall, but it is the same ketuanan expressed only in different ways from two different vantage points so that, to go through all this trouble, then there has to be for a reason. And this reason better be worth the trouble because the fire is lit.

As this fire simmers, the palace roofs leak, the air-conditioning cranking to fail, the Mahathir’s bicycle companies sold, the loans are due for redemption, and the Project is yet to be completed. In the meantime the oil tap suddenly trickles money in cupfuls and not anymore in barrels, so ketuanan has to be propped up other means necessary. Thus when ketuanan has to be kissed on the other side of the keris (careful Hisham, don’t cut your tongue) and in private, it’s necessary to un-sheath the doctrine out of sight of Putrajaya. And Shah Alam isn’t such a bad place. Not Kota Baru; the message is not for the Malays only. The louder it is the better because, hopefully, nobody will see the roof leak and the debt collector coming up the driveway. Abdullah Badawi, good but naïve man that he is, couldn’t understand why Malaysia has First World infrastructure and Third World maintenance culture. It wasn’t the culture; it was the purpose, the motive, in building the palaces that was wrong in the first place. Thus, along with the Ibrahims is Plan B: bring back the foreign investors (damned the Arabs, they want to call it Arab City and not Melaka Iskandar Shah Jaya but never mind), a second wave of privatization and “gently” introduce the GST, goods and services tax.

Is the Ketuanan Project in jeopardy, therefore? Hardly, this is only a hiccup: we still have the Ibrahims, the keris is still at home, and we have Plan B. Will all this succeed?

By widening the tax base (the GST), Umno is in essence saying we’ll rally the whole country to the Project but be silent about the latter. And the pudding in the pie of this assertion – Malaysia without money for “development” – has been reaffirmed over and over again, first by MIER (inadvertently), then by the deputy finance minister (also inadvertently when he said Malaysia wasted an entire decade) and now by Razaleigh Hamzah (without his admission). The proof is this: what oil had failed to completely deliver, the Umno government will want the population to stand in its place, to grease the Project as it were. As for the Ibrahims, Umno could speak out from the other side of its mouth and say, pay them no attention, they are a handful of anonymous party hacks, and we don’t know who they are. Really?

If this argument – about oil, the ketuanan, the GST, the new wave of privatization, the Arab City – is valid, then one sees the relaunch of ketuanan by other means. The Malays, once serviced by ketuanan with oil, now they must be serviced with some of their own money, taxes. But what do they pay with? Money needs money to pay.

In the past it used to be free this and free that, and all that was still tax-free, and they could point to the Constitution for the legal justification. In the future, there might be fewer freebies and a tax, unless Bank Negara lends a hand, go into the forex market to try their luck, and the Treasury guarantees all the debts of all its companies, that is, enter into more debt. Mahathirism is back, only with less oil for the Project purpose.

But without the grease of oil, the next round will be accompanied by lots of cranking sounds, murmurs of complaints, and more licensing sales and more demands on the government and on Umno for more contracts, more buildings, more bridges, more palaces, all the while shouting even more ketuanan because the constitutional provisions are used up, they must turn to religion. The Ibrahims of Umno will go out on the streets, wrecking vengeance, shouting, and the other Malays will be tuning in, and soon they’ll be nodding their heads, thinking maybe the Ibrahims are right: it is the fault of the Chinese we are poorer now and we no longer have more cars, more highways, more bridges, more houses, more hotels, more brothels, more palaces, not even one Disneyland, and the airport toilets stink. Did you smell it? No money to pay him for six months the Bangladeshi worker has finally disappeared, somewhere, because he is without his passport and Rela is looking for him.

What will be the Chinese like in 30, 50 years is a question greatly dependent on what will be the Malay like in 30, 50 years. And signs are everywhere of an evolving Malay ketuanan, before underwritten by oil, now by shouting, kissing some crooked dagger and by refurbishing an old economic regime. But the Ibrahims don’t realise that nobody needs to take out a hat for them if no hats were worn: this is how ketuanan awaits them. You want servants and slaves get it from the Ridhuan Tees, the Thomas Lees and the Khoo Kay Kims – they’ll happily help you champion ketuanan, maybe even collect taxes on your behalf.

Keluar? Why not? To the Ibrahims, they’re going to be happier lot after that? If so, wish you a happy retirement. Try retiring into the Arab City, but you may want to first dress up like an Arab (use your bedlinen), otherwise no admission, maybe. Speaking Arabic helps. The Chinese leave you, as the English like to say, in “good” hands. The Chinese never say goodbye because zaihui 再会 literally means meet again. But no thanks. Kamu sudah keluar. If ever you need help from the Chinese, send an email: common people never forget a “debt” or a good turn. Never. That, you see, is also taught in Chinese culture.


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