Confessions of a recovering racist- part 2

I am a racist, I must confess.

If you read my recent post on “The Price of Democracy in Malaysia”, you could be forgiven if you thought this blog was called “My Confessions”. Yes, I am a recovering racist, and this is my confession:

It has only been under a week since the historic 9 July 2011 Bersih 2.0 rally in Malaysia, and for many Malaysians, this was a day to be remembered forever. Nevertheless, while throngs of people- old, young, Malays, Chinese, Indians, Ma-Ch-Ins (my own word for those who identify with all three) and what-nots- congregated in the streets of Kuala Lumpur in a significant symbol of solidarity, one could not help but wonder whether people were actually demonstrating for the same reasons. The Bersih movement started out originally on a platform of electoral reforms. Opposition groups representing different interests joined in. Lawyers joined in. Students joined in. People representing different faiths joined in. One thing is clear, Malaysians of all types appeared that day.

While it was awe-inspiring to see Malaysians all over the world united for a day to rally against the structural inequalities and the deep-seated racism that had seeped into the Malaysian psyche, I could not help but still wonder “What is it that is binding these people together”, “Was this really 1Malaysia at work?”, “who exactly are they targeting with this protest?” The sole thing binding this eclectic group together was the common cause of “Enough is enough!” and a demand for change.

I have to admit it. I was so excited on 9 July 2011, I barely slept. People’s political consciousness had been awakened and I couldn’t help but diligently trawl through the minute by minute, blow-by-blow accounts of what was happening in Kuala Lumpur. Every time I opened by Facebook wall, a flurry of updates would pop up instantaneously. At times they were updates from Malaysiakini or from Malaysian Insider, but many times they were Youtube videos being shared between friends.  It became clear that everyone was sick of the age-old racial divides and racism that had divided Malaysia. I was witnessing ‘citizen’s reporting’ at its best!

However, after a while, I realised these videos were also inciting feelings of surging hatred against the government, police and anyone unsympathetic to the call for greater freedoms. It dawned on me- these videos were not helping. They were only breeding more hate inside me and I was looking for some ‘villain’ to crucify.

Despite everyone hating the racial politics that had driven many politicians, we were becoming the same vehicles of hate that we so despised.  We were spouting hate, not against ethnic groups, but against OTHERS.  In the process of celebrating the solidarity that resulted on 9 July 2011 and the fact that Malays, Chinese, Indians etc had finally achieved some semblance of unity as Malaysians, another process of demonizing an ‘other’ was occurring- a new common scapegoat had to be found.

It seemed my racism was not willing to die a quick death, but had now morphed into an even uglier beast.

Who was this new ‘other’?

The videos I watched depicted the police in bad light. They were cast as tyrants, villains and anti-democracy. While there is plenty of footage and testimonies of police arresting innocent bystanders and protesters, and at the more extreme, abusing their powers by using disproportionate violence, I believe there were also many police folk who did not do any of those things. Don’t get me wrong. I still think that the ‘powers that be’ and police bosses misused their power that day by overriding the rule of law. However, it simply cannot be that ALL POLICE were as villainous as portrayed by the videos.

Through public critiques, we had unconsciously adopted the language of hate and modes of propaganda that we abhorred. We were using the same kind of talk that was hateful but replacing them with different characters. At the same time, we were shutting our ears to the possible stories that people on ‘the other side’ possessed. I have to admit it, but I dislike listening to people who disagree with me. As my parents will readily say, I am stubborn and think I am right. The use of caning has (thankfully?) thought me that even though I don’t agree with people, I must still learn to listen. (Nb: Elaine does not support public caning as a means of teaching our politicians and opposition leaders to listen to each other, although it does sound like a delicious idea…)

Creating more ‘us versus them’ is not healthy. It is that kind of thinking that has torn our nation apart. What we need is a common dream, a common vision that encapsulates the ideas and aspirations of all Malaysians.  What we do not need is more hate.

What Bersih stood for was for electoral reforms. What it became was a beacon of change. The question we need to now as is “What kind of change and how?” Change can be for good or for bad. How can we bring change that does not replicate the same hate speech and oppressive systems that Malaysians have grown to detest?

I have learned that a culture of peace can only be promoted when there are more ‘connectors’ and less ‘dividers’ (See Mary B Anderson’s work on Do No Harm). Are these videos connecting us together and allowing for greater dialogue (which is what Bersih wanted?). Is crucifying the entire police force going to make them more likely to hear us? Or are we creating more fissures and divisions that make it hard for reconciliation and positive change? We need to allow for more connectors that bring us together and allow for people to share their multiple stories. Only by being heard, can honest change come about. We must stop wasting energy on making each other look like monsters and start tackling the monster issues that divide us. Injustice. Economic depression. Gender inequity. Poverty. We will need to be united if there is any hope of conquering these ‘villains’.

There is much work to be done and our country needs everyone to pitch in. The politicians cannot bring about positive change on their own and we cannot do it all for them. But we can do it together.

I like to think that 9 July 2011 stands for the people’s call to oppose practices and institutions that exclude, silence and subjugate Malaysians.  This means we need to create space for each voice (including the voices that we don’t want to hear) to be heard. The language used by both the government and many Bersih supporters to label Bersih as ‘anti-government’ is not helpful. Many people turned up that day to demand change. They did so because they loved Malaysia, just like many of the politicians and police officers who appeared that day as well.

Perhaps, just perhaps, we are all patriots seeking for a better future. And perhaps, we can do it a better way, together.


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