An Open Letter to Chandra Muzaffar

Dear Dr Chandra,

I remember the first time I saw you speaking. I was in sixth form and you were speaking in a public forum at the Komtar Dome in Penang. I was in awe of your intellectual courage. You spoke the language of justice and equality in an environment where equality seemed a dirty word.

Fast forward two decades later, reading your analysis of BN [Barisan Nasional]’s dismal showing at the polls (“The Polls – and the BN debacle”, The Star, March 17, 2008), I must say, I was disappointed.

You seemed to have regressed. And your words belie a lack of understanding and sympathy for fellow Malaysians who long to be counted as equal citizens of this country.

PKR de facto leader Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim. Photo by Jacqueline Ann Surin. I had no problems when you criticised [Parti Keadilan Rakyat de facto leader Datuk Seri] Anwar Ibrahim although it was clear you took advantage of the platform readily offered to you by the pro-BN media. You are entitled to your opinions and I believe you had your reasons to warn us against Anwar.

Although your choice of platform dents your integrity, I am all too willing to give you the benefit of the doubt. After all, I too, do not trust Anwar Ibrahim entirely, just as I distrust any DAP, PKR, PAS or BN leader. I would rather invest my time, not in bolstering support for any political party or leader, but in strengthening the democratic structures of this country – the media, the judicial system, the electoral process, the right to information. For only these structures can guarantee a nation free from the corruption of power and the tyrannies of all too powerful governments.

Back to your article in The Star, I thought your analysis of the Opposition’s sterling performance was myopic. You suggest that the Opposition managed to attract votes because they harnessed ethnic discontentment “to the hilt” – from the Hindraf debacle and the Malay response towards it, to the keris waving incident and the non-Malay reaction against it.

You seem to see everything through a racial lens. And instead of moving beyond it, you are imprisoned by it. Your analysis of why non-Malays voted heavily for the Opposition is that it was a vote of protest and racial dissatisfaction. But I think you fail to realise that many of us voted for a new politics, one that is non-racial, non-discriminatory and inclusive.

Referring to Anwar as being a successful personality in harnessing this racial dissatisfaction, you said: “…whenever a prominent Malay leader articulates non-Malay grievances, the Chinese and Indian anti-establishment vote shoots up significantly. It is as if they are encouraged, even emboldened, by the stance of the Malay leader.”

I am one of the many, many who voted for the Opposition and I did so NOT because I am encouraged, or even emboldened by a Malay leader. To suggest that is offensive, and it shows your ignorance of and condescension towards non-Malay voters.

I voted the Opposition because I am sick of the BN’s racialised politics and corruption. I want a party that reflects my vision of a Malaysia for all Malaysians. Not one that tells me that I need an MCA or an MIC to fight for my rights. As a citizen of this country, why aren’t my rights already protected? Why do I need a party to fight for my rights based on my ethnicity?

I also do not agree with you assessment that racial discontentment is the reason why voters deserted the BN. Many international media portrayed the elections like this: “Malaysians go to the polls amidst racial tension.” That was misleading. This elections was not about inter-racial discontentment.

Malaysian Malays, Chinese and Indians are NOT fighting among themselves nor do they hate each other. What we did was to throw out the old order that divides us and continually tells us that some of us are above others, and others should just be thankful for being allowed to exist on this land.

That is why we saw so many first time voters, and witnessed non-Malays voting heavily against the BN, by voting not just for the DAP but for PAS and PKR, too.

In Titiwangsa, a mixed constituency where Dr Lo’ Lo’ [Mohd Ghazali] of PAS was contesting, I saw many lower income Chinese in their 40s and 50s wearing PAS caps and campaigning for the party. In many constituencies where PKR was contesting, I saw Indian youths carrying PKR flags, zig zagging on their motorbikes. In Lembah Pantai, when Raja Petra [Kamarudin] with Anwar Ibrahim declared that Indians and Chinese would be defended with Malay bodies, the largely Malay audience erupted into cheers. All this clearly shows that many, many of us have transcended the racial allegiance that the BN expects us to hang on to.

I believe we are seeing the dawn of a new nationalism. Malaysians are asking – what does it mean to be a Malaysian. In fact, we are not only asking, we are answering it with our votes. It’s a search for a new Identity. We want a Malaysia where all Malaysians are equal.

I think the role of public intellectuals like you should be to articulate that hunger and move the nation away from the harmful ideology and practices that may have served us before, but which no longer do today.

In doing so, we need to be aware of our language. Quit drawing on the same old racialised language because it won’t work anymore. And listen to the youths of today. It is their vision that will make the country from now on.

Jules Ong,
Kuala Lumpur.

Seeking Justice and Equality: Chandra Muzaffar replies