Towards a post-racialist Malaysia


Yes, it is time for change in Malaysia. And with the advent of church burnings, time may be running out. At the same time, what is it that must change, and why only now?

To start with, let us look at the immediate conditions. The electoral results of March 8, 2008, were a direct though largely unanticipated response to the steady deterioration of accountability in government, the rising income gap, and the flagrant undermining of the country's once reputable institutions.

The opposition parties managed to capture the mood of the times, and after their electoral victories, they have allowed their successful campaign slogans to frame their policy statements. This is the superficially obvious state of affairs.

A deeper reason has to do with the global wealth structure. The crisis that hit the world, starting with irrational American consumption and the adulation of greed on Wall Street, holds great significance for the future of Penang's - and Malaysia's - economy.

In 2009, Malaysia enjoyed a trade surplus with the USA of US$10.5bil (RM35.7bil) which is more or less the level reached in 1998, just after the financial crisis. Though substantial, this had dropped by US$7.3bil from 2008. That followed a drop of US$2.1bil between 2007 and 2008 and of US$3bil between 2006 and 2007. This can be compared to the increase of US$6biI between 2004 and 2005 and US$2.8bil between 2003 and 2005.

With the structure of the world economy changing rapidly, and with China, India, Vietnam, etc being responsible for so much of global economic growth, it is imperative for Penang - and Malaysia in general - to consider how they can meet the new needs of Asia's nouveau riche, and attract Asia's impatient investment capital.

Simply concentrating on supplying the increasingly isolationistic markets in the West does not hold the promise it did before. The old industry of tourism has indeed been restructuring itself to satisfy new markets. Medical tourism, eco-tourism and heritage tourism all generate changes in education, the hotel business, urban management, marketing and infrastructure.

Thirdly, the conceptual and institutional structure of Malaysian politics has finally reached a crossroads after 50 years.

The formula for national integration in Malaysia had from the beginning been based on the exclusive notion of race. Race-based parties strangely proclaimed that they could somehow create an inclusive national consciousness.That myth is now falling apart.

Politics is an individual and a local matter. New politics thus requires a new localism and a new individual engagement.

After having lived the painful limitations of the imported notion of "race" we know that this new localism must be open-ended (not to say open-minded). It must be capable of expanding into an inclusive idea at a state or national level the way the idea of race cannot and could not possibly do.

What this means in concrete terms is that we must seriously imagine a decentralisation of the federal structure of Malaysia in fiscal, educational and administrative areas, and also where electoral levels and political party structures are concerned.

Hybridisation and integration are necessarily slow processes that occur spontaneously, and not in response to political dictates.

Penang being an old urban centre and regional port whose localism was cosmopolitan, multiracial and multi-religious from the very beginning, has a key role to play in configuring post-racialist Malaysia.

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