The manipulation of race and religion in politics that needs to be addressed

On 18th August, Malaysian community organisation Engage organised a forum in Johor entitled ‘Can Singapore do a Malaysia?’ The forum centered around the historical shake-up in Malaysia’s recent 14th General Election which saw the 61-year ruling government ousted from office by the fresh new coalition of opposition parties called Pakatan Harapan (PH). This peaceful change of government in Malaysia begs the question of whether or not Singapore, which is now ruled by the longest serving political party in the world, can pull off the same change.

The forum featured panelists who are both witnesses and actors to the history of both countries: YB Hassan Karim, MP of Pasir Gudang Johor, veteran activist and human rights lawyer; Hishamuddin Rais, veteran activist, film director and writer; Tan Wah Piow, lawyer and former Singapore student leader who was exiled in 1976; and Dr Thum Ping Tjin, historian and research fellow at Oxford University.

One of the questions posed to the panel was on the Mahathir effect of the PH win and his impeachable Malay nationalist credentials. The audience noted that MalaysiaKini ran an editorial that debunked the association of PH’s win to Malay votes, pointing to Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (PBBM)’s crushing defeat in rural states during the last election. The question was, ‘does this [race and religion] transcend Malaysia baharu in the future or is it something that will stay around and can never be escaped?’

PJ Thum talks about the protection of the elite in Malaysia, noting that Malaysia is a neocolonial creation to preserve the interest of the British elite and now the political and commercial elite of the nation. So Thum stresses that his worry is that there will be too much return to business as usual where the elite cling on to power while continuing to shape the nation to their satisfaction. This applies to both Singapore an Malaysia. What the people need and deserve is a state that looks after every person and treats everyone with respect and dignity, which is something that needs to be guaranteed in the constitution which in turn needs to be protected and respected. That, he says, is the basis of his fear and what he focuses on when talking about the elite protection of the status quo.

Thum elaborates his thoughts on the political manipulation of race and religion in Malaysia and notes that he think it’s something that needs to be unravelled but not necessarily overcome as diversity can be a wonderful thing. The real problem that needs to be addressed and solved is the manipulation of race and religion in politics to advantage one group against another.

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