Utusan and racially charged headlines are by now commonplace. So is their speedy response to any attack – particularly pungent whenever it comes from a prominent Malay like Azran Osman Rani. For the communitarian purist, the biggest threat to the vision of a singularly authentic Malay voice comes not from the non-Malays already situated outside its strictly guarded communal boundaries, but those who lurk within – those who cannot be wished away by an appeal to some natural and irreconcilable difference. Defiance from non-Malays is to be expected in the cultural wars that Utusan and co. wish to propagate – defiance from the outside pose no existential threat to their regressive rendition of Malayness. But defiance from the inside, if left unchecked, can dethrone ethno-conservatism as the default home of Malay political identity.
It is in this context that the conservative ideologues have devised a number of strategic scripts to purge the Malay who speaks out of tune – so that if he speaks, he speaks from the outside. It is a play restaged time and again to not unsuccessful effect on some of the intended audiences. I will suggest below an unremarkable mindset shift that Malays need to take in order to render the script impotent. But let us first quickly confront some of these purging narratives – most recently unleashed in the attack against Azran.
The master narrative is the idea that Malays who criticise Utusan, the NEP or any of these postulated sacred cows of Malay ethno-conservatism are arrogant ingrates. “Tidakkah Azran terfikir lesen yang dikeluarkan kerajaan kepada Air Asia adalah kerana pada peringkat awalnya syarikat penerbangan itu dimiliki orang Melayu?” Taking this to its logical conclusion means that since every Malay alive or unborn is in some way a child of Ketuanan Melayu and its attendant privileges, then there will never be a time when Malays can chastise the system or a another Malay on these terms. It is a senseless and endless loop – an infinite postponement of the renegotiation of the norm. It cannot stand scrutiny.
Secondly, even if we accept the premise that every Malay has inadvertently benefitted from the shortcomings of a system propped up by the Utusans and Perkasas of the world, it does not follow that he must bat for that team. Since I had no say in the cards I was dealt, my conscience cannot be held hostage to the fact that I get access to this housing discount or that Bumi unit trust. In fact, even if as an individual I choose to capitalise on this privileged access, I still reserve my right to question the morality of the system or the immoderations of its ardent apologists. If all it takes to silence man is to point out the benefits he has derived, there can be no critique of capitalism so long as you have a penny in your pocket. There would be no such thing as a male feminist. And only blacks would have fought slavery. Again, this cannot stand scrutiny.
And in any case, isn’t the justification for preferential treatment that there are systemic imbalances which will otherwise place Malays in an unfairly weakened position? Notwithstanding the validity of this justification, it is incongruent to demand I be grateful to a series of measures supposedly meant to tilt the scales back to natural balance anyway.
None of my points above are original or anything more than the inevitable conclusions of basic reason. But despite its fatal logical contradictions, the conservative ideology maintains pull even among Malays otherwise predisposed to progressive persuasions by playing the guilt card – trying to convince us that somehow the progressive point of view is not representative of the larger community. That the progressives are somehow not Malay enough and hence have less credibility to speak for and from the community, unless they fall in line. Paraphrasing quotes I have heard far too often, “You must remember, not all Malays are like you – they are not ready for liberal-liberal ni…” (implying of course, that “most Malays are not like you”)
These are tropes brandished with alarming frequency. It is an erstwhile effective, if blatantly desperate, move to dismiss and delegitimize any reformist voice from within the community. As we have seen, the conservative ideologues almost certainly cannot win the logical battle – but they can win the sociological one. They want to convince us that somehow having a moral argument is not enough, not relevant. That while it may seem only sensible to appeal for a more magnanimous and civil political posture, it is ultimately treasonous because, well, most Malays aren’t like you – so be grateful and hold your tongue, or prepare for the purge.
In a time when communal identities remain cherished even for the most cosmopolitan of Malays, the cost of insubordination can seem too large, making it all too tempting to pass this buck to the next generation. “Perhaps when the collective is more ready for change. Perhaps when there are more Malays like you”.
What this temptation overlooks is that there are probably already many “Malays like you”. I want to be careful about using election trends to make sweeping claims about why people vote the way they do, but surely there is enough circumstantial evidence to suggest that Malays who reject an excessively belligerent pro-Malay posture are not a tiny minority. And even if there remain many Malays who gravitate to the conservative narrative, it is no reason to stay silent when the proponents flaunt their excesses.
If there is such a thing as a collective consciousness, it is not a pre-existing beast grounded in some unchangeable communal DNA. It is a fluid consciousness that is constantly in play, constantly being made and re-made by the members of that community themselves. The most important hurdle to overcome is the first one: the mindset shift that will establish the right to play – that one who is liberal or progressive is a rightful member of this Malay community, speaking from within the community and not outside it. The rest of the battle should prove easier.