The allegation of a plot to make Christianity the official religion in Malaysia is but the latest indication of a burgeoning and malignant Malay ethnic nationalism.

Whilst the anger towards Utusan is, of course, wholly called for, the problem at hand seems to have roots far deeper than the paper’s offensive, communalist and partisan journalism can account for.

I say this because such a preposterous charge could only have been leveled if it finds home in an antagonistic discourse of fear and ontological segregation. That discourse exists in the contemporary Malay discursive networks, and it appears to me to be fairly developed.

Cast our thoughts back to 2000 and 2001 – the Reformasi juggernaut that had shaped Malay(sian) politics was beginning to stutter – when Suqiu’s 83-point memorandum caused a stir because it appealed for the abolishment of the bumiputera and non-bumiputera distinction.

That the memorandum itself was essentially a list of “appeals” and not tuntutan or demands was lost in the raging debates that followed.

That the subsequent meeting between Umno Youth and Suqiu led to the retraction of seven points considered ‘sensitive’ also seemed to matter little.

The narrative that was to dominate the collective Malay consciousness had been born; at its centre was the idea that non-Malays are now conspiring to encroach upon sacrosanct spaces which were themselves imbued with originary myths.

Survival meant absolutely the defense against the non-Malay who dah melampau. The siege mentality dominated.

Now, sister discourses have, of course, existed in the past. Indeed (Malay) ethnic nationalism in Malaysia has a longer history than its patriotic counterpart.

But I want to suggest that while earlier ethnic nationalisms assumed a chiefly affirmative, economic character, the present manifestation is particularly vicious because it defines success in the regulation of the perpetually devious internal Other.

For all the chest-thumping rhetoric that colours such an ideologically vacuous discourse, the protagonist in this chapter of Malay nationalism is really, the non-Malay.

I hesitate to say whether, taken to its logical conclusion, it desires the demise of the latter, but certainly in continuously reinscribing boundaries between “us” and “them”, the concern is much less about how “we” can better ourselves than about making sure “they” know their place.

The deconstruction of such a paradigm will be tricky; although many Malays are, in various forms, engaged in doing just that.

Counter-narratives that appeal to a more universalist rendering of Islam or a more liberal-cosmopolitan conception of ethnic affiliation do rebel against the reductive absolutisms of Utusan and co.

The difficulty of course, is that fear mongering can be extremely effective – as with all guises of social conservatism, the aforementioned narrative derives its charm from its plea to the lowest common denominator.

It is straightforward, contains no touch of nuance or sophistication and is decidedly urgent: they are out to get us.

But if we know anything about the Malay culture and its customs, it is that deference to leaders still counts for quite a bit. Here, our politicians need to step up.

Rhetoric and policies that encourage cross-ethnic contact, trust and solidarity are anathema to those who wish to tell us that we are essentially separate, and locked in a zero sum battle, with no horizon in sight.

In responses to issues like this one we are debating about, the message from leaders has to be clear and consistent, not one peppered with generalities and exit options both ways – leaders need to demonstrate they stand for something.

For too long, especially when dealing with the issue of ethnic relations, we have been a nation of compromises; surely it is time to supplement our character with some concrete ideals and beliefs.

On the immediate matter at hand, it has been encouraging to note that a number of Umno politicians and Umno-supporting members have at least registered doubt over the allegations, and in some instances, strongly criticized the two bloggers.

The nature of that opposition to the claims is yet unclear. Whether it was motivated by the fact that the unsubstantiated details seemed too dramatic for any part of the story to be true, or whether they genuinely think better of the non-Malays and DAP, for that matter, remains to be seen.

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