Change begins with small acts. The title of my blog is taken from Paul Gilroy's powerful slim volume packing a resounding counter-cultural critical punch.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Etnik, Agama dan Raja ... Apa kata Orang Muda?

by Carmen Nge

21st century Malaysian youth on the whole do not court controversy. Apart from attending the occasional konsert haram in droves or uploading scandalous clips on YouTube, our young people are relatively docile when compared to the youth citizens of Indonesia, Philippines and Europe. Malaysian youth are encouraged to shop, study and socialize but rarely are they given the space to dissect issues of national import and the freedom to dissent from popular opinion.

This may explain why the Forum Orang Muda or Young People’s Forum held in Kuala Lumpur recently was so well-attended: it provided a space for the young to come together to listen and to voice their opinions. The topic of the forum was as controversial as they come: “Ethnicity, Religion and the Monarchy: their impact on democracy in Malaysia.” Youth in their 20s made up about 70% of the 100-strong crowd, which was multiracial and predominantly male. [In fact, all the speakers were male too—a fact not lost on the organizer, who promised an all-female panel the next time].

The panel of five kicked off with celebrated independent documentarian Fahmi Reza, who mounted a slick slide show chronicling the etymology of the Malay term for government: Kerajaan. He explained that the term was derived from the word “raja” which partly explains why our form of government is a constitutional monarchy. Our Rukunegara requires us to pledge loyalty to the monarch and no-one questions this because the feudal mentality has been so deeply entrenched. A grassroots democracy cannot exist within such a framework because monarchs reign supreme and only look out for their own interests, Fahmi opined. Second speaker Lee Khai Loon, the Information Chief of PKR Youth, agreed with Fahmi, citing the Perak crisis as an instance where the monarchy’s power became a hindrance to democracy in the state.

In many ways, the substance of Fahmi’s talk is nothing new. Historians and public figures such as Farish Noor, M. Bakri Musa, Khoo Kay Peng and especially Tun Mahathir have clamoured for Malaysians to free themselves from their feudal shackles. To speak about a feudal mentality ultimately puts the blame on the shoulders of the rakyat but it does not address the economic system that sustains the monarchs. For example, no-one (not even Fahmi) dared to discuss the amount of taxpayers’ money being spent on the upkeep of our monarchs and their royal families.

Lee Khai Loon and fourth speaker Mohd Hariszuan Jaharudin both steered clear of this topic but the President of the University Malaya Islamic Students Association, Shazni Munir Mohd Ithnin was unceremoniously bold. In his rapid fire, oratorical style, Shazni stressed that Malaysia may be a constitutional monarchy but our monarchs hardly abide by the constitution. In fact, there has been more than one case of Sultans being above the law. Shazni would have no beef with constitutional monarchy if the monarchs themselves were beholden to the constitution!

Shazni reduced the audience to uproarious laughter when he proclaimed that even monarchs should have KPIs and their role should be as a check and balance for political parties and the ruling government. Ultimately, monarchs need to understand the needs of the people and rule within the context of the 21st century. Using Raja Nazrin Shah, the Crown Prince of Perak as an example, Shazni deemed it necessary for kings (and future kings) to be intelligent and knowledgeable of Islamic principles. As the Head of Islam, the monarch must have substantial Islamic knowledge in order to be seen as a credible Islamic leader.

Regarding the special position of the Malays, Shazni commented that as far as Islam is concerned, it is not proper to defend and take care of only one ethnic group. He believed that Malaysians who think this is right, have a view of Islam that is distorted and off-base. The poor, needy and disenfranchised—no matter what ethnic group or religion—must be helped because Islam is a religion that does not discriminate. True Muslims would never allow themselves to fall into the racial trap set by politicians and the ruling parties.

University student Hariszuan echoed Shazni when he expounded on the ‘boxes’ that limit, confine and define us. The ‘boxes’ he spoke of were metaphors for what is commonly known as stereotypes or labels. His evocation of boxes enabled him to speak of the physical segregation of people according to their class status, race and age groups. He said the problem of racism was not just at the level of political parties but pervaded all layers of society. He also criticized vernacular schools and ethnic-based trade associations for being racist and distilled the central problem as being that of identity.

“We Malays have a problem with our identity. We don’t have an identity! This is why we need to feel tied to Islam. After all, what is Bangsa Malaysia? 1Malaysia? It’s just rhetoric. The elite uses tools such as race and religion to maintain their power. We will be easily influenced if we were to follow loyally and blindly. If we do not ask ourselves what needs to be changed and how to change it and merely follow unthinkingly, then we are on our way to becoming a fascist state,” Hariszuan argued. He urged Malaysian youth to speak up and to reclaim what is rightfully theirs: the politics of dissent, of questioning and of change. This is the politics of young Malaysians and of young people.

The lone ‘oldie’ at the forum (who was also exceedingly, unfashionably late) was none other than Hishamuddin Rais, the forever-young-at-heart writer/blogger of fame. He was profoundly funny that afternoon and cracked joke after joke that were filled with pointed barbs at the government, monarchy, religion and ethnicity. This was Hisham at his element—brash, impudent and well-loved for it.

It was not hard to see why fans of Hisham in the audience proudly professed their devotion. The audience was smitten by his insouciant air and his courage to speak the publicly unspeakable. The younger speakers were unable to match his venerable wit, his acerbic tongue and his thoroughly jaunty Malaysian anecdotes. Hisham used humour to advance his views in a manner that the younger speakers were unable to do. Ironically, the gravity and seriousness of Fahmi, Khai Loon, Shazni and Harisz rendered them so much older than their years.

Hisham went on to lament the fact that the forum was held in a public hall rather than within the university arena, where truly democratic spaces for freedom of expression were sorely lacking. “This discussion SHOULD be in a university,” he cried. Furiously nodding heads reaffirmed what he already knew: Malaysian youth had a thirst for discussion, discovery and dissent that the halls of academia could not (and would not) fill.

But the growing numbers of young people squeezed into the hall that Saturday afternoon fueled hope for a future that not only invests in the youth but also unconditionally involves them in the process of its making. Hisham ended his speech by gesturing to the teeming crowd and quoting Mao Tse Tung: “Finally, the world belongs to the young!”

The applause at the end was a deafening rejoinder to this truth.

This article was originally published in Off The Edge, Jan 2010 issue.

Ethnicity, Religion and the Monarchy: their impact on democracy in Malaysia . . . what say the youth? was a forum organized by GB Gerakbudaya and took place at the Chinese Assembly Hall on 24 October 2009.
For more information on future forums and events, please visit