Dennis Ignatius: Second-Class Membership, Second-Class Citizenship

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The ongoing discussion about associate membership for non-Malays should serve as yet another reminder of the injustice and discrimination that non-Malays continue to face more than six decades after independence.

After months of scheming with Malay supremacist parties to set up a Malay-Muslim unity government, PPBM now wants to turn itself into a more inclusive political party by allowing non-Malays to hold “leadership positions” in the party. Presently, non-Malays can become associate members but cannot hold leadership positions.

Azmin Ali, who was just admitted into PPBM, enthusiastically supported the move saying, “We should not allow only one race to dictate.” He also said that there was a need to move on from race and religion. It all sounds very nice until you remember that this is the same man who conspired to bring down the first genuinely multiracial government we’ve had in decades.

This exercise must be seen for what it is – a cynical move born out of political expediency and desperation to gain non-Malay support at a time when the party is being squeezed by its more powerful partners. For Azmin, it also helps resolve the quandary of what to do with all the non-Malays who foolishly abandoned a genuinely multiracial party to follow him.

But what exactly is this big deal that PPBM is offering non-Malays?

Former minister Rais Yatim (who has been tasked to study the matter) was clear: “They are not coming in to be integral to the party as such…associate members have limited roles and functions.”  PPBM youth chief Wan Ahmad Fayhsal – the same individual who wants to abolish vernacular schools – said, “We still believe [PPBM] is a Malay-based party. It’s not going to be a multiracial party, but we acknowledge the importance of having non-Bumiputera members.” PPBM supreme council member Wan Saiful Wan Jan mulled “a structure that allows non-Malays and non-Muslims to join as associate members without jeopardising the party’s principles where Malays are still the core.”

Cut through the blather and what you have is nothing more than an offer of inferior status – second-class membership – in a party that intends to remain committed to an essentially racist agenda. What they are saying is that non-Malays are not good enough to be full members of their party but are invited to help keep it afloat, anyway.

It is, in effect, a disingenuous invitation to non-Malays to collaborate in their own marginalization, a call to help perpetuate a political system that contemptuously treats non-Malays as inferiors, unworthy of equal status. It is a lure to participate in the grand deception that Malay supremacists are still committed to pluralism even as they assiduously work to erode the rights of non-Malays.

Remember that PPBM is part of the same Malay supremacist coalition that views non-Malays with hostility, that wants to exclude non-Malays from senior government positions and abolish vernacular schools, that are so intolerant of racial and religious diversity.

What does it say of their convictions when just the idea of giving non-Malays a minor role stirs up concerns that the party is “straying from its original goals”? Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah, once known for his moderate views, went so far as to demand that UMNO withdraw from PN because PPBM was contemplating the unpardonable offence of offering non-Malays a few inconsequential positions in an otherwise Malay party.

If even such a minimalist proposal is too much for them, what can non-Malays ever hope to achieve by joining them? Can we ever be at home in political parties that are dedicated to our own marginalization? Why would any self-respecting non-Malay humiliate himself by accepting such discriminatory and demeaning terms?

Of course, what PPBM is proposing is not new or unique. UMNO and PAS also offer second-class membership to non-Malays. Barisan Nasional (BN) itself is based on the same principle – Malay-Muslim hegemony with just enough non-Malay representation to win non-Malay votes and give the impression that we are all one big happy family. It may have served the interests of BN leaders, but it has done nothing for the majority of non-Malays.

Malay-Muslim supremacists loathe parties like PKR and the DAP precisely because they challenge the notion of a Malay-Muslim hegemonic system of governance. No surprise then that they have gone out of their way to demonize the DAP with a vicious and unending campaign of racial and religious disinformation or that they have relentlessly persecuted PKR leader Anwar Ibrahim.

Whatever it is, the ongoing discussion about associate membership for non-Malays should serve as yet another reminder of the injustice and discrimination that non-Malays continue to face more than six decades after independence.

It’s time for all Malaysians, certainly for all non-Malays, to say enough is enough and chart a new course in national politics by refusing to join, endorse or support any coalition, political party or politician that does not subscribe 100% to a more inclusive and just nation, that does not open its membership equally to all Malaysians irrespective of race or religion, that will not fight for the rights of all Malaysians with equal vigour and determination.

It’s time to make clear to parties like PPBM and UMNO-PAS that if they will not treat us as equals, that if they will not represent us with equal dedication, they will not get our vote or support. Our vote is one of the few rights we have left; never again must it be used to empower those who treat us as second-class citizens.

Supporters of race-based politics will, of course, warn that such a move might result in non-Malays being excluded from Putrajaya but we shouldn’t be fooled; they are only interested in protecting their own positions. It is already self-evident that we have no hope of resolving the immense challenges we face as a nation through the current moribund race-based political system. All it will do is perpetuate our inferior status and further erode our fundamental rights and freedoms.

But all is not lost. We are in the throes of great change. Old structures and old prejudices are slowly breaking down. A new generation of Malaysians unencumbered by the baggage of history is coming of age. There’s a restlessness for something better, a new stirring to move past the divisive politics of race and religion.

Former minister Syed Saddiq is starting a new movement of young people dedicated to building a more inclusive nation. Liga Rakyat Demokratik, a multiracial grouping of young leaders, is pushing for respect for diversity, democracy and economic justice as is Challenger Malaysia. Maju Malaysia is championing human rights, social justice and national unity. Hope is growing that a third force of independent candidates genuinely committed to pluralism and good governance will emerge; people of integrity like Haris Ibrahim, Tawfik Tun Dr Ismail and Siti Kasim are planning to run for public office. Together with multiracial parties like DAP and PKR, we just might be able to pick up the pieces of ‘Reformasi’ and begin to move forward once more.

The greatest thing that non-Malays can do then at this pivotal moment in our nation’s history is to throw off the shackles of our servitude and insist that we will no longer accept a political system that consigns us to inferior status or second-class citizenship. Better to remain on the outside than be party to a system that robs us of our dignity and self-respect.