Dennis Ignatius: The Normalization of Bigotry and Intolerance

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In the midst of a heated argument in Parliament on amendments to the Road Transport Act to toughen the penalties for alcohol-related traffic offences, PAS MP Nik Muhammad Zawawi Salleh managed to trigger a major controversy with a deeply offensive remark that the Bible had been “distorted.”


To suggest that the sacred text of any religious group is distorted is to cast doubt on its very legitimacy. Such is the arrogance of the man that despite widespread protests, he has adamantly refused to apologize or withdraw his remarks.

On the surface of it, it might sound like the inane and insensitive remarks of a supercilious politician looking for cheap publicity but it is deeper than that, a symptom of a much greater malaise – the normalization of racism, the legitimization of bigotry, the trivialization of intolerance. It is part of a now established culture that permits the degradation of non-Malays and non-Muslims by reducing them to inferior status, mere “pendatang” unworthy of equal citizenship, kafirs to be excluded from senior positions, adversaries to be contained, followers of flawed religions to be mocked.

If they are not Christian evangelists out to undermine Islam, they are LTTE or communist sympathizers. If they are not busily working to divide the country, they are working with Israel to undermine the nation’s sovereignty. Each new slur adds to the corpus of disinformation and deceit that further stigmatizes ethnic minorities and justifies their mistreatment.

Increasingly, non-Malays and non-Muslims are seen as inconvenient, problematic, the unwanted detritus of history that tarnishes the ‘Malayness’ of the land and diminishes its Islamic character.

A cross on the side of a building, coloured lights at Christmas, Chinese New Year decorations, Ponggol, a few words in a Bible translation or any talk about vernacular education is enough to set off accusations of disrespecting the majority, challenging the position of Islam, undermining Malay rights and threatening Malay civilization. In the meantime, men like Zawawi have carte blanche to denigrate the faith of others and stoke racism at will.

And it’s not just the politicians. State muftis, for example, think nothing of making mindless statements to the effect that “chaos” in the country will end when all non-Muslims convert to Islam or warning that non-Muslim dressing hinders the pursuit of Muslim piety. One mufti even went so far as to designate a group of non-Muslims as ‘kafir harbi’ (belligerent infidels with whom the Muslim community is obliged to war against) while another opined that Malaysia needs a Saddam Hussein to rein in minority communities.

The bigotry is now so institutionalized that even our history is being quietly rewritten to delegitimize the non-Malay presence in the country and minimize their contribution to nation-building. Despite considerable historical and archaeological evidence of the non-Malay presence in the archipelago dating back to the first century, for example, non-Malays are made out to be recent arrivals, a product of British colonialism. Even the huge debt that Malay language and culture owes to India is being de-emphasized in favour of more recent Arabic influence.

As well, the pioneering work of non-Malays in the tin and rubber industries, their contribution to commerce and industry and science and technology is downplayed while the  many sacrifices they’ve made to the defence and administration of the nation have been replaced with the outrageous narrative that non-Malays are unwilling to serve in the armed forces or the civil service because wages are too low, the discipline too tough or because they are simply not patriotic enough (as a defence minister once opined).

In any civilised nation, these things would be quickly seen for what they are – racism, xenophobia and hate speech – and condemned, but not here. After feeding on the bile of their own prejudice for so long, Malay-Muslim supremacists no longer even think such bigotry is wrong, immoral and shameless. Indeed, bigotry has become a virtue, a way to prove their Malay-Muslimness, a sure way of establishing their bona fides in the dark and perverse ecosystem of Malay-Muslim supremacy.

It says a lot about where we are as a nation when our political leaders simply downplay or excuse even the most egregious racist remarks. Zawawi’s remarks, for example, elicited no strong condemnation from the prime minister or others in cabinet. The most they would say was that Zawawi was just expressing his own views, never mind that neither the leadership of his own party nor Perikatan Nasional have yet to rebuke him or distance themselves from his remarks.

It is not the first time that we see leaders waffling in the face of bigotry. When Malay-Muslim supremacists declared at the Malay Dignity Congress last year that “Malaysia is for Malays” – an invidious statement that strikes at the very core of our diversity – prime minister Mahathir Mohamad claimed “he did not hear” it. When the Congress passed a number of outright racist resolutions (excluding non-Malays from senior government positions, for one), Mahathir downplayed them saying they were only resolutions.

Do they keep silent because of moral cowardice or because they all drink from the same poisoned fountain of malice? Whatever it is, their silence empowers the bigots and gives them a patina of respectability they do not deserve. Well did Leonardo da Vinci observe that “those who do not condemn evil command it to be done.”

The worsening climate of racism and bigotry, of course, owes much to Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s Malay Dilemma thesis – a pernicious racist narrative designed to delegitimize the non-Malay and non-Muslim presence in the country in order to perpetuate a system of Malay-Muslim hegemony. Today’s Malay-Muslim supremacists are the children of the Malay Dilemma, Mahathir’s ideological offspring, coming home to roost.

We are now on the verge of an apartheid state, a political construct where bigotry and racism is normalized and legitimized. Who could have ever imagined that Tunku Abdul Rahman’s vision of “a nation inspired by the ideals of justice and liberty – a beacon of light in a disturbed and distracted world” would come to this? I can well understand the distress of my friend Professor Dr Tajuddin Rasdi when he wrote recently that Malaysia has lost its soul. We all keep hoping that the silent majority will come to its senses and demand a halt to the bigotry and racism, but after years of racist indoctrination and religious extremism, are there even enough people left who believe in a Malaysia Baru where justice, equality and respect for diversity rule?