A new deal for Malaysia

Speech by DAP National Political Education Director, Liew Chin Tong, when tabling the motion in the party’s transformational debate during the DAP National Retreat 2016 on 16th January 2016 at Grand Dorsett Hotel, Subang Jaya, Selangor.

(Liew Chin Tong is recovering from Bell’s palsy. This speech was written with extensive help from the Executive Director of DAP Political Education Department, Wan Hamidi Hamid, who also read the speech on Liew’s behalf during the Retreat. )


With mega crises on all fronts, Najib and UMNO look doomed. But they might just survive politically by creating a “Low Yat incident” every other week. The game plan is simple : pit underprivileged kids of one race against another, then they will be so busy fighting each other that they will forget who keeps them poor to begin with. The accusation of “poor Malay cheated by Chinese handphone taukeh” is untrue. Why would a “rich” young Chinese work for a handphone shop for meagre pay?

Can we, the DAP, see the shared fate of the bottom 60 percent of the economy – youngsters that are Malay as well as Chinese and other races? Can we articulate their wishes and aspirations in a single breath?

The even more crucial question is this: Do we even actually know them? Do we actually know who the Malays are? What the Malays are? Where the Malays are?

It is sad to note that some of us see the Malays as one single entity with a set of stereotypes. For example, we didn’t even realise that we are being racial when we see most Malays as policemen, enforcement officers, Mat Rempits, etc.

The same is true for others who only see Chinese as rich people and business owners who always cheat Malays. After 50 years, the narrative has stayed the same. This is sad.

When it comes to race, there are three points that I wish to share.

First, identities are fluid and not constant.

Up until the end of Second World War, most ethnic Malays did not call themselves Malays. They identified themselves first and foremost with the Peninsula states or Indonesian localities they came from. Likewise, most ethnic Chinese see themselves as Hokkien, Hakka, Cantonese etc.

From the onset, the DAP wished to create a Malaysia in which everyone sees themselves as Malaysian First. We call it Malaysian Malaysia.

In the meantime, after 10 years as Prime Minister, Dr. Mahathir Mohamad came up with the idea of Bangsa Malaysia. Both ideas met halfway, well, sort of.

For 14 years between the launch of Vision 2020 in 1991, and when Hishamuddin Hussein waved his keris during the UMNO General Assembly in July 2005, Dr. Mahathir made Americans, Jews, British, Australian and Singaporeans as national “enemies”, but little was heard about the local racial discourse.

I always think that the keris waving and UMNO’s turn to right-wing politics in 2005 was the stupidest political move ever in Malaysia’s history. As a result, MCA, MIC and Gerakan have been dead since 2005. So I urge you not to wake them up.

Second, identity politics will create a defence mechanism.

An Australian anthropologist arrived in Christian village in the Indonesian side of Kalimantan to find with bewilderment that every Christian ritual in the village is conducted with the sacrifices of pork. Being a Christian herself, she was confused. Only months later when we wandered out of the village did she realise that the bizarre pork sacrifice was actually a defence mechanism of sorts. The village was surrounded by six other Muslim villages. Sacrificing pork was the Christian village’s way of differentiating itself from the Muslims.

Ethnic Chinese in Malaysia, especially my generation, grew up thinking that Lion Dance is the most important component of Chinese culture. It was only much later that I realised, no other country in the world – China and Taiwan included – views it that way.

How did this idea come about? I would attribute it to what Tan Sri Ghazali Shafie did. The then Home Minister one told the Chinese that it would be better for their cultural dance to use the national mascot of the Tiger, instead of the traditional Lion. Obviously, it backfired.

In the following example, I do not wish to equate religion with a particular school system. But in identity politics, Islam was being championed post May-13 in part because Muslims felt the psychological need to have a clear identity vis-a-vis the non-Malays. Likewise, Chinese rallied to Chinese schools because they felt that their identity was being denied.

But today, most Muslims are practicing the religion one way or the other and many spend years studying it. Likewise, 90 percent of Chinese now have some form of Chinese education, at least for a few years. Things are very different now.

Do people still feel that their identities are under-threat? My answer is both ‘yes’ and ‘no’. If the battle lines are drawn been ‘Muslims versus non-Muslims’, then everyone will put up their defence antenna.

You cannot just insult people and expect not to get a reaction. So when UMNO waves the keris or Perkasa does stupid things, every non-Malay gets offended. That’s the problem when we get ourselves into the mode of “pantang dicabar”.

But the DAP must be very clear about this. We should not play their games. We must be decent, we must lead our supporters to be decent and lead them to get out of race profiling everything.

Third, where are the Malays?

Sometimes, I find that even Malay opposition politicians see Malays as backward, rural, emotional people. Every time I hear someone mentioning the term “Malay” with the word “rural” as if they are inseparable twins, I cringe. Clearly, someone who thinks that way has a poor grasp of reality.

Most Malays today live in urban centres and semi-urban towns. Most Malays have access to handphones and the internet. Most Malays are active users of WhatsApp and Facebook. The rural Malay population is really small. Like the Chinese from small towns, even if they are registered to vote in a rural constituency, probably half of them live in a city or a town.

If you have ever spent a morning at the road in front of DAP National Headquarters, you will find that the old open-air Pudu market is mostly manned by foreign workers and half, if not most of their clients are Malays.

Malays, like everyone else, are making rational political choices. They are dignified people like everyone else. We must treat every Malaysian as a mature citizen in our approach.

And, most importantly, we must see the human needs of every Malaysian. Everyone wants a decent job, decent homes, good health, good transport, good education, respect, and dignity.

Hence, we must set the agenda and not let others set it for us. Not UMNO, not PAS.

The harsh reality

Imagine an elephant, or any other large animal, which has been in chains since its infancy. After a decade or two when the chains are finally taken off, that elephant will find it strange and difficult to move around freely. Because it has been chained for so long, it has no idea how to enjoy its new-found freedom.

This is a reflection of our society. For decades, we have been conditioned to accept that segregation by race and religion is normal. So we don’t really know each other. Our knowledge of our neighbours are based on prejudices and negative stereotypes, encouraged by the state. Hence, racism prevails among us.

When this happens, it blinds us from the reality, which is our shared problems. I am talking about our shared economic problems, high cost of living, lack of jobs and business opportunities, education and many other related issues.

We do not live in an ordinary time. It is not impossible to contemplate a scenario of oil prices at USD15 per barrel, and the Ringgit trading at 5 to the Dollar. This might happen in the near future.

Let me predict that the most important conversation in 2016 is not about one’s race, but about one’s rice bowl – we are about to face a great economic crisis that could be worse than the 1997 crisis.

Why do I say that? Because for the past decade or so, the Malaysian economy has been heavily dependent on oil and gas, commodities, construction and property development. Salaries, productivity, and skills have stagnated and even declined.

The vast majority of Malaysians are heavily indebted through housing loans, car loans, study loans, credit cards debts, installments for consumer items, and even wedding loans for some. Some continue to pay these off even after their divorces!

Once a sizable number of layoffs take place within a short period of time, everything will grind down to a crunch – a job crisis, a debt crisis, bursting of the property bubble, a welfare crisis, and a heightened crime rate.

A New Deal

The question is, can the DAP live up to the expectation of the public to play a historic role to lead the nation out of the impending crisis, work out a New Deal, and create a new Malaysia?

Let me give you two examples.

How do we deal with Proton in the upcoming crisis? Our easiest response is to kill it off. But what about the workers there? Our answer may be “the Government has to deal with it.” But we also know the Najib government is incapable of thinking.

So what do you do? In times of crisis, we want to ensure that everyone has a job to get by. Can we ask Proton to produce buses instead of cars and make Proton the Southeast Asian centre for bus production (as there is none)? After all, we have too many cars on the road now. We have 25 million vehicles (half of them motorcycles and the other half passenger cars).

When in crisis, people won’t have money to pay loan instalments for their cars and motorcycles. The alternative would be to take the bus. This plan also saves the Government from building roads as market liquidity dries up. Even if you want to build roads, no one is going to finance you.

Another example, is what we like to call the bloated civil service. Very often we just say, let’s trim the size of the civil service, without even thinking about the lives of ordinary civil servants.

Who actually wastes more resources? Imagine a mid-level female civil servant supporting a husband who couldn’t find a good paying job and their four young kids. Cutting her job during a crisis means that you are starving six people. What’s more, you are starving the much needed domestic consumption. If this family, and many other families are not spending, who will buy? If no one is consuming, the economy collapses even faster.

What we should do instead is to trim the extravagance of the ministers, the outsourced contracts that hire foreign workers, and those that waste out of price procurement.

Recently, when it was reported that university students were starving, the immediate responses of many opinion leaders were: why are they whining so much, or why don’t they get a part-time job? For me, this sounds like a middle class reaction.

We seem to forget that jobs at convenience stores, fast food chains and restaurants are increasingly becoming the domains of foreign workers – no, I’m not against any human being getting a job but we all know that these are low-paying jobs that exploit people who are not given much choice. And, as we all know the establishment is not very serious about the minimum wage.

Even if our students can find a job there, they don’t pay well enough to be worth the time spent juggling work while studying. Imagine a boy or a girl coming from a small town with retired or worse, retrenched civil servant parents, he or she will have nothing to fall back on.

My mother sold lottery tickets at a place less than half a mile from this hotel since 1989. My father was once a mini bus driver and taxi driver. Within this hall, many of our elected reps come from humble backgrounds, whose parents may be as hawkers, small traders and workers.

The DAP was once, and perhaps still is, a party for these people. Of course we’re proud of our heritage. What we need now is empathy and solidarity to build a much larger social coalition. There are now many hawkers, small traders and workers of all ethnicities, Malays, Indians, Ibans and Kadazans included. The DAP should represent all these fellow Malaysians.

The DAP must transcend the old society barriers to offer a new hope for Malaysians. The New Deal must be one that is built upon solidarity of all Malaysians. In time of crisis, we shall unite and not divide.

I therefore propose the motion that the DAP needs to change drastically in its modus operandi in order to be more inclusive to appeal to all Malaysians, including those in Sabah and Sarawak, for the Opposition to win Putrajaya.

Thank you.

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