By Dongyoon Shin
Mahathir Mohamed, 94, was the world’s oldest state leader before stepping down as a Prime Minister of Malaysia on March 1. Following his resignation came another leader Muhyiddin Yassin, who now has to run the country amidst all the political turmoil and coronavirus pandemic.
Mohamed is a virtuoso politician, who already served as a Prime Minister for 22 years from 1981 to 2003. However, he was symbolic not just because of his age or history, but how his campaign two years ago changed the ruling party of Malaysia for the first time in sixty years.
Malaysians hoped that under his leadership, their country would divert from issues like corruption or racial tension and start with a clean slate. Thus, his sudden resignation came as a shock and disappointment to the people.
When Mohamed was inaugurated two years ago, he promised several agendas to Malaysian people. One thing that stood out the most was his promise of “racial harmony.”
Malaysia, just like the United States, is a country that comprises of various racial groups. Native Malaysians are the biggest of its population, followed by large minorities like Chinese and Indians.
Sadly, but inevitably, Malaysian society has been –since the beginning – dealing with racism, bigotry, and jingoism (or extreme patriotism). Mohamed’s government wasn’t the first to start all these social issues mentioned prior, but his government wasn’t the one to end them either.
Racial politics has dominated the country since the beginning. Major parties in Malaysia stem from different racial and religious groups, and often they create racial conflict.
In Malaysian politics, native Malaysians hold the most power. Bumiputra, a rather controversial word in the country, is a term referring to the local Malay or indigenous people in Malaysia. The term is most frequently used when talking about affirmative action in Malaysian laws in favor of bumiputras. The policies include granting a discount on houses or property or mandating special scholarships or classes for bumiputra students and many more.
Underlying motive in these Bumiputra policies is coming from ethnic jingoism in Malaysia, which implies that the bumiputras are in charge of the country. Some policies are also blatantly against the UN’s human rights standard, like discriminating against the LGBTQ community. Scapegoating also happens, especially towards Rohygnian refugees in their country for taking their jobs.
However, Malaysian society has also been showing liberal progression in recent years. Female employment has been steadily increasing, and more schools and facilities are opening for the refugee kids and families in Malaysia.
The society, overall, has been slowly but surely showing empathy towards minority groups and moving towards reconciliation among different identities.
The United States is a country with similar settings regarding racial structure, and the country takes pride in it.
Racism and bigotry have been controllable under the constitution or the rule of law. However, concerns are Donald Trump, and his administration are setting the “new norm” around this country. Trump’s iconic “building a wall” plan or his recent “China virus” statement has been prompting racial scapegoats for the country’s problems.
What we can learn from this is that this type of political rhetoric can always happen to countries with a complex racial history like Malaysia and the United States.
As the presidential election is only a few months away, Americans should be reminded that the country needs a leader who will not be tempted to blame minorities for lack of jobs or a bad economy. Once again, it needs a leader who’s patient enough to communicate and bring everyone back together.