Race, religion – and the fire of greed

Of late, the politics of race and religion has resurfaced in Malaysia, as if gasping for air after being submerged by last year’s political tsunami.

Oct 13, 2019

By Anil Netto
Of late, the politics of race and religion has resurfaced in Malaysia, as if gasping for air after being submerged by last year’s political tsunami.

Those behind it are trying their best to remind us that they are still relevant, still intent on dividing us along ethno-religious lines.

Yes, the old politics has come back to haunt the new Malaysia. So what what is it that is driving this politics of race and religion?

Is it a fear of being left out? Certainly, some people might be feeling cut off from the gravy train they are so used to – the easy access to lucrative contracts, handouts and shareholdings.

Others might be keen on avoiding corruption charges, so they latch on to those in power, thinking it will save them from legal action.

Still others want to consolidate their political base either to strengthen their positions in government or to make a political comeback.

What easier way than to manipulate primordial sentiments and insecurities. Many political leaders around the world are finding it easy to manipulate identity issues to bolster their power base. It is even easier for them to do this now over social media, where messages can be targeted at specific demographic groups.

The economic slowdown has also made ordinary people feel disgruntled. This makes them vulnerable to politicians deftly putting the blame for their low incomes on “the others” - eg minority groups, “liberals”, foreigners, migrant workers and refugees.

When people feel stressed and think their position is being threatened, they find it harder to think rationally or to listen to more sober voices. They may then be more attuned to listening to louder emotional voices playing up ethno-religious sentiments or promising the moon.

This could pave the way for “strongmen” with authoritarian tendencies to ride roughshod over the democratic system.

Ordinary folks may not be able to see that some of these demagogues who were supposed to protect them took advantage of their positions to skim off vast sums of money – funds that could have been used to help the people.

It is often greed that is a major threat to society – greed that divides, greed that pollutes and greed that keeps people enslaved and exploited.

True, many ordinary people have fallen behind despite years of affirmative action policies. Government policies and projects may not have reached them – or if they had, they did not empower them for the long-term.
Instead, large sums of public funds were siphoned away to secret offshore bank accounts.

This is why the Shared Prosperity theme is not bad thing, if the right policies are introduced. We need more distributive justice in Malaysia.

The reality is that we live in a society with diverse cultures, ethnic backgrounds and spiritual differences. We need inclusive leaders who can govern all of the people – not divide them into compartments.

The truth is that we are all members of the human race. And the human race is part of the ecological system, the biosphere. Francis of Assisi, whose feast we celebrated recently, could see how interconnected we all are, even back in the 12th Century.

Last week, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michele Bachelet, ended her visit to Malaysia, the first ever by a UN human rights chief.

She called on all Malaysians to “celebrate the kaleidoscope of ethnicity, religion, language and other identities that make Malaysia so special – by standing up for the rights of others, especially those whose beliefs, background or other status differ from yours”.

“And – this is crucial – please be suspicious of, and spurn, any efforts to stoke racial or religious hatred, online and offline.”

She said it was easy to create divisions in society and so difficult to repair the social fabric once damaged. “Only when we seek to protect the human rights of all of us can we hope for lasting stability and prosperity.”
We badly need to rise above superficial differences that are literally skin deep, given the existential crises we are confronted with. This is the time for us to come together in spirit and in truth to tackle a string of serious issues.

While we are obsessed with issues of race and religion, serious threats loom before us. The threat of nuclear proliferation. Climate change. Water scarcity. Rising sea levels. Refugees fleeing war, persecution, famine, even climate change. The recurrent smog from hot spots in South East Asia. And now fires blazing in the Amazon, on the other side of the world.

These fires, believed to be human-induced, are endangering indigenous peoples – adding to climate worries.
“May God preserve us from the greed of new forms of colonialism,” said the Bishop of Rome as he opened a three-week Synod of Bishops for the Amazon at St Peter’s Basilica on Oct 6. Francis has even apologised for the offences of the Church and crimes against the indigenous peoples during the imperial conquest of the Americas.

The Synod is to explore a new way forward — focusing on integral ecology especially in the Amazon and rainforests around the world. These forests, rich in biodiversity, are critical for the survival of the human race.

The Church is breaking new ground in its mission there (married men as priests?). But much more can be done – it is time to empower the women in the Church during these critical times.

Meanwhile, a great fire is destroying the forests of the Amazon. These forests have nourished the rivers and water basins there, preventing the land from turning barren and dry like the Sahara.

“The fire set by interests that destroy, like the fire that recently devastated Amazonia, is not the fire of the Gospel,” warned the Bishop of Rome.

Francis contrasted these two types of fire. “The fire of God is warmth that attracts and gathers into unity. It is fed by sharing, not by profits.”

The fire in the Amazon, on the other hand, “blazes up when people want to promote only their own ideas, form their own group, wipe out differences in the attempt to make everyone and everything uniform”.

More often than not, the latter is fuelled by greed – for power and money.

Indeed, greed for power and money can be a toxic cocktail that allows demagogues to manipulate public insecurities for their own purpose. We cannot afford to fall for their ploys to divide us.

Instead, we must come together and rise to a higher plane of awareness to tackle the crises we are confronted with.

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