What the Debate says about the Chinese
Writer: Tricia Yeoh
Published: Fri, 24 Feb 2012
The much hyped-up debate between Lim Guan Eng and Datuk Seri Dr Chua Soi Lek last weekend took place with as much drama as there was in the days leading up to it.
Organised by the Asian Strategy and Leadership Institute (ASLI), the debate themed as “Chinese at a Crossroads: Is the 2-Party System Becoming a 2-Race System?” pitted the leaders of political parties DAP and MCA against each other, both considered the de-facto ‘Chinese’ parties within their respective coalitions, i.e. Pakatan Rakyat and Barisan Nasional.
There is some value in conducting political debates, and we have seen brilliant examples taking place during the American presidential campaigns, amongst others. Such debates are useful for voters to hear for themselves positions taken by election candidates on key subjects.
It is also an opportunity for the public to come into close contact with political leaders, and raise pertinent questions from the floor. This interaction allows for some real face time between politicians and the electorate.
Having said that, this particular “Chinese” debate did not come anywhere close to having achieved such a standard, for several reasons – not to mention the crowd’s over-enthusiastic antics.
First, a quality debate requires an extremely experienced moderator, not just a chairperson who introduces the speaker and calls for questions at the end (in the Malaysian-style forum we are so accustomed to today). The moderator ought to plan out his questions according to the most important issues of the day.
Much thought needs to go into crafting the questions succinctly and sharply enough to challenge the speaker, summarising his points and moving quickly on to his opponent.
Topics covered in this case could have taken on a much broader scope: education, the economy, healthcare, social policy, crime and security, urban development, and numerous others. This perhaps may have had to do with the limiting subject provided, which brings me to my second point.
The fact that the entire conference was founded upon the ‘future of the Chinese’, and that the debate was framed in racial terms, is an indictment on Malaysians. Or rather, on the inability to see the world in lenses other than that coloured by race.
This is not a new problem – but that it is being perpetuated (and greatly encouraged by public response, no less) sends a signal that nothing much has really changed.
Reports of the debate stated that each side blamed the other for not being able to ‘stand up’ to their respective Malay-Muslim partner political parties. For example, MCA challenged DAP saying it would not be able to stop PAS from implementing its Islamic state agenda.
The DAP leader also scoffed at MCA for not being able to stand up to the corrupt ways of Umno. To be fair, the Penang Chief Minister did articulate a host of policy successes of his state, to prove that Pakatan Rakyat’s policies would be viable.
Although there was therefore an attempt to speak on policy terms, it was the theme of the debate, couched in ethnic language, that defined the boundaries of what the speakers were then expected to touch on.
One might argue that it is a fair concern of the Chinese community, that their various “rights” are under threat under the looming possibility of “Malay supremacy”, such as Chinese schools, Chinese culture, and so on.
But, let’s be clear. The future of Malaysia cannot continue to be built upon a foundation that is, put simply, divisive.
Is this not the same reason for which the likes of another race-based organisation (read: Perkasa) is criticised? Can we not imagine a similar conference on the “Future of Malays: Preserving our Race” being organised? If the Chinese community considers the latter a racist movement, should it not look at itself squarely in the face when it, too, is thoroughly excited about a debate that is centred purely on its own future (and not on any other)?
Many have applauded this advent of a debating culture, which does bring out issues into the open. More such live televised debates would certainly keep politicians on their toes. But for now, what this debate says about the Chinese in Malaysia is that this community still views its concerns as separate and distinct from the rest.
This is the unfortunate result of more than 50 years of playing the game of ethnic politics.
Shaping a debate along ‘Chinese’ terms today is reflective of a system that has not adapted to its changing environment.
Where once the country may have needed such an arrangement, this only reasserts an old paradigm that is narrow, regressive and dismissive of the plurality of identities that has collectively gained political traction.
Despite efforts to move toward an era where needs and demands are shared and justice dispensed regardless of race, we have shamefully little to show for it.