Background

Pusat KOMAS launched its 10th National Conference: ‘Racism Sparks Extremism?’ on 14th January 2021 from 1530 hrs to 1800 hrs (MYT time). The conference aimed to scrutinise the current status of social cohesion and national harmony of multiracial Malaysia; and engage with stakeholders on the topic of racism and examine if extremism stems from racism directly. It also focused on examining the effectiveness of government bodies set up towards eliminating racism; and endeavoured to appreciate and affirm best practises that may be replicated in Malaysia. Curtailed by the MCO restrictions, participants and panellists (approx. 72 people) convened PART 1 of the National Conference on Zoom. The conference premiered a video ‘MEDIA DALANG RACISM’ and was consequently privileged to have had the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, Mr Ahmed Shaheed address the conference. The conference was moderated by SUHAKAM commissioner, Mr Jerald Joseph.

Premier of Video ‘Media Dalang Racism’

In brief, the video captures two friends of different ethnicities, initially amicable but upon reading an inflammatory newspaper headline, find themselves in a violent tussle. As it unfolds, the headline was published by a team who had been dealing with poor newspaper sales. To increase readership, the news team consciously sensationalised the headlines.

On the premier of the video, participants of the National Conference had made noteworthy, incisive observations: first, that media groups are, on occasion, agents of racism. Second, although news is a perishable commodity, racist sentiments invoked by media groups crystallise into long-term stereotypical tendencies in society. Media archives illustrate that unethical publications have indeed sowed seeds of discontent. In their rush to disperse news and clamour for consumer spotlight, media headlines assume stereotypical, prejudicial and provocative tones. Concomitantly, the more racially inflammatory the news, the more virulent they become.

The participants’ discussions gave rise to the following propositions. Unethical media reporting does not cause of racism or racial discrimination. The reporting only exacerbates society’s internalized and ingrained racism. This internalized racism stems from institutionalised socio-economic and political discrimination through policies and legislations. As such, consequences of social strife should be regarded as symptoms of deep-rooted discriminatory practices by state.

Keynote Address by UN Special Rapporteur Mr Ahmed Shaheed: ‘Racial Discrimination as a Precursor to Extremism’

Setting out the benchmarks for non-discrimination under international law, Mr Ahmrd Shaheed drew upon the Preamble and Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which prevails Equality as a fundamental pillar of international order. On that note, he underpinned that racial discrimination should be seen as a precursor to extremism. Racial discrimination manifests in various facets of politics: the politics of supremacism causes aggressors to reject equality and seek domination. This produces instances of the aggressors resorting to coercion by, for e.g., far-right parties, militant groups, religious fundamentalists. Likewise, the politics of exclusion leads to the rejection of equality too. Victims of such politics are de-humanized and subject to violence. This is a causal process apparent in Antisemitism, Islamophobia, xenophobia. And inadvertently, the politics of victimizationleads to marginalization, humiliation of the oppressed and in turn generates violence. In all these politics, Mr Shaheed highlighted that racism and discrimination in politics and political institutions spark and protract large-scale atrocities and engender human rights violations.

On the root causes of extremism, Mr Shaheed focused on the loss of trust in public institutions as a factor spawning extremists behaviour. Extractive economies, entrenched corruption, poor democracy and ailing democratic institutions cause people to lose trust in the governance of the country and feel inclined to want to assume order and power over others. In fact, the exclusion of communities by virtue of privilege claimed by some communities over others have the consequence of deepening cleavages within a diverse nation. Sustained exclusion over time creates environment ripe for conflict.

Mr Shaheed accentuated horizontal discrimination as an intrinsic cause for extremism. Such discrimination is between one person and another, or one ethnic community and another- without state involvement. Communities, in consequence, are vilified and feel marginalized.  Where whole communities are being identified by stereotypes, peoples’ realities and identities are thus denied. In the marginalization, resentment is born and runs deeps within social circles; it will fester into violence, eventually. In turn, there are groups who choose to exploit that resentment and anger. Exploitation by media and such channels amplify these undercurrent, entrenched emotions.

Recommendations

  1. As citizens of a pluralistic society, we must be able to see beyond racial lines. One must start knowing, interacting and learning about the others’ ideas and cultures.
  2. The state should endorse and affirm calls for admission that nobody is above the law. Politicians must therefore adhere to strict anti-incitement laws, must inescapably be held accountable, and consciously steer clear of race politics.
  3. To build social cohesion, Mr Shaheed insisted that strong anti-discrimination laws and policies should be absorbed from international frameworks.
  4. Open dialogues and debates on various issues must be promoted.
  5. Inclusive development policies benchmarking the SDG goals is imperative, but cannot be realised if policies support discrimination; and the state must respect for fundamental rights and freedoms for all, as it must promote inclusivity, cultural, ethnic and religious diversity.  
  6. On the role of media, it is was recommended that the media should play an active role in achieving positive-peace; and the media should be aware how their writing becomes a tool for conflict or peace.
  7. On the immediate steps for media consumers to undertake, consumers should keep a level head, remain objective and avoid temptations alluding to reactionary responses.
  8. The long term solution, however, necessitates grassroot awareness and mobilization on need to eradicate racial discrimination. Empowering the grassroots is key to ameliorating Malaysia’s ethnic-centred political narrative.