The classic divide-and-rule strategy

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As we celebrate 50 years of Independence and 44 years of Malaysia, we would do well to consider some of the cleavages in our society that have given rise to simmering tensions every now and then.

Our ethnic-based political system compartmentalises us into neat categories of Malays, Chinese, Indians, Kadazans, Iban, etc. And now we have certain groups dividing us on the basis of religion.

Granted, not all these divisions are created by the politicians but they have to bear some responsibility for allowing the system to unleash these forces and divisive laws and rules on the population. The bumi-non-bumi dichotomy is one such example; you know, the emphasis on race, rather than need, when it comes to affirmative action policies.

In the last few years, a new divide has emerged: the Muslim-non-Muslim divide. This has arisen from a number of factors which we won’t go into in this piece.

These divisions and cleavages are not a uniquely Malaysian phenomenon.

According to Asghar Ali Engineer of the Mumbai-based Centre for the Study of Society and Secularism, the ruling classes in India have used caste and communal issues to divert attention from horrific problems such as poverty, malnutrition and deaths from hunger. “The Gujarat carnage of 2002 took place precisely when the BJP Government was signing various international trade treaties and liberalising (the) economy benefiting (a) handful of economic elite.”

This is a piece I wrote in December for the Herald:

Chomsky regards fundamentalism and conservatism as a conscious effort to try and undermine progressive social policies.

Christian religious groups are mobilised into a political force to focus on specific moral issues such as gay marriages that are of no threat to CEOs of major corporations, he said. Meanwhile, the social dimension of the Gospel is ignored. Christ’s path of justice and peace has been shoved aside in favour of war and exploitation of human and natural resources.

As Chomsky notes, “And if you can shift the focus of debate and attention and presidential politics to questions quite marginal for the wealthy — questions of, say, gay rights — that’s wonderful for people who want to destroy the labour unions, or to construct a social/political system for the benefit of the ultra-rich, while everyone else barely survives.”

In Malaysia, notice how the focus on religious disputes has shifted attention away from certain crucial socio-economic issues.

During the recent Umno general assembly, the Article 11 coalition and other civil society groups came under fire from certain politicians. This succeeded in drawing the delegates’ – and the Malaysian public’s – attention away from the other major issues of the day.

What are these issues? The ongoing negotiations for a Free Trade Agreement with the United States; the widening gap between the rich and poor of all ethnic groups; the huge gulf between rich and poor Malays; the awards of contracts to cronies; the RM2 billion in non-performing loans suffered by Bank Islam; the Zakaria mansion fiasco and an array of corruption scandals. More recently, came the demolition of a squatter settlement along with the surau in Kampong Berembang, leaving Malay families homeless.

All these stories were marginalised as everyone started getting hot and bothered over the keris and the threats, whether real and imaginary, to various religious groups. Notice how successfully they have steered the debate away from these socio-economic issues to issues that divide society. It’s the classic colonial tactic of divide and rule.

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