I’m kind of perturbed by this article in the New York Times on rising ethnic discontent in Malaysia that’s said to have been largely set in motion by the huge protest last November organized by ‘Hindraf’, the Hindu Rights Activist Force. The article says absolutely nothing about the other huge protest in November (indeed twice as large as the Hindraf rally, and arguably a kind of precedent or inspiration for it), the Bersih Rally, which was convened to call for clean and democratic elections, and whose agenda and attendance was specifically on non-racial terms.
But it seems that doesn’t interest the international press. Ethnic tension in the Third World always seems to be a theme that most qualifies it to get international coverage, as though it affirms some long-standing tradition that ethnic tension is What Happens in the Third World. That selectivity annoys me, especially when it comes to Malaysia, where so much is needed to deracialize politics, and to make people stop seeing things in that way — and here we have an international press that only seems to see race conflict amidst a whole plethora of political developments. Does the NYT know that after plans for the Hindraf rally were announced, there was an immediate ferment of discussion about whether or not people could bring themselves to support an Indian race-based protest after all the work that the Bersih Rally did to insist upon its non-racial agenda? Many thought it was counterproductive (here’s Haris Ibrahim on why he refused to support the race-based protest). Some even thought Hindraf’s announcement of the class-action lawsuit against the British government, for injustices wrought unto them during the colonial era, was ridiculous and plain embarrassing. Why cover the racial and in the latter respect somewhat silly Hindraf Rally rather than the non-racial Bersih Rally, when the latter came first, was bigger, much more unprecedented, and arguably had a more widely-applicable agenda?
It seems vicious somehow; ethnic tension in Malaysia is kept in place by ruling elites, discontent expressed in racial terms, racialized political representation (our main political parties are all race parties), the lessons of ethnic discord that our textbooks and school curricula insist we draw from history. Race keeps being important because it is kept important. And now too, it seems, by selective international attention. Thanks a bunch, NYT!