Opinion

BTN issue is a Pandora’s Box

Ooi Kee Beng

Ooi Kee Beng is the deputy director of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.

DEC 19 — One more Pandora’s Box was recently opened in Malaysian politics.

The Youth Wing of Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) managed beyond its own expectations to draw public critical attention to the highly dubious nature of courses organised by the Biro Tata Negara (BTN, National Civics Bureau).

Selangor’s Pakatan Rakyat government decided to stop civil servants and students who had won grants and scholarships to attend BTN courses where they purportedly endure lectures extolling the inherent superior status of the Malay race and the permanent sojourner status of all other Malaysians. This move was followed by the Penang government, and Kelantan state is considering the same.

The public declaration released a chorus of individual voices regretting their attendance at these courses. Paradoxically, even PKR head Anwar Ibrahim was implicated for participation in them two decades ago. He has somehow managed to fend off criticism about his role.

BTN course had been going on for decades, and although long an open secret, the thrusting into the limelight of this covert method that Umno had been using to propagate its ideology — if one can credit crass racialism with such an epithet — reveals something significant about Malaysian politics.

Can an open secret be suddenly revealed? Obviously; and it is psychologically interesting to note that so many in high places quickly go into denial mode.

This has various reasons.

To start with, there is in Malaysian politics a long tradition for knee-jerk denial by the powers-that-be of anything detrimental to Umno. Here, facts did not really matter. The control that the Centre had over information and public discourse was strong.

A Press that had been obedience for decades is assumed to be unwilling and unable to challenge claims made by top leaders in the ruling coalition, whether baseless or not. A simple disclaimer used to suffice, especially if done by a top Umno leader.

By extension, those who consumed mainstream press information were also assumed to be unwilling and unable to voice disagreement with such claims.

What long-term leaders such as Deputy Premier Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin or the head of the BTN, Datuk Ahmad Maslan, do not seem to have grasped is that those days are gone. Finito.

Channels of information in Malaysia are now plentiful, and many of them are not within the control of the government. These have function over the last decade or so in bringing alternative reporting and dissenting views into the open, as is sharply reflected in the celebration of the tenth anniversary of Malaysia’s first web newspaper, Malaysiakini.

Malaysia’s bloggers, whether serious in their writing or not, have taken politics to a record level, leaving the mainstream media with no alternative but to consider how they are to save their dwindling credibility.

A growing proportion of the politically maturing population no longer relies on the mainstream media for their information. More than that, they are very willing to voice their views.

Apparently, the only people still relying on the mainstream media for information is a select group of Umno and BN leaders.

But what is really interesting is that some top Umno leaders — notably Law Minister Datuk Seri Nazri Aziz and Umno veteran Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah — who immediately admitted that the BTN courses were archaic and should be closed down or revised thoroughly.

Even Datuk Seri Najib — using his wish to proselytise 1Malaysia — is wishing for the courses to be revised. This signals that more disunity is to be expected within the Cabinet.

Attention is now drawn to the open box. Whatever peripheral reforms Premier Najib and his Cabinet may be able to carry out, however well the national economy may recover, and however badly Pakatan Rakyat fails to put up a united front, the days when racialism was considered acceptable as a pillar for nation building are gone.

As Tricia Yeoh, Research Officer to Selangor Menteri Besar Khalid Ibrahim said in a private interview, “the discourse on BTN being a tool of Barisan propaganda to perpetuate a racist ideology is just beginning; this will bring to light the experiences of thousands of Malaysians who have been through it”.

“It is a time of reckoning for Barisan and Umno to determine once and for all what they really believe in and what they actually implement, in spite of all the 1 Malaysia talk.” — TODAY

The writer is a Fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. His latest book is Arrested Reform: The Undoing of Abdullah Badawi.

 

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