Malaysiaku Mar 3 – Trump, Racism and Malaysia
A big thanks to everyone who attended our first session yesterday! It was great to meet everybody and the discussion was excellent. This year we’re looking to post summaries of our fortnightly Malaysiaku sessions online for the benefit of those who could not make it. Last night’s discussion focused on understanding how Trump was able to win the US election, how his policies will likely affect Malaysia and what parallels exist between the Trump administration and UMNO in Malaysia under Mahathir and now Najib.
Trump’s election victory should in fact be understood as a Clinton loss. Trump did not manage to swing large portions of the Democratic vote towards him, and he only managed to mobilise slightly more voters than previous candidates like Mitt Romney. However, his (false) appeals to the disenfranchised white working class, whose communities and jobs needs were neglected over the previous 8 years, managed to sustain his campaign. Due to Hillary Clinton’s problematic history as an establishment politician, close collaborator with the billionaires of Wall Street, and her and her husband Bill Clinton’s record on the policing and criminalisation of minority groups, the Democrats experiences a reduced vote among the poor and among Black and Latino communities. Voter turnout was also somewhat lower than in 2008 and 2012.
The main Trump policies to affect Malaysia in some way are the #MuslimBan, more hostile rhetoric towards China amid increasing tensions in the South China Sea, and withdrawal of the US from the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal. While the effective sinking of the TPP is arguably good news for poorer Malaysians, who would have received few of its benefits, the decision was made by Trump on protectionist grounds, to get ‘a better deal for American workers’. In all other aspects however Trump does not have a coherent plan for creating jobs in the US, and to date he has blamed the problem solely on migrants and competing nations. The #MuslimBan was of course virulently racist in nature and spirit, and combined with Trump’s intensely Islamophobic rhetoric will only help terrorist groups in the Middle East recruit members. Hundreds of innocent people were unjustly held before the ban was stayed by immense pressure from airport protests and the courts. Trump’s foreign policy of “bombing to hell” Daesh militants will only destabilise the Middle East and the world more generally. Similarly as imperialist rivalry between the US and China takes on an increasingly military form in the Trump era, Malaysia needs to seriously consider what it can do to de-escalate tensions.
In my talk, I argued that what we saw in the Trump administration should not have surprised us too much, as similar phenomena have been present in Malaysian politics for decades. The parallels occur at many levels. At a shallower level, Trump’s exaggerated behaviour, nepotism and disregard for the law, including sacking his Attorney General, is mirrored by both Mahathir and Najib. But at a deeper level, the mechanisms which UMNO has used to stay in power all these years, i.e. whipping up racial tensions and appealing to poor Malays about an imaginary threat from migrants, are exactly what right-wing demagogues like Trump, Marine Le Pen in France and Pauline Hanson in Australia use to win votes. In all cases, these demagogues rule for the rich, and keep the working poor distracted with racism. Just as Bernie Sanders during the early US presidential campaign was able to use a narrative of economic and social justice to win over the disenfranchised, I argued that our only hope for eliminating structural racism and poverty in Malaysia lies in a programme of progressive wealth redistribution and absolute rejection of racial politics of any sort.
During the discussion a range of points were raised, including:
- examples of people not covered by the #MuslimBan being stopped anyway demonstrating its racist nature
- the use of religious rhetoric and moral policing as a political tool in both the US and Malaysia
- the question of to what extent it is productive to engage with Trump voters/supporters/racists/Nazis
- the importance of understanding how democracy is about much more than the vote, but rather about defending minorities
- the extent to which the ‘deep state’ (courts, law enforcement, high-level bureaucrats and civil servants) will be able to regulate Trump’s behaviour
- an understanding that Trump’s victory has only made visible the imperialist and anti-democratic role the US has played globally over the past century
- a need to understand racism as a mechanism of systematic, structural oppression used to maintain power and not a question of individuals’ discriminatory behaviour that is intrinsic to human nature.
MPOZ is buoyed by the quality of last night’s discussion. We believe it categorically proves that despite being deprived of the space to discuss politics at home, Malaysians are more than capable of dissecting complex issues if given the space and information to do so. We are currently working on our next session to be held in 2 weeks time, where we will likely be discussing RU355 (a proposed amendment to hudud in Malaysia), and the issue of refugees in the Australian and Malaysian contexts. Please follow us on Facebook to stay up to date over the semester.