Friday, 17 July 2020

Letter to the Editor: Make A Stand Against Racism and Sexism


It is correct, proper, and just that the honourable Speaker of the House Datuk Azhar Azizan Harun demanded that Baling MP Abdul Azeez retract his racist and sexist comments made on 13 July against Batu Kawan MP Kasthuri Patto. The decision should have been made more swiftly and decisively to prove Parliament’s unambiguous stand against racially and sexually derogatory language and conduct, and commitment to upholding a certain standard of decency and fair play. 

The purpose and intent of the doctrine of parliamentary privilege is to protect the freedom of parliamentarians to discuss sensitive or controversial issues that may affect laws or the running of a country. It is not intended to protect offensive and persecutory language designed to harass or intimidate political opponents and stymie actual debate and discussion. 

An elected representative who is a repeat offender should therefore face harsher sanctions than a mere retraction of the last offensive statement made. 

Abdul Azeez’s conditional apology is not an apology but an attempt to deflect blame and paint himself as a victim. His claim that he could not possibly be racist or be discriminatory against someone of dark complexion because he is himself of dark complexion cannot be accepted as sincere or truthful. Racism and colour discrimination can be internalised even by those from ethnic minorities or of dark complexion, just as misogyny can be internalised by women through years of social conditioning. 

His claim that he did not intend to be racist also cannot be accepted by any rational person. What other purpose could he have for heckling another elected representative by making fun of her skin colour? If it were indeed true that the seat Kasthuri Patto was sitting in was dimly lit, and Abdul Azeez had no intention of practicing racism or colour discrimination, he would not have asked her to “put on some powder”, but would instead invite her to step forward or present her views from a more brightly-lit area. Instead, his comments that she is “too dark and cannot be seen” and that she should “put on some powder” in order to make herself visible are malicious and intended to ridicule, humiliate, and intimidate a female elected representative as she was raising the very pertinent issue of the lack of female representation in the Select Committee. 

The question to be asked is not whether: “Is Abdul Azeez also of dark complexion?” but “Would he have uttered a similarly disparaging remark to someone of a fairer skin colour?”. The answer is necessarily no, because fair skin is not an object of ridicule and would not have the intended effect of silencing and humiliating the person being teased. 

The next question is “Would he have uttered similar words to another man, that he should somehow alter his physical appearance to make himself more attractive or visible?” The answer is again, no. Men have a long history of talking over women and interrupting or attempting to silence women with offensive and derogatory words often irrelevant to the issue at hand, designed to attack women’s femininity or physical appearance, to make women feel unwelcome and disrespected. This is simply not done to other men, except men who are disabled or who are seen as less masculine than the average man. 

The third question would be “Would he have uttered such words to someone belonging to a majority ethnicity or group, or someone who holds more political or social power than he does?” The answer again is no, because there would be grave repercussions for doing so, and Abdul Azeez’s history in politics indicates that he does not pick on those who hold the majority of support and power. Thus his words and conduct clearly constitute an act of punching down. Parliamentary privilege should never be extended to acts of punching down designed to harass and intimidate other elected representatives and stop useful and constructive debate. 

Elected representatives need to face serious repercussions for hate speech and offensive and discriminatory language and conduct. We have the right to hold them to a higher moral standard because we elected them to represent our values and interests. They should be subjected to greater scrutiny than the average citizen and be made accountable for their words and actions. 

Other elected officials should demonstrate that they are good allies who are capable of making a stand against injustice, inequality, and discrimination, by speaking up against racism and sexism, and standing up for another person facing bullying and unfair attacks, no matter which political party he or she is from. This is not because the tables could be turned one day and you could find yourself sitting on the Opposition bench, but because standing up for someone who is unfairly treated is the decent, just, and responsible thing to do. Your political views can differ from that of someone else, but you need to stand up for someone who is being unfairly treated or ridiculed based on his or her gender, race, faith, skin colour, physical attributes, or other vulnerability. This will persuade us that we, the electorate, have made the right choice in electing and supporting you, and that you are a representative who will protect and assist everyone, especially the marginalised and vulnerable. 

We need to take a stronger and more decisive stand against racism and sexism as a society. We know that it happens to women and people of different races in different settings – when it comes to the hiring of workers, the selection of tenants, or the treatment of employees and customers, for instance. We know that some categories of people are more susceptible to discrimination and unfair treatment than others, and we need to make it clear that it is unacceptable and we will not participate in the discrimination. We need to have the courage to say to someone in a position of power or privilege: “That sounded rather unkind”, “That doesn’t seem fair to me”, “It is only fair that we meet this applicant and interview him/her first”, “She/he is not done talking, please let her continue”, “She/he has a point, let’s hear it from her/him.” We need to centre and amplify the voices of those who are not heard and who had not enjoyed the same privileges and opportunities that we had. Just because we are not participating in the act of bullying or discrimination does not mean we are not complicit in systemic sexism, racism, and discrimination against those who hold less political and social power than we do. It is time for all of us to listen, learn, and change. And this change includes rejecting and voting out politicians whose values are not consistent with those of an equitable, just, and progressive society.