Saturday, September 4, 2010

The ugly politics of race in Malaysia

Malaysia has just this week celebrated its formation with Hari Merdeka (Independence Day), with its "1 Malaysia, Generating Transformation" theme, which is meant to emphasise national unity. Which is great in concept, of course, but the last few weeks have done much to expose this as mere wishful thinking. "1 Malaysia" is also the name of a campaign instigated by Prime Minister Najib Razak to promote ethnic harmony and unity; but it would be easier to take seriously if members of Najib's ruling coalition (Barisan Nasional) did not have a continual need to make racist statements about the ethnic Chinese and Indians.

Recently there have been comments like this one from Nasir Safar, a special officer to the PM, that "Indians came to Malaysia as beggars and Chinese especially the women came to sell their bodies", and "Indians in Malaysia have crossed the line ... Don't force the government. We can anytime revoke the citizenship of the Indians in Malaysia."

Or from Ibrahim Ali (pictured right), an Independent MP in the ruling coalition and head of controversial Malay-rights organisation Perkasa, who recently stated “It is necessary for the government to delay any allocation and approval of projects for the Chinese community,” because the Chinese in Selangor had mostly voted for the opposition.

Perkasa's economic director, Dr Zubir Harun, warned that the Chinese community will use the next general election to take over the country. While Perkasa's Petaling chairperson, Zainal Abidin Ahmad, lodged a complaint with police against a Protestant church in the Muslim-majority suburb of Shah Alam for planning to stage a Christian play during Ramadan, and accused them of attempting to preach Christianity to Muslims. “We want the church and pastor to be investigated for sedition and for insulting the Sultan," he said.

Perkasa is not part of the government per se (indeed, they have accused Najib of favouring non-Malays too much), but they are part of a spectrum of Malay interest groups, including the major party UMNO, pushing a particular racial barrow right now. Another is Utusan Malaysia, the leading Malay-language newspaper, which has been accused of stirring up ethnic tensions.

So why is this rhetoric against non-Malays at such a high level right now?

It is important to realise that race, religion and political affiliation are difficult to untangle from each other in Malaysia. If you are Malay, you are Muslim; there is no other option available. Thus anything deemed anti-Muslim is also anti-Malay, and vice-versa. Malays are primarily represented by UMNO (United Malay National Congress), the party of PM Najib.

So much of socio-political discourse in Malaysia revolves around one key issue; Ketuanan Melayu, or Malay supremacy, the idea that Malaysia primarily belongs to the Malay majority. Malays are granted special rights (educational scholarships, employment in the civil service, housing assistance) not available to the Chinese and Indian minorities, who have generally been living in Malaysia for several generations. These minorities are expected to be grateful for the kindness of the Malay people for allowing them to live on Malay land. Unsurprisingly, most non-Malays would happily do away with these affirmative action policies, which they claim are discriminatory, do not address actual poverty, and lead to inefficiency by promoting race over ability.

In the last few years, UMNO, the major party in the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition, has faced an unprecedented challenge from Anwar Ibrahim's Pakatan Rakyat coalition, which promises a move away from ethnic-based economic policies. Pakatan Rakyat's appeal is broad, due to its unlikely coalition partners; the conservative Islamic party PAS, the predominantly Chinese centre-left party DAP, and the centrist PKR. With the government's attempts to discredit Anwar Ibrahim (through corruption and sodomy charges) proving unsuccessful in terms of votes, they seem to have decided that divisive racial politics are the only thing that will save them.

Because non-Malay voters have deserted BN in droves, BN seems to have decided it doesn't really need them. Instead, they are putting their eggs in the basket of Malay supremacy; trying to shore up the Malay vote by stirring up prejudice against non-Malays on one hand, and championing the special rights of Malays on the other. No doubt it hopes that this extreme Malay nationalist sentiment will lead to the "post-racial" Pakatan Rakyat being seen as a threat to Malay interests.

It is against this backdrop that Malaysian discourse about race and racism needs to be understood.

The authorities do take a firm stand on racism - enacting the draconian ISA (Internal Security Act) to detain without charge anyone seen as inciting racial tension - except for one problem. Inflammatory statements by Malays (or at least Malays who support the notion of ketuanan Melayu) are routinely overlooked, while innocuous incidents by anyone on the other side are seized upon as inflammatory and dealt with harshly. Equally, the authorities are fond of taking a "shoot the messenger" approach; ignoring inflammatory statements made by Malay leaders, but regarding those who report or comment on them as being seditious (such as the cases of blogger Raja Petra Kamaruddin and reporter Tan Hoon Cheng).

A few recent examples:

In Kedah, a school principal was accused of racist treatment of Chinese students. The school canteen had closed for the fasting month, and the minority of Chinese students had to find their own food. But after seeing some of them eating breakfast in a common area, the principal accused them at school assembly of being disrespectful to the Malays who were fasting, and that they should go back to China. Another teacher allegedly subsequently told them to take an AirAsia flight "because the fares are cheap now".

This came not a week after Siti Inshah Mansor, the Malay principal of a middle school in Johor, allegedly said in a speech at her school's Merdeka celebrations: "Chinese students are not needed here and can return to China or Foon Yew schools. For the Indian students, the prayer string tied around their neck and wrist makes them look like dogs because only dogs are tied like that." She also reminded the non-Malay students of their place in the country, by giving the example of owning a car and then letting 'Munusamy' and 'Chong' in as passengers.
"Munusamy and Chong are only passengers," she is alleged to have said, "They cannot claim any right to the car. This is the same as Malaysia in which the non-Malay students are passengers."

Various groups have come out calling for the sacking of Siti Inshah. Interestingly, a Facebook page has sprung up, with several thousand members, supporting the principal, who it labels as a victim of politics. Ibrahim Ali of Perkasa predictably came out in support of her as well.

Controversial Chinese-Malaysian rap artist Namewee released a song on Youtube (since removed) entitled Nah, which attacked Inshah's remarks with some vulgarity and alluded to non-Malays being responsible for Malaysia's wealth. Namewee has since had his home raided and faces possible sedition charges. Siti Inshah has apparently faced no criminal charges.

Recently another furore erupted when opposition MP Teo Nie Ching (pictured left) visited a surau (prayer room) on official business, and was invited in. However because she was not wearing proper headcovering, some Muslim leaders were in uproar, seeing this as disrespectful of her religion. Teo has since apologised, although Islamic Party PAS backed her and encouraged her to visit more mosques. UMNO Vice-President Hishamuddin Hussein slammed PAS for encouraging a "dirty" person such as (Chinese and non-Muslim) Teo to enter a mosque. Hishamuddin has form for this kind of thing, having previously supported the Malays who dragged a cow's head through the streets of Shah Alam in protest at the construction of a Hindu temple (which was seen as disrespectful to Malays since it was a primarily Malay area).

Add to this some other recent rulings by BN that non-Muslims are forbidden from using certain words that are deemed the sole property of Muslims ("Allah" being the most obvious example), and accusations that Muslim sensitivities are not being respected, and you have to wonder. While it is true that the Malays as a whole still lag behind the ethnic Chinese in terms of wealth, their grip on social and political power seems unassailable. So why then do so many Malays feel that they are constantly being somehow downtrodden, victimized and their sensitivities disrespected?

Simple: because their leaders are always telling them that they are. And because it leads to a good political outcome for UMNO. Whether this sort of dirty racial politics leads to a good outcome for Malaysia as a whole is a different question entirely.


  1. I did not know this was going on. This article makes me feel digusted with Malaysian politics and the fact that I'm Chinese makes these actions even more offensive.

    I really like your blog and the intelligence with which you discuss political topics.

  2. @ Alyse:

    Thanks! I should add that Chinese-Malaysians are not necessarily blameless in all this - there is plenty of anti-Malay prejudice from their ranks as well, and many would complain that given the economic power of the Chinese community, this sets non-Chinese at a disadvantage. But political power is firmly in the hands of the Malay leaders, who abuse it frequently.

  3. hi, i'm a uni student. my fren told me about ur blog.
    i like the way u speak. u are bold and i respect that =) continue on!! i will link u to my bloggie. thanks 4 so much info and insight!!