Racial twist to Teoh’s death

Some blame Umno for the racial twist. The ruling party has focused strongly on ethnic solidarity over the past one year, as it seeks to claw back the Malay supporters it lost in last year’s general election.

The Straits Times

This week, when the opposition called for the service contract of Inspector General of Police Tan Sri Musa Hassan not to be extended, it took pains to stress that it was not a racial issue.

“This is not about challenging Malay leadership. This is about justice and human rights … Defending a Malay leader with questionable records is an insult to the Malays,” opposition leader Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim said on Tuesday.

The opposition did not want Tan Sri Musa’s contract to be extended for a variety of reasons – from the rising crime rate to claims that he was biased. Race did not enter the picture.

And yet it made a pre-emptive statement on race. The move made no sense – unless one took into account the recent death of an opposition worker, which had been turned into a racially charged controversy.

Teoh Beng Hock, 30, was found dead after he was questioned by the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) on July 16. His body was found on the rooftop of an adjacent building, having fallen from the 14th floor of the MACC building. The cause of death is now the subject of a coroner’s inquest.

The death triggered an outcry, led by the opposition but shared by many of all races, and it did not look remotely like a racial issue – until, that is, Utusan Malaysia and Berita Harian suggested that the controversy over the death was an attack on the Malay leadership of government institutions.

Zainul Arifin, the chief editor of the New Straits Times group which publishes Berita Harian, wrote a commentary asserting: “It’s not only the political parties who want justice. Everyone does. But don’t destroy all our institutions. Don’t be taken in by the words of people whose agenda is sometimes to question the competence of the Malays.”

The Utusan Malaysia carried a column a week later by Dr Mohd Ridhuan Tee, a senior lecturer at the National Defence University, saying that the incident had been blown out of proportion because it involved a Chinese death.

“There are Malays who had become victims like Beng Hock. The question is how many among us will defend that victim. Why is it when a Chinese dies … Malaysia reacts as if it’s a tsunami.”

Such views outraged some Malays. Malay lawyer Art Harun, for instance, expressed anger in his blog that Teoh’s death had been turned into an issue about Malay leadership. There were scores of similar comments in Internet forums.

Some blame Umno for the racial twist. The ruling party has focused strongly on ethnic solidarity over the past one year, as it seeks to claw back the Malay supporters it lost in last year’s general election.

But the harder question to answer is this: Which of the two opposing sentiments will find greater resonance among the Malay ground? Each side of the debate is as loud as the other, but the Malay ground has become hard to read.

There is indeed a feeling among some Malays that the government and Umno have given in too much to pressure from non-Malays. Former New Straits Times chief editor A. Kadir Jasin has said that Malays feel non-Malays are using the Teoh case to hit out at the Malay-led civil service as incompetent.

“It’s a widespread sentiment,” he said.

Former premier Mahathir Mohamad expressed a similar take after a recent forum on Malay rights that he had chaired. The forum was “actually a reaction to the situation now, where Malays are accused of being obstacles to the growth of the national economy, obstacles to national unity, obstacles to everything,” he was quoted as saying.

On the other hand, many, even within Umno, saw the Malay newspapers’ remarks on Teoh’s death as stretching things too far.

“I don’t think many Malays see the Teoh Beng Hock case as a racial issue, but there is a level of indifference to the case,” said the independent pollster Merdeka Centre director Ibrahim Suffian.

Besides, there is a perception among the Malay masses that the race debate is hollow as they have not benefited from the pro-Malay policies of the government. Among young Malays especially, racial sentiments compete with their disgruntlement over issues of governance and justice. There is a strong Malay sense of what constitutes fair play that cannot be underestimated.

Still, the Malay ground is hard to read in part because there have been many subtle shifts of late.

After the 2008 general election, it seemed for a while as if race politics was on the way out. Demonstrations in Penang against plans to dismantle pro-Malay policies in the state fizzled out with nary a whimper.

But over the last year, racial emotions have been ratcheted up again, as issues such as Malay supremacy and Malay rights have surfaced. At the moment, Malay sentiment appears to be tilting in Umno’s way again, but that could change.

What is clear is that the controversy over Teoh’s death has shattered the claim that race politics in Malaysia is on the way out.

A Merdeka Centre survey conducted at the end of last year found that youths tended to identify themselves more along ethnic and religious lines than as Malaysians. Most of the survey’s respondents were under 25.

About 51 per cent of the Chinese chose “Malaysian” as their identity, but only 42 per cent of Indians did so, and just 29 per cent of Malays. Religious and racial identification came first.

When asked if a non-Malay would be acceptable as prime minister, 36 per cent of Malays said it would, but only 7 per cent said they would accept a non-Muslim premier.

The Teoh Beng Hock case is a melancholic reminder that race and religion have not ceased to be the primary drivers of Malaysian politics.