Racial Tensions Rise in Malaysia

The question is whether the anger will play itself out in yet another by-election.  The Pakatan Rakyat coalition has won five of six by-elections since the March 2008 national polls eliminated the Barisan’s longstanding two-thirds majority in the parliament.

Asia Sentinel

The political aspirations of Malaysia’s ethnic minorities are rising uncomfortably, threatening the country’s delicate racial balance, analysts in Kuala Lumpur say.

The minority communities’ political discontent over 40 years of entitlement programs given to ethnic Malays helped fuel the results of the 2008 national elections that saw the opposition gain power in five states and the federal territory of Selangor.

Existing tensions have been exacerbated in recent weeks by a number of issues, including the suspicious death on July 16 of Teoh Beng Hock, an aide to a top opposition Democratic Action Party (DAP) leader, whose body was found atop a building next to the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission headquarters. He had been taken there to be questioned over allegations of wrongdoing by his boss but his death was ruled a suicide.  The incident is only one of many unexplained deaths at the hands of law enforcement officials in Malaysia over recent years, but since the victim was Chinese, racial overtones have become unavoidable. 

In addition, the MACC is believed to be investigating an unknown number of DAP lawmakers on corruption charges, leading to allegations that the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition is using law enforcement agencies for political purposes. Barisan figures, however, argue that the MACC is after their people as well.

At the same time, the umbrella Pakatan Rakyat coalition, which made stunning gains against the ruling coalition in 2008, is fraying at the edges due to squabbling between the Malay fundamentalist Parti Islam se-Malaysia and the DAP, which is dominated by Chinese, over a variety of issues including an attempt by a DAP councilor to stop a PAS raid on beer supplies at a 7-Eleven, and the destruction of a pig slaughterhouse in the northern state of Kedah. 

The infighting has become so intense that Lim Kit Siang, the venerable leader of the DAP, issued a statement warning that the alliance could become a “one-term wonder” if the spat isn’t settled.

Malaysia has existed in an uneasy racial mix since July 1969, when hundreds were believed killed in pitched battles between Malays, who make up more than half the population, and the Chinese, who make up about 25 percent. The Chinese continue to control most of the country’s economic wealth despite the 1971 imposition of an affirmative action program for ethnic Malays called the New Economic Policy.  Anwar Ibrahim, the opposition leader, has called for an end to the NEP, charging that it has only enriched a handful of rent-seekers and cronies of the United Malays National Organisation.

“Overlaid with the current problems is rising ethnic awareness,” said a longtime political analyst with a Kuala Lumpur think tank. “Hope that a multi-racial opposition would dilute ethnicity in politics hasn’t happened. Instead, the opposite has happened. A group in PAS feels ignored, or slighted, or exasperated and is now flexing its muscles in Pakatan. And this group finds common ground with UMNO, which is prompting growing rapprochement between the two political parties.”

Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak, who came to power in March, is attempting to pull together what one longtime political analyst called a “Singapore model” — economic liberalization coupled with political authoritarianism. Opposition rallies have been raided or declared illegal on a regular basis, even down to busting up a birthday party. The latest occurrence was an announcement Friday by Rais Yatim, the information, communications and culture minister, that the country is considering a “green dam”style Internet filter to stop access to undesirable websites, particularly pornography. Even the Chinese government has backed away from instituting such a policy in the face of international criticism.

Najib’s tactics appeared to be working at first. He came into office even less popular than his predecessor, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, tarred by a wide range of scandals ranging from allegations of bribery during his stint as defense minister to questions over his involvement in the murder of a Mongolian woman jilted by his best friend. However, his economic policies pulled up public approval sharply for UMNO, the leading ethnic party in the Barisan.

However, continuing public fury over Teoh’s purported suicide cut into Najib’s good news, especially after the water cannons and truncheons came out at a massive (by Malaysian standards) demonstration on July 31 to protest the government’s continued use of the colonial-era Internal Security Act, which allows for detention without habeas corpus. The demonstration drew as many as 20,000 participants; some 600 were arrested amid a haze of tear gas in the crackdown.

“If you’re Chinese you’d like to believe the Malays killed him,” says a lawyer connected to UMNO. “But so many Malays die in police custody. Prior to this, the MACC investigated 22 UMNO MPs and 12 were charged.  But as soon as the MACC investigates five Chinese, it’s the MACC targeting Chinese. The DAP has made this into a race issue. No, we have a serious race problem in this country. Perhaps that’s what everybody wanted – push the envelope to see what happens.”

Certainly, there is plenty of envelope-pushing on all sides.  In a flamethrowing article earlier this week in the UMNO-owned Malay-language Utusan Malaysia last week, journalist Noor Azam called on ethnic Malays “not to be cowards anymore and rise up to face the challenges being posed by the Chinese and Indians in Malaysia.” The article accused the DAP of manipulating Malay leaders in the Pakatan Rakyat opposition coalition and warned that should it come to power, “Malay special rights and the NEP are no more.”  He accused the opposition of stirring race hatred and called ethnic Malays “a race of stupid cowards, and people who are cowards will die before even their deaths.”

The temperature is set to rise higher during expected annual district and regional conclaves for UMNO, when the rhetorical pitch grows more intense. There is spreading anger among Malays over a remark by Jeff Ooi, a blogger and popular DAP activist from Penang, who called Jemaah Islah Malaysia, an Islamic missionary organization, extremist for advocating shariah, or religious law.

“That’s an insult to all Malays,” said the UMNO lawyer. “It’s an insult to all of Islam.  All of us Malays would like shariah law.”

The question is whether the anger will play itself out in yet another by-election.  The Pakatan Rakyat coalition has won five of six by-elections since the March 2008 national polls eliminated the Barisan’s longstanding two-thirds majority in the parliament.

On July 31, a PAS assemblyman from the Permatang Pasir district in Penang died of a heart attack. The lawmaker was PAS’s only representative in the Penang state. The by-election, for which the date has yet to be set, will determine whether the Pakatan coalition’s political strength is still rising.

In the most recent by-election, in the heart of opposition territory, the Pakatan candidate won by only 65 votes. Permatang Pasir is part of Anwar’s stronghold. If the opposition loses the seat, or even does badly, it will be an indication that its popularity is declining.