The racial question

Harassment of pro-democracy activists in Malaysia reveals a worrying undercurrent of racism

THE house of Ambiga Sreenevasan in a leafy neighbourhood of Kuala Lumpur looks ordinary enough. Getting into it, though, betrays a different reality. A security guard greets visitors, who are then scrutinised by newly installed surveillance cameras. A bodyguard hovers somewhere inside the house.

The precautions are revealing. Ms Ambiga has become the target of what she describes as “relentless attacks”, including death threats. They have thrust a middle-class lawyer (she is a former president of the Malaysian Bar Council) into the centre of politics in the run-up to what could be a pivotal general election.

Ms Ambiga is co-leader of the Bersih movement, a coalition of NGOs campaigning for free and fair elections. To her supporters, Bersih, which means “clean” in Malay, is dedicated to strengthening democracy in Malaysia, where the system is heavily skewed in favour of the ruling United Malays National Organisation (UMNO). The party has been in power continuously since independence in 1957; it governs in a coalition known as the Barisan Nasional (BN) mainly with two minority parties, one ethnic Chinese and the other Indian, reflecting the racial composition of the country. To many within UMNO, Ms Ambiga is a grave threat, the more so because Najib Razak, the prime minister, has to go to the polls by the second quarter of next year, but appears to be reluctant to call the election. Though his personal support rating is high, the coalition is less popular.

A mass rally called by Bersih in the capital in April (protesters are pictured above) attracted tens of thousands of people, including many opposition leaders. The event ended in riots and violence. Ever since, UMNO and its underlings have been demonising the leaders of Bersih, which may have cheered some from the majority Malay population but could also backfire against the government.

When it started in May, the harassment of Ms Ambiga was almost farcical. A posse of traders turned up outside her door frying burgers to protest about their lost earnings on the day of the rally; silly stuff, though still offensive to a Hindu vegetarian. Sillier still, a group of ex-soldiers marched on her house and shook their buttocks at it, calling her a subversive.

Then things turned nasty. Several hundred men handed over a petition saying that she was anti-Islamic (in a Muslim-majority country) and should leave Malaysia. Ms Ambiga says that these protests were “either sanctioned or supported by the state”. Finally, on June 26th, a veteran UMNO politician, Mohamad Aziz, said in parliament: “Can we not consider Ambiga a traitor…and sentence her to hang”.

This has caused a storm. Quite apart from the overt threat, the MP lit the touchpaper of Malaysia’s highly flammable racial politics; this was a Malay MP insulting a prominent member of the Indian community. The country’s 2m Indians are normally a divided lot, but they quickly rallied behind Ms Ambiga. Even the leaders of the BN-aligned Malaysian Indian Congress party denounced the MP, ostensibly their political ally. Mr Mohamad issued a limited apology to Indians in general, but not to Ms Ambiga personally.

Ms Ambiga believes the attacks on her, all by Malay men, are racist. She points out that her Malay co-leader of Bersih, a famous writer called A. Samad Said, has never been targeted.

It is as yet unclear whether the souring climate could turn Malaysia’s Indians against the BN. They make up only 8% of the population. Traditionally they have mostly voted for the BN, but some may now change their minds, especially in urban areas where Ms Ambiga is respected. After the BN’s Indian vote fell at the last election in 2008, Mr Najib worked hard to court Indians. Now, that may have been to little avail.

Mr Najib may also be personally tarnished. He portrays himself as a liberally minded champion of multiracial politics, yet critics say he has done little to rein in the racist attacks. When under pressure, the “warlords” of UMNO who constitute its nationalist backbone have often drawn on racial politics, playing up to Malay voters the supposed threats that Chinese and Indians pose to their institutionalised privileges in jobs and education. Under Mr Najib people had hoped for something better. Ms Ambiga accuses him of being “wet” for failing to take a stronger stand. His belated rebuttal to Mr Mohamad merely urged MPs not to say things that might “hurt the feelings of other races”.

Meanwhile, Ms Ambiga and other Bersih co-leaders (not the Malay one) have been issued with a bewildering demand for compensation from the Kuala Lumpur city council for costs incurred during the April rally. This includes a claim for “damage to trees” ($5,246) and “food and drink” for staff. The government has also brought charges against Anwar Ibrahim, the leader of the opposition, and several of his colleagues for a variety of offences arising from their participation in the April rally. Their cases go to court in the next few months; if they are convicted, they could be banned from standing in the election.

Political analysts argue that such tactics are a sign of nervousness—though the BN is very unlikely to lose the election. Since May, surveys suggest his support among Chinese and Indian voters has fallen, though that of Malays has increased a bit. It is all likely to make for a more acrimonious election when one is at last called.