A bad week for Malaysia

Dennis Ignatius

This week the whole country was plunged into tumult when a few pairs of socks were discovered in the KK supermarket chain with the world ‘Allah’ on it. It should never have happened. Quite naturally, Muslims took offense.

Initial reports, however, seem to indicate that it was not something that was deliberately done by the company concerned to insult or demean the dominant religion. The company had nothing to gain from such a reckless and provocative move. Perhaps it was sabotage or the act of an unthinking and insensitive manufacturer somewhere in China who ought to have known better.

When the issue hit the news – thanks to an individual with a long history of provocative behaviour – the company acted responsibly and with haste. It apologized profusely; it immediately pulled the socks off the shelves, suspended its business with the local importer and promised full cooperation with the authorities who are now investigating the matter.

But instead of allowing the police to do their job, UMNO – which is part of the unity government – went on the offensive, milking the issue to the hilt to burnish its tarnished credentials. Social media quickly lit up with vitriolic comments. Passions were inflamed.

Clips of officials confronting – with or without official sanction – non-Muslim company employees in a rather thuggish manner didn’t help either. Other more chilling clips even showed swords being brandished and sharpened.

At the end of the day, the nation was left bruised and battered. Our already fragile national unity is now in tatters. The impression that it was somehow a calculated and deliberate assault on Islam by non-Muslims took root. Non-Muslims in turn were shocked and dismayed by what they considered an overreaction. The clip of officials intimidating a lone non-Muslim company employee generated deep angst and foreboding amongst non-Muslims.

The damage that has been done on both sides of the racial divide is incalculable. And it comes after an already bruising few weeks of angry, racially-tinged rhetoric over whether ‘bak kut teh’ should be made a national heritage dish, the proposal to declare Chinese New Villages as a UNESCO world heritage and the never-ending debate about vernacular schools.

What is not surprising is the role our politicians have played in this whole unfortunate series of events. By omission or commission, they must be held responsible for this latest downturn in race relations.

UMNO youth – with the tacit support of the party leadership – behaved in a particularly appallingly manner. Akmal Saleh, the UMNO Youth leader, appeared determined to incite, provoke and instigate a hostile response and keep the matter alive for as long as possible regardless of the consequences. Other UMNO leaders similarly joined the fray.

When he was brought into the unity government in the aftermath of the party’s disastrous performance in the last election, UMNO president Zahid Hamidi promised a new era of multiracial partnership and cooperation. But now that he has consolidated his position and with that infamous DNAA in his pocket, the gloves are off. Increasingly, UMNO is returning to the only political strategy it is familiar with: exploiting race and religion and championing ethno-religious nationalism.

But don’t blame UMNO alone; blame Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim, the man who brought UMNO into the unity government, the man who is now allowing UMNO to run riot across the political landscape ostensibly to win back Malay-Muslim support.

Anwar’s lack of leadership and commitment to the multiculturalism he once championed is beginning to show up more and more. He has allowed contentious issues to simmer unchecked. He did not act decisively and immediately to quell the socks issue; indeed, he was nowhere to be found when the sparks began to fly. And neither did he step in to moderate the acrimonious debate between his coalition partners on racially-tinged issues. Was It beyond him and his government to come up with common positions which are sensible, reasonable, moderate and acceptable to all?

Whatever it is, the utter lack of political leadership at a time when it was needed most, has left deep trauma that will linger long in our collective subconscious. It will further grow the sense of unease and alienation, suspicion and hostility. Many more may well conclude that they have no place in the Malaysia that Anwar is shaping, that it’s time to think the unthinkable and leave. All told, it’s been a bad week for Malaysia; no winners, only losers.