Monday, March 8, 2010

Malaysia's racial rift deepening

Race politics remains biggest roadblock; race rhetoric rage unchecked

MARCH 8, 2008 was the turning point in Malaysia's journey to political maturity, the day when people set aside their communal feelings for the sake of the nation - or so one wanted to believe then. Two years ago today, Malaysians turned out in droves to cast their vote in the country's 12th general election. Indians wore T-shirts bearing the logo of Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS), while Malays shook the hands of candidates from the largely Chinese-based Democratic Action Party (DAP). The ruling coalition lost its two-thirds majority and the opposition won control of five states.

Today, two years later, things could not have turned out more differently from what people expected. Far from fading, racial fault lines in the country have deepened. There is a real rift between the Malay and non-Malay communities, and within the Malay community as well. The split among the Malays is becoming more evident as they disagree openly among themselves on the issues of race and religion.

In a few short months, Malaysia has witnessed in succession several troubling events. One was the 'Allah' controversy. The High Court's decision to allow a Catholic publication to use the word 'Allah' to refer to God upset many Malays. As tensions rose, places of worship were vandalised. Before that, several Muslims stamped on a cow's head to oppose the building of a Hindu temple in their neighbourhood. They were later charged with sedition. Each of these events crossed an invisible boundary that Malaysians had flirted with before but not ventured beyond.

The intensifying of race politics has much to do with Umno losing the dominant position that it had become accustomed to. Umno Youth chief Khairy Jamaluddin, one of the ruling party's few centrist leaders, said the vacuum of leadership that arose when the BN lost its two-thirds majority had allowed race rhetoric to rage unchecked. But Umno was not just a bystander, of course. Significant segments of Umno had also abandoned the middle ground and fallen back to courting the Malay base by appealing to religious and racial sentiments.

As political analyst Khoo Kay Peng wrote in his blog: 'Events in the last months suggested that Umno may have unleashed all possibilities to strengthen its ethno-religious credentials hoping to shore up its Malay support base.' It fed and fanned Malay insecurity by, among things, painting the opposition Malay parties as puppets of their Chinese partners and accusing them of neglecting Malay interests. Deputy Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin even described opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim as a traitor to the Malays. The Umno-owned Utusan Malaysia newspaper launched a vitriolic attack against what it saw as the excessive demands of the non-Malays.

One thing that has changed after the March 8, 2008, polls, however, is that it has become difficult to use Malay economic privileges to galvanise the masses because the opposition had effectively discredited Umno's credentials on this score. Its campaigns had ensured that Umno's defence of Malay rights is seen as a euphemism for protecting the political elite, not the masses. Islamic issues are an entirely different matter. And in recent months, Malaysia has seen an increasing push towards Islamisation, as part of Umno's efforts to shore up its role as a defender of Islam.

The 'Allah' controversy and the recent caning of three Muslim women for illicit sex were among the means to this end. Umno also challenged the DAP-led Penang state government over its initial decision to replace a procession to mark the Prophet Muhammad's birthday with a religious seminar. These issues could have put PAS in an awkward position but it surprised everyone by refusing to take the baits. Its spiritual leader Nik Aziz Nik Mat was central to this decision, though it was not without some cost to its Islamic credentials. But though PAS has managed to resist the pressure, the tense atmosphere and the months of controversy have hardened positions on all sides.

Out of this morass has emerged Perkasa, an ultra-right Malay non- governmental organisation, led by independent MP Ibrahim Ali, that wants to defend Malay rights against what it says are more strident non-Malay demands.

While Umno is not openly aligned with it, Perkasa appears to have some backing from the ruling party as it has pulled off feats like meetings with senior government leaders and even won a coveted permit to publish a newspaper. Internet commentators have charged that Umno is outsourcing its radicalism.

Political writer Neil Khor sees a strategy in Umno's encouragement of ultra-right groups while demonising the opposition for allegedly sidelining Malay interests. This, he says, would leave Umno in the middle. The problem, of course, is that Umno's idea of a centrist position may be far from many Malaysians' idea of the middle ground. Malaysia is used to race rhetoric, but the events of recent months are nevertheless unsettling.

That journey Malaysians began on March 8 two years ago today may have started them on a different path. But race politics remains as ever the biggest roadblock. Carolyn Hong, Malaysia Bureau Chief Singapore Straits Times

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