by Greg Lopez
In Malaysia, the 3Rs – race (the Malay race), religion (Islam) and royalty (the Malay Sultans) – ideology (code word for Malay supremacy) and strategy has underpinned the ruling party’s grip on the Malaysian community. Since the twelfth general election in 2008, however, the efficacy of this ideology and strategy appear to be on a downward slide, especially among urban Malaysians. The critical question now is: What extent will the prime minister and the leaders of UMNO use the politics of Malay supremacy to remain in power?
One of the most outspoken is the Sungai Besar United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) division chief, Datuk Jamal Md Yunos, who is organizing a “red shirt” rally for Sept. 16 (which coincidentally is Malaysia Day) to teach the Democratic Action Party (DAP) Chinese not to be rude to Malays. He has also warned non-Muslims to avoid Kuala Lumpur. Already rumors are spreading and the recent Low Yat riot comes to mind.
But the story is rapidly evolving. After fierce criticism from a wide spectrum of society, including from former UMNO stalwarts and public disavowal from prominent Malay associations, the ‘theme’ has now changed. It appears that it is no longer Himpunan Maruah Melayu (Rally for Malay Dignity), but rather a Himpunan Rakyat Bersatu (Rally for Citizens Unity). Questioned for its legality earlier, the rally is now legal according to Malaysia’s Inspector General of Police. It is now being organised by the Malay martial arts sports association, Pesaka (the National Silat Federation), whose chair is the former Malacca Chief Minister, and current UMNO senator, Tan Sri Mohd Ali Rustam.
Despite the cosmetics, the motive remains.
It’s a common practice for leaders in the Malay community, especially from UMNO, to rally their supporters by appealing to race, religion and royalty; the symbols of Malay supremacy in Malaysia. Legitimate challenges within Malaysia’s narrowly defined democratic space are interpreted as “humiliating Malays” by those at risk of losing power. This is entirely predictable and was seen most clearly at Malaysia’s thirteenth general elections. It is important to note that its antecedents are likely in the creation of the Malayan state.
The force of this ideology was seen most vividly at Malaysia’s third general election in 1969, when UMNO performed poorly and ethnic riots between Malays and Chinese took place on May 13. Accounts vary as to what actually happened, but the underlying message was that while Malaysia is a “democracy,” power must always remain with the Malays, and preferably under UMNO. Otherwise, the loss of Malay supremacy would see them become marginalized within their own nation (as argued by their proponents).
Since then, the specter of May 13 is often raised for a host of different reasons, from justifying affirmative action for the Malays to banishing ideas for further democratization. Ironically, it is the DAP – the most successful opposition party and predominantly Chinese – that is always the reason given as to why another May 13 could happen.
The specter of May 13 is also commonly used by beleaguered UMNO leaders to rally their supporter. When UMNO was split in 1987, a certain UMNO Youth leader was alleged to have unsheathed a keris (Malay dagger) and reportedly vowed that the keris would be bathed in Chinese blood. UMNO general assemblies (including its Youth and Women’s assemblies) are routinely filled with symbolism such as this, accompanied with cries of protecting and “ennobling” (memartabatkan) the Malay race, the Malay language, the Malay culture, the Islamic religion and the Malay Sultans.
The party has failed to offer new ideas to attract the young Malays to support its ideology, which in recent years has drifted more to the right. The prime minister, Dato Seri Mohd Najib Tun Razak, through the concept of One Malaysia has tried to bring UMNO back to the center space of national politics, where race and religious tolerance is at equilibrium.
But his message doesn’t seem to resonate with the majority of the delegates and even among his bench of Supreme Council members, who may have come to a conclusion that another event of racial and religious strife in the country is the best way to retain Malay power.
The Deputy Home Minister concedes that the thinking at the highest levels in UMNO is that racial and religious strife can bring benefits to the party.
In cables leaked exclusively to The Sunday Age by WikiLeaks, several of Singapore’s highest ranked foreign affairs officials – Peter Ho, Bilahari Kausikan and Tommy Koh – raised serious concerns over key politicians in Malaysia, including the then-Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak.
The Sydney Morning Herald reported the following:
According to one cable detailing a meeting in Sept. 2008, Kausikan told U.S. Deputy Secretary of Defense for East Asia David Sedney that ”the situation in neighboring Malaysia is confused and dangerous,” fueled by a ”distinct possibility of racial conflict” that could see ethnic Chinese ”flee” Malaysia and ”overwhelm” Singapore.
”A lack of competent leadership is a real problem for Malaysia,” Kausikan said, citing the need for Najib Razak – now Malaysia’s prime minister – to ”prevail politically in order to avoid prosecution” in connection with a 2006 murder investigation linked to one of Razak’s aides.
”Najib Razak has his neck on the line in connection with a high-profile murder case,” Kausikan said.
Ho’s March 2008 assessment of Malaysia, given to another U.S. official, is also unflattering, and includes claims that former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad has been ”throwing stones” at his replacement, Abdullah Badawi.
”The political knives will be out for Abdullah’s son-in-law, United Malays National Organization politician Khairy Jamaluddin, whom nobody likes because he got where he is through family ties,” the cable records Ho saying. ”As for … Najib Razak, he is an opportunist. Although he has not been critical of Singapore, he will not hesitate to go in that direction if it is expedient for him to do so. Najib’s political fortunes continue to be haunted by the … murder scandal.”
Prime Minister Najib Razak is under intense pressure to resign. To compound his already numerous problems, a recent documentary by Al Jazeera once again raises serious questions of his alleged involvement in the murder of a foreign national.
If Najib’s supporters are of the opinion that sparking social unrest would be to his advantage, they may want to look back in history on how his father came to power.
If supporters of UMNO begin to think that such disturbances are likely to help it retain power in Malaysia, it would indeed be a frightening prospect, especially as divisions within the party have become all too apparent. Former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad appeared at a recent anti-government rally, urging UMNO’s members of parliament to replace Najib and has condemned the ‘red shirt‘ rally.
Those assessments made by Singapore’s foreign affairs chiefs on Malaysia are increasingly looking spot on.