‘Red shirt’ rally brings out the inse­cu­ri­ties felt by Malaysians


The “red shirt” rally in down­town Kuala Lumpur not so much in­ten­si­fied al­ready frac­tious race re­la­tions in Malaysia as brought to light the inse­cu­ri­ties felt by the many Malaysians who iden­tify them­selves eth­ni­cally, whether they be the ma­jor­ity Malays or mi­nor­ity Chi­nese and In­di­ans.

In­deed, it was these inse­cu­ri­ties that al­lowed the em­bat­tled Prime Min­is­ter Na­jib Razak — em­broiled in a fi­nan­cial scan­dal con­cern­ing huge sums of money that flowed into his per­sonal bank ac­counts — to play the race card, by con­sort­ing with the red shirt rally or­ga­niz­ers, to gain a life­line out of his trou­bles.

The tens of thou­sands of Malays at Sept. 16’s United Cit­i­zens’ Gath­er­ing — mostly wear­ing Malay Dig­nity Gath­er­ing red T-shirts in­stead — had gath­ered in Kuala Lumpur to gal­va­nize Malays against a sup­posed plot by the Chi­nese to usurp Malay po­lit­i­cal power. The nar­ra­tive of the red shirt rally or­ga­niz­ers goes that the op­po­si­tion Demo­cratic Ac­tion Party (DAP) — a largely Chi­nese out­fit — was us­ing a rally last month in the cap­i­tal, or­ga­nized by elec­toral re­forms group Ber­sih, to force the res­ig­na­tion of Na­jib.

The proof, they say, was in the ma­jor­ity Chi­nese turnout at the Ber­sih rally, never mind that any re­al­is­tic re­place­ment of the premier be­fore a gen­eral elec­tion would have to be made by UMNO, the largest party in Par­lia­ment. It is part of the rul­ing Barisan Na­sional coali­tion that also in­cludes Chi­nese-based party Malaysian Chi­nese As­so­ci­a­tion (MCA) and In­dian-based Malaysian In­dian Congress (MIC).

In speeches by rally lead­ers, the ban­ners dis­played and racial slurs ut­tered by par­tic­i­pants, such as “Chi­nese pigs,” the red shirts’ mes­sage was that Malay supremacy should not be chal­lenged.

“There are those that ridicule Is­lam as Malaysia’s re­li­gion. We don’t want Malays to be un­der peo­ple’s feet but we want Malays to re­main as mas­ters of this land,” said Ja­maludin Yusuf, pres­i­dent of wel­fare group Pekida, which is bet­ter known for its links to of­ten vi­o­lent in­di­vid­u­als act­ing in the in­ter­est of Malay rights.

Weigh­ing in with his own race-loaded com­ments was Na­jib who, at an event two days af­ter the red shirt rally, said: “The Malays have rights too ... and we can rise up when our lead­ers are in­sulted, con­demned and em­bar­rassed.”

Gov­erned by race-based par­ties that have been ply­ing eth­no­cen­tric poli­cies for decades, Malaysia sim­ply can­not avoid the ques­tion of race, which must nec­es­sar­ily be read with the sub­text “Ke­t­u­a­nan Me­layu (Malay dom­i­nance or sovereignty).” Many Malays see them­selves as the orig­i­nal com­mu­nity and “own­ers” of Malaysia, and only grudg­ingly ad­mit in­dige­nous tribes as co-claimants. But there is a clear eco­nomic gap be­tween them and the Chi­nese who ar­rived un­der Bri­tish rule be­gin­ning in the 19th cen­tury, a sit­u­a­tion that has im­proved but per­sists un­til now, de­spite grow­ing Malay po­lit­i­cal power.

In­deed, the ar­gu­ment for greater Malay po­lit­i­cal con­trol was based on the idea that it was only through such an in­stru­ment that the eco­nomic im­bal­ance could be cor­rected, lead­ing to an in­creas­ing num­ber of pro-Malay poli­cies and agen­cies in gov­ern­ment that are jus­ti­fied as part of the in­alien­able rights of Malays, mak­ing po­lit­i­cal dis­cus­sion of these poli­cies prac­ti­cally taboo.

At the cen­ter of the racial dis­course here is the po­lit­i­cally sen­si­tive is­sue of “rights.” The de­fense of Malay rights has gone on for nearly half a cen­tury, and yet “Malay rights” is still an amor­phous idea, just like the eth­nic-based rights of other groups. To be fair, many Malaysians do not iden­tify them­selves along the var­i­ous pil­lars of “rights” that some feel are in­alien­able to their race. But for those who do, they bris­tle when ques­tioned, let alone chal­lenged, on them. For the Malays who iden­tify them­selves strongly as such, eco­nomic and re­li­gious priv­i­leges are sa­cred, de­spite none of these be­ing en­shrined con­sti­tu­tion­ally, as of­ten claimed, most re­cently by key red shirt fig­ure and UMNO di­vi­sional chief Ja­mal Yunus, who said “my racism fol­lows the Con­sti­tu­tion.” But the fed­eral con­sti­tu­tion does not men­tion “Malay rights,” and in­stead merely safe­guards the spe­cial po­si­tion of the Malays and in­dige­nous peo­ples — the much-used term “Bu­mi­put­era (Princes of the Land)” to de­scribe them is also not men­tioned in the con­sti­tu­tion — while also tak­ing into ac­count the “le­git­i­mate in­ter­ests” of other com­mu­ni­ties. This spe­cial treat­ment in­cludes quo­tas for public sec­tor jobs, schol­ar­ships, ter­tiary en­rol­ment (in­tro­duced in a 1971 amend­ment) and busi­ness li­censes.

Many pro-Malay priv­i­leges were in­tro­duced only af­ter the racial ri­ots of May 13, 1969, an episode which still haunts the coun­try to­day. Tun Razak Hus­sein — Na­jib’s fa­ther — im­ple­mented the Na­tional Eco­nomic Pol­icy (NEP) in 1971 to cor­rect eco­nomic im­bal­ances by re­dis­tribut­ing na­tional wealth via pro-Bu­mi­put­era reg­u­la­tions such as set­ting aside 30 per­cent eq­uity for pub­li­clisted firms as well as pri­vate ones op­er­at­ing in “strate­gic” sec­tors. But even though it was to have ended in 1990, these poli­cies — which in prac­tice of­ten leave out non-Malay Bu­mi­put­eras — have not only con­tin­ued but ex­panded to other ar­eas of life, such as dis­counts and quo­tas for hous­ing, pref­er­en­tial treat­ment for lu­cra­tive gov­ern­ment pro­cure­ment deals and, ac­cord­ing to the U.S. State Depart­ment, other “opaque” pref­er­ences and prac­tices within the ad­min­is­tra­tion.

The gov­ern­ment has ar­gued that these af­fir­ma­tive ac­tions must con­tinue be­cause Bu­mi­put­eras are still not ad­e­quately em­pow­ered as the tar­geted 30 per­cent eq­uity in busi­ness has not been achieved. So per­va­sive is this pro­tec­tion­ism that pro-Malay el­e­ments now re­fer to them as “rights” even when there are no laws or bind­ing agree­ments out­lin­ing them as such. Just as ir­re­press­ible is the growth of priv­i­leges as­so­ci­ated to Is­lam, in­clud­ing state fund­ing for the re­li­gion and even the re­stric­tion of other re­li­gious prac­tices, lead­ing many to ar­gue that the “le­git­i­mate in­ter­ests” of other com­mu­ni­ties have been in­vaded. But other com­mu­ni­ties also hold fast to “rights,” not least that of ver­nac­u­lar ed­u­ca­tion, a hot-but­ton topic for the Chi­nese. MCA lead­ers, un­able to re­strain their UMNO col­leagues in the rul­ing coali­tion from en­dors­ing the red shirt rally, took to lodg­ing po­lice re­ports against par­tic­i­pants who called for the abol­ish­ment of Chi­nese schools.

Ad­vo­cates in­sist on a uni­ver­sal right to “mother tongue” ed­u­ca­tion in Man­darin de­spite most of the com­mu­nity not be­ing able to claim the di­alect as part of their an­ces­try, hav­ing adopted it only in re­cent decades. But as em­i­nent law pro­fes­sor Shad Saleem Faruqi pointed out, there is no con­sti­tu­tional pro­tec­tion for ver­nac­u­lar ed­u­ca­tion. When caught out on the lack of con­sti­tu­tional ba­sis, “rights” de­fend­ers tend to then cite an un­writ­ten “so­cial con­tract” be­tween Malaysia’s found­ing fathers. But this is a dif­fi­cult and of­ten di­vi­sive con­cept, with each cor­ner seem­ingly in pos­ses­sion of a dif­fer­ent draft of the con­tract. The good news, per­haps, is that con­tracts can be rene­go­ti­ated for mu­tual ben­e­fit. The bad news is that no­body seems ready to do so.

A sur­vey by in­de­pen­dent polling com­pany Merdeka Cen­tre in 2012 found that just over a third of Malaysians be­lieved that there was “sin­cere and friendly eth­nic unity,” down from 54 per­cent five years prior to it. Re­spon­dents also ad­mit­ted to trust­ing other races less than be­fore.

Ac­cord­ing to Merdeka Cen­tre, such mis­trust is most likely due to the in­ten­si­fied dis­course in the media on race and re­li­gious pol­i­tics as well as the im­pact of in­ci­dents that have taken place since 2008 which in­cluded ar­son at­tacks on places of wor­ship, public de­bate over school text­books and con­tro­ver­sial state­ments by public per­son­al­i­ties. But per­haps the is­sue might be forced, once pock­ets start to hurt.

Cor­po­rate cap­tains tend to steer clear of con­tro­versy but Tony Fer­nan­des, boss of bud­get air­line AirAsia, cau­tioned an eco­nomic fo­rum last week that Malaysia’s pos­i­tive busi­ness cli­mate would un­ravel if the racial di­vide widens.In re­sponse, In­ter­na­tional Trade and In­vest­ment Min­is­ter Mustapa Mo­hamed, who is also an UMNO state chief, called for stake­hold­ers to “go back to the draw­ing board.” There is no clearer draw­ing board than the con­sti­tu­tion. Press­ing the re­set but­ton won’t be a sim­ple task, but the al­ter­na­tive — ne­go­ti­at­ing in­creas­ingly bit­ter racial grudges - is be­com­ing a neg­a­tive, rather than sim­ply a zero sum, game.

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