In Malaysia, dis­ap­point­ment re­places ex­cite­ment as change ar­rives slowly

The National - News - - OPINION - SHOLTO BYRNES Malaysia held gen­eral elec­tions last year Sholto Byrnes is a com­men­ta­tor and con­sul­tant in Kuala Lumpur and a cor­re­spond­ing fel­low of the Eras­mus Fo­rum

When Malaysia’s Barisan Na­sional govern­ment lost power for the first time ever in May last year, many hoped for change. One is­sue that the in­com­ing Pakatan Hara­pan, or PH, ad­min­is­tra­tion was ex­pected to ad­dress was the racial di­vi­sions in a Malay-ma­jor­ity coun­try with sig­nif­i­cant Chi­nese, In­dian and in­dige­nous mi­nori­ties.

The out­go­ing prime min­is­ter, Na­jib Razak, was a re­former but his in­sis­tence on be­ing a leader for all Malaysians caused him trou­ble from Malay chau­vin­ists on his own side. They at­tacked Mr Na­jib, for in­stance, for wear­ing “Hindu” at­tire when he agreed to don a gar­land at a Malaysian In­dian fes­ti­val – even though the or­gan­is­ers in­sisted it had noth­ing to do with re­li­gion.

The new govern­ment may have been helmed by Dr Ma­hathir Mo­hamad, who made his name as a young politi­cian in the 1960s with his stri­dent de­fence of Malay rights; but one of the most prom­i­nent fig­ures in the elec­tion cam­paign was Lim Kit Siang, the vet­eran leader from the pre­dom­i­nantly Chi­nese Demo­cratic Ac­tion Party (DAP), while the main com­po­nent party of PH along­side the DAP, was the Peo­ple’s Jus­tice Party of An­war Ibrahim, whose slo­gan was the self-ex­plana­tory “re­for­masi”.

“New Malaysia”, as it was swiftly named, was not ex­pected to be held back as Mr Na­jib was by right-wing el­e­ments in the eth­nic Malay ma­jor­ity.

Just over a year and a half later there is a huge amount of dis­ap­point­ment. Po­lit­i­cal re­forms have pro­ceeded at a snail’s pace while what has re­ally dis­mayed many is that race re­la­tions ap­pear to be get­ting even worse.

Over the last year there have been ri­ots around a Hindu tem­ple in a suburb of the cap­i­tal, Kuala Lumpur, which led to the death of a Malay fire­fighter. A cam­paign was launched to urge Malays, who by law are Mus­lim, to boy­cott goods pro­duced by non-Mus­lims, even if they are cer­ti­fied as ha­lal. A rad­i­cal preacher, Zakir Naik, has been in­dulged even as he re­ferred to Malaysian-Chi­nese as “old guests” who should be asked to leave be­fore him (he is a wanted man in In­dia) and said that Malaysian-In­di­ans were more loyal to In­dian prime min­is­ter Naren­dra Modi than to their own prime min­is­ter.

An­other row blew up over a pro­posal to make the study of khat – a form of Ara­bic cal­li­graphic art – com­pul­sory for all school­child­ren, in­clud­ing non-Mus­lims. The list goes on: from the au­thor­i­ties still ap­par­ently hav­ing no leads on a Christian Chi­nese pas­tor who dis­ap­peared two and a half years ago to a Malay Dig­nity Congress in Oc­to­ber de­mand­ing that all main min­istries and top po­si­tions, such as the head of the po­lice and the chief jus­tice, be re­served for Malays.

Some have pointed the fin­ger of blame for the ris­ing ten­sions at Dr Mo­hamad. The premier cer­tainly of­fended many when he at­tended that congress and re­ferred to the non-Malays who came to the coun­try dur­ing colo­nial rule as “for­eign­ers” in his speech. “The prime min­is­ter should know that such re­marks are highly sen­si­tive and threaten racial har­mony,” chided an MP from the DAP, Ramkarpal Singh.

But Dr Ma­hathir is 94 and the coun­try has a guide to his views from his pre­vi­ous 22 years as prime min­is­ter from 19812003. The for­mer op­po­si­tion pro­jected their as­pi­ra­tions onto him when they chose him as their leader be­fore the elec­tion. But there was little rea­son to be­lieve that he shared any of them apart from the de­sire to bring down Mr Na­jib’s govern­ment. Dr Ma­hathir’s thoughts on race should have been priced in – not least as the party cre­ated as his ve­hi­cle re­stricted mem­ber­ship to Malays-only.

In fair­ness, credit is due to him for ap­point­ing to his cabi­net a Chi­nese fi­nance min­is­ter in Lim Guan Eng, son of the afore­men­tioned Mr Lim, and an In­dian at­tor­ney gen­eral, Tommy Thomas. These were con­tro­ver­sial moves, he must have known, as they are con­sid­ered par­tic­u­larly cru­cial roles in Malaysia. When I asked a well-ed­u­cated, well-trav­elled el­derly Malay about them at the time, he thought a Chi­nese fi­nance min­is­ter was “okay”. When I raised the at­tor­ney gen­eral, how­ever, he de­murred. “Could they not find a qual­i­fied Malay?” he said.

This type of at­ti­tude, and the pos­i­tive dis­crim­i­na­tion in favour of Malays in the coun­try, is some­times mis­un­der­stood by out­siders. In fact, it stems from a deep-seated fear among Malays about “never be­ing mas­ters in the only coun­try we can call home”, as I have heard it put nu­mer­ous times.

His­tor­i­cally, parts of the coun­try were ruled by the Por­tuguese, Dutch, Bri­tish and Thais. On in­de­pen­dence, the Malays found them­selves with very large mi­nori­ties – the Chi­nese made up 40 per cent of the pop­u­la­tion in 1957, for in­stance – who had largely been brought or en­cour­aged to come by the colo­nial rulers, and by the late 60s Malays still owned only three per cent of the coun­try’s wealth.

Although huge strides have been made to im­prove equal­ity of dis­tri­bu­tion be­tween the races, the sense that Malay lan­guage, cul­ture and re­li­gion may still be un­der threat per­sists. This is what the des­ig­nated premier-in-wait­ing, Mr An­war, and oth­ers have in mind when they warn against “spook­ing” the Malays.

The trou­ble with that is it re­quires the non-Malays to walk on eggshells. The DAP has been very quiet, pre­cisely over the fear that a govern­ment that won only a mi­nor­ity of the Malay vote can­not al­low the im­pres­sion that it is dom­i­nated by bel­liger­ent Chi­nese. The “nons”, as they of­ten re­fer to them­selves on Malaysian web­sites, be­lieve they are be­ing asked to be even more qui­es­cent than they were be­fore.

Un­for­tu­nately, this makes sense elec­torally as no govern­ment can win by count­ing purely on non-Malay sup­port; the pro­por­tion of the Malay vote is what is most cru­cial. De­mo­graph­i­cally the case is strength­ened by the fact that Malays are mak­ing up a grad­u­ally in­creas­ing per­cent­age of the pop­u­la­tion.

The ram­i­fi­ca­tions are not the­o­ret­i­cal: ru­mours have been fly­ing for months of se­cret plans to break up the rul­ing coali­tion and form a new govern­ment con­sist­ing of all the Malay- and in­dige­nous-based par­ties, con­sign­ing the other eth­nic mi­nori­ties to the mar­gins.

Dr Ma­hathir once stood for an in­clu­sive “Bangsa Malaysia”, or Malaysian na­tion, and his pre­de­ces­sor Mr Na­jib ad­vo­cated a “1Malaysia”. The way things are go­ing, how­ever, the end point could be what Mr An­war’s daugh­ter Nu­rul Iz­zah called a “Malaysaja” – Malays only.

For a coun­try that prides it­self on its di­ver­sity, that would be a tragedy.

Po­lit­i­cal re­forms have pro­ceeded at a snail’s pace but, wor­ry­ingly, race re­la­tions ap­pear to be get­ting worse

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