Malay rights cannot be challenged
KUALA LUMPUR 16 NOVEMBER 2006:
DATUK Siti Nurhaliza – a sobering presence
“Malay rights cannot be challenged, otherwise the Malays will run amok and the May 13 (1969) riots will happen all over again.”
“The non-Malays are challenging us, it is time to raise our voices and defend the race and Islam.”
“We are willing to risk lives and bathe in blood to defend our race and religion. Don’t play with fire. If they mess with our rights, we will mess with theirs.”
These words uttered over five days at the annual congress of the ruling United Malay National Organisation (UMNO ) from Nov 17 have shaken public confidence in the party of not only non-Muslims but also from many among moderate Muslims. All Malays are deemed Muslim under the laws of the land.
Suddenly, over one mid-November weekend, ethnic distrust was in the air and the racial divide widened dramatically in this constitutionally pluralistic country. Once proud of their country’s tolerance, many non-Malay and non-Muslim Malaysians are trying to figure out whether the time has come to pack their bags.
The fear and insecurity was all the more because these chauvinist utterances came not the from ‘lunatic fringe’ but from top leaders of the UMNO, the country’s premier pro-Malay party that has been in power since independence in 1957 and is widely held up as “level headed, responsible and standing for a plural society.”
UMNO congresses are widely watched by political analysts, foreign investors and diplomats because opinions expressed at these meetings often translate into government policies later.
Instead of debating the faltering economy or worrying about rising religious intolerance, UMNO leaders mostly from the Malay hinterland, brandished the keris — a wavy Malay dagger — thumped their chests and attacked minority Chinese and Indians for “demanding” equality and an end to affirmative action policies that favour Malays.
The floor comprising some 3,000 grassroots Malay leaders cheered the speakers.
Abdullah himself, famously patient and mild mannered, got caught up and shouted ‘Hidup Melayu, Hidup Melayu’ (Long Live Malay, Long Live Malay) at the end of the meet.
For some non-Muslims such public displays confirm that Islamisation and Malay ethno- centric nationalism are on the rise with Abdullah seen as either unwilling or unable to check ‘extremism’.
“There is now suddenly a sense of fear and uncertainty. What do these words really signify? Is this the end of Bangsa Malaysia,” said opposition leader Lim Kit Siang referring to a hypothetical ‘Malaysian Race’ that is supposed to emerge, over time, from the racial potpourri that is Malaysia.
“Malaysians feel excluded and threatened,” Lim told IPS.
After the shock came the balm as UMNO leaders led by Abdullah rushed to assure the people that the speeches did not signal a hardening of government policies towards non- Malays.
They blamed the spike in public anger on the live telecast of the offensive speeches which, they said, was unfortunate.
Others viewed the live telecast as having unexpectedly given Malaysians, who mostly read heavily censored mainstream newspapers, a ringside view of “raw, unvarnished Malay anger”.
“The speeches are the work of a few disgruntled individuals not that of UMNO or the government,” said Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak. “We must not give great weight to the speeches,” he told Bernama, the official new agency, assuring Malaysians that the nation belonged to all races.
But the damage was done and the fear and hurt runs deep despite those assurances.
“I got the message…it simply means we non-Muslims cannot question the special status of Islam and Malays,” said accountant Mark Ong. “If we do, it will be met with violence,” Mark told IPS echoing the sentiments of many others.
While the government dismissed the fiery speeches as “one -off” sallies, political scientists warn it signals the deep seated grievances of the Malays, who form 60 percent of the population of 27 million. Chinese and Indians, who began migrating here in the early 19th century, make up 26 percent and 8.0 percent of the population, respectively.
Although Malays dominate national politics and the economy many Malays remain poor and resentment among them is rising largely because the government’s affirmative action policies benefited the “Umnoputras” or Malays who are in UMNO or close to its politicians.
Led by opposition icon Anwar Ibrahim — who was labelled as a traitor by the UMNO delegates — more Malaysians also want affirmative action either ended or extended to all poor Malaysians and curtailment of the “Umnoputras.”
In addition a debate on apostasy and on the boundaries between Shariah law and secular rights has sharpened religious differences and heightened suspicions among the various races.
Ironically inter-racial resentment and tensions that had lain hidden under the long rule of former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad are surfacing now after his successor, Abdullah, began easing on the tight controls.
After taking over in 2003, Abdullah allowed reasonably open debate even on contentious issues like Islam and the Bumiputra affirmative action policy.
The debates were dominated on the one hand by non-Muslim fear of creeping Islam and on the other hand by Muslim fear that secularism and pluralism would dislodge Islam from its pedestal as the official faith.
The tensions are made worst by a shrinking economy which has fallen from a high of 9 percent in recent years to under 5 percent this year and projected to be lower next year. Foreign investment, a mainstay of the economy, has dropped 17 percent to just 3.7 billion US dollars this year.
Abdullah is easing Malay fears over his ‘Islam Hadhari’ or Civilisational Islam which stresses moderation as well as technological and economic competitiveness.
On the economic front he has changed direction from infra-structure growth to giving priority to agriculture, biotechnology and tourism as new growth areas.
But on both fronts — Islam and the economy — his directions are contested not just from within the party but also by his mentor-turned-rival, Mahathir Mohamad, who has vowed to force him down.
But UMNO, the party Abdullah heads, is dragging its feet preferring the old ways — saber rattling, racism and continuance of lopsided policies that kills competitiveness and breeds contempt for law.
Non-Malays on the other hand fear that Islamisation and Malay ethno-centric nationalism is on the rise under Abdullah who they see as either unwilling or unable to check the “extremists.”
With the races drifting apart, political analysts say, this month’s UMNO congress may well be a turning point for the country.
“We were moderate and praised for our tolerance and economic achievements,” said lawmaker S. Kulasegaran. “Now all that has gone under a cloud.”
Over the Internet the discussion is less polite and the anger palpable.
“Is it time to pack our bags again?” asked Ay Yuen on Malaysiakini, an independent news website, where the sudden plunge in race relations is endlessly debated.
“Where do we go from here?” asked another writer displaying the dilemma that has gripped non-Muslims.