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Raising the sword in Malaysian politics

Updated On: Nov 27, 2006

Things are red-hot in Malaysia.

UMNO leaders have been trying to contain the fallout from its internal party struggles.

Amidst these internal struggles, a rallying point has emerged – religion. The play on race and religion was strong when Education Minister Hishamuddin Tun Hussein unsheathed the Malay keris and kissed it to great cheers and applause from the audience. This was no ordinary keris but the official UMNO youth keris. It was perceived as a warning to critics of the system of privilege for the special position of Malays in the country. Another one of the 80 speakers at this assembly declared that he would bathe in blood to protect Malay rights.

Some say it was a calculated stunt because the UMNO general assembly was telecasted without censorship for the first time into the homes of Malaysians, including both Malay and non-Malay households. But this was done rather discreetly as satellite TV firm Astro was chosen to be the broadcaster instead of state-run RTM or UMNO-owned TV3. Astro has 1.9 million subscribers, the profiles of whom are mostly middle-class urbanites and in Malaysia, this includes many non-Malays who have a sizable ownership of the national economy.

Astro is also owned by a non-Malay, media powerbroker Ananda Krishnan who said: “The Prime Minister thinks it is better when we have live TV. All of them will be more attentive. They are aware they are on TV and they won’t go to sleep, they won’t yawn, they won’t be reading newspapers.” Quite rightly, the delegates were awake, but so were the other ethnic minorities in Malaysia. It was to be a message for all Malaysians but one that may not necessarily be endorsed by the state or the ruling party. Fuzziness was the name of the game. It was an intended yet indirect message without invoking too much state presence or party endorsements. But the message and the acts of ethnic and religious nationalism were clear to non-Malays nevertheless. 

Such acts have been in contrast with the Prime Minister’s message of moderation and call for tolerance and reflection. This comes amidst debates of decisions to continue the system of privilege for the dominant ethnic group (Malays make up 60% of the population) in Malaysia and also questions of the internal stability of the ruling party after an ugly spat between its current and former leader. The debate over racial privileges arose when it was revealed that bumiputeras (or the native-borns) now own 45% of the economy, above the 30% target set by the government for 2020.

Interpretation of the live TV antics centered around an assertion of the legitimatization of Malay privileges. But the purpose of this legitimization remained opened for interpretation. Some have tried to dismiss the recent antics as ploy by UMNO to ensure grassroots support and secure votes in the next elections. But for some, such antics are seen as reflecting worrying trends or increasing racial and religious tensions within Malaysian society. 

The need to resort to religion and nationalism was not entirely new.  It was particularly intensified for instance during the ousted Anwar-era when the dominant party under then Prime Minister Mahathir realized Malay support had sympathies for the ousted Deputy Prime Minister and the conservative PAS opposition party. Mahathir then started a series of institutions including the International Islamic University (IIU) to show its Malay grassroots that UMNO was indeed a defender of Islamic values,. These institutions ironically started to breed conservative Islamic values instead and have led to the current trends of rising religious temperatures.

The other concern was that current Prime Minister Abdullah’s conciliatory, meek and moderate approaches to politics have lost its appeal, especially under vicious attacks from his former mentor Mahathir. UMNO is worried that, over the long run, this may result in the erosion of support for the dominant party again, comparable to the post-Anwar ousting period when the ruling party was dangerously losing Malay support.

Opinions about the Prime Minister’s role in this flagrant show of religious and nationalistic mobilization are varied. Some argue that he is indirectly supportive of such acts to shore up political support for the fight with Mahathir in the hearts and minds of Malays. Others think that it is something necessary for him, to first shore up tremendous Malay support before proceeding with painful and unpopular reforms of the New Economic Policy (NEP) which has entrenched privileges for the dominant Malays. The Prime Minister admitted on 5 May 2005 at the Malaysian Harvard Club that the NEP was hurting the country’s competitiveness as it gave rise to patronages and subsidies. But to modify or dismantle it will hurt the livelihoods of many working class Malays in the midst of a general economic slowdown and declining Malaysian competitiveness.  

Sources:

Racial tensions spark concerns (Straits Times, 25 November 2006)

Malay voters care about more than just race and religion (Straits Times, 25 November 2006)

Abdullah’s task: Reforming NEP (Straits Times, 25 November 2006)

Was UMNO telecast a signal to non-Malays? (Straits Times, 25 November 2006)

Bumiputera-owned CMS Singled Out For Criticism, Says Govt Backbencher (Bernama, 24 November 2006)

Malaysia slips behind rivals in economic race (Straits Times, 24 November 2006)

KL moves to defuse debate on race and religion (Straits Times, 24 November 2006)

Nazri warns “fiery speakers” of action (New Straits Times, 24 November 2006)

BN Leaders Accept Prime Minister's Clarification Over Controversial (Bernama, 23 November 2006)

Abdullah reaffirms case for tolerance (New Straits Times, 23 November 2006)