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Heated debate on race at Umno general assembly: Can it be cooled?

Updated On: Nov 21, 2006

Last week’s Umno general assembly saw rhetoric on the Malay agenda reach new heights. 

Following a week dominated by racially-charged words from delegates ranting with lots of clenched fists and high-decibel talk amongst others, the Malaysian media lauded Abdullah for ‘clearing the air’ during his adjournment speech, thus proving himself ‘not just a leader of the Malays, but a leader of all Malaysians’.  And it is indeed wise and commendable that Abdullah chose not to play to the gallery in the face of pressure to take the Malay line, but rather to take the multi-ethnic path; reminding delegates of the reality of a plural Malaysia.  

But while Abdullah was successful in ‘clearing the air’; making clear his commitment to the development of a more open society tolerant of different views, it is less clear if he managed to cool the debate.  Indeed, the question is if the debate is even ‘coolable’ at all.  After all, harsh criticisms were levelled at various groups, with Malacca's Umno delegate Hasnoor Sidang Hussein's words perhaps being the most chilling: "The non-Malays are challenging the Malays more seriously now … Umno is willing to risk lives and bathe in blood in defence of race and religion. Don't play with fire. If they mess with our rights, we will mess with theirs," he said to wide applause.  Such “extreme” speeches has caused some embarrassment to Umno top leadership with Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak now wondering if Umno should “stop broadcast of general assembly” as such extreme speeches gave “distorted views of Umno proceedings.

While some senior Umno leaders also emphasised Abdullah’s point by saying the rights of all races in the country must be respected, it was not clear whether the majority of his followers shared his vision of a society that embraces differences.  For five days, many of the party delegates made it known that they would not tolerate any challenge to Malays and Islam.  The term "Malay rights" was used interchangeably with "Malay dominance", while "social contract" became the catchphrase for championing the supremacy of Malay rule.  Abdullah himself told reporters that this was the first time in years that delegates had used the phrase ketuanan Melayu (Malay supremacy) in their speeches.  He put it down to the current tense atmosphere and the exchange of words about Malay rights that had gone on for a good part of this year already.

The events of the past year, including a dispute between the Malaysian Chinese Association and Umno Youth deputy Khairy Jamaluddin for accusing the Chinese leaders in Penang of marginalising the Malays, a controversial squabble over the Malays' share of corporate equity ownership, and a growing sense within Umno that Abdullah's decision to open up the democratic space has been exploited by some quarters to question Islam and the New Economic Policy that favours bumiputeras, have all added up to cause the Malays to feel under siege. 

The Malays are not wrong to pin-point part of the current tense situation as resulting from Abdullah’s loosening of debate on race and religion in name of a more open society.  Analysts say what is more important is that Abdullah must now ensure that the delicate balance forged by the 13-party Barisan Nasional coalition remains intact.  His immediate challenge now is to move fast to douse roiling debates on race and religion fanned by his policy of greater openness, while convincing Malays to raise their skill levels quickly so that they would rely less on the government for jobs and contracts.  But with political jostling by Umno and other groups, we can be sure that the same fiery issues of race and religion will continue to remain in centrestage for a while to come.

Sources:

Pak Lah shows he is Prime Minister of all Malaysians  (The Star, 19 November 2006)

Abdullah clears the air in his usual simple style (New Straits Times, 18 November 2006)

Umno meeting ends with race issue (Today, 18 November 2006)

A race debate that won't go away (The Straits Times, 19 November 2006)

Tough tasks for Abdullah despite support (The Straits Times, 20 September 2006)

Umno may stop broadcast of general assembly (The Straits Times, 21 November 2006)