Use of race card stirs controversy in Malaysia

Updated On: Aug 29, 2006

As the Mahathir-Abdullah spat develops further, the danger increasingly lies in the political games and choice of political tools of their supporters.

Umno Youth deputy chief Khairy Jamaluddin caused an uproar last week when he called on Malays to stay united in the face of attacks by former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad against Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi.  Mindful of the fact that Mahathir and his father-in-law’s differences are irreconcilable now, Khairy has been busy warning the Malay community that the spat with Mahathir will weaken the Malays – perhaps bracing the ground for the battle ahead.  But more worrying yet was Khairy’s assertion that “the internal split within Umno will weaken the party’s position and pave the way for the Chinese Malaysians to make various demands to benefit their community.”

Predictably, this last statement stirred up a controversy, and incensed Chinese leaders, particularly those in the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) -  a component party of, and Umno’s main partner in the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition.

MCA Youth and Women’s Assemblies delegates described Khairy’s remarks as ethnically-divisive and expressed their sadness at the continued use of the race card in this day and age.  Going by the Chinese-language newspapers and Internet chat forums, the Chinese community was indeed incensed by the remarks.  Responding to criticisms and demands for an apology, Khairy has since said his remarks were misunderstood.  He also said he “will not apologise to the MCA” as he was acting only “in defence of the Malays and his party” and that “if we truly fight for our race, one should not apologise”. 

In the ensuing row, he was backed by the Umno chief, Hishamuddin Hussein, who blasted the MCA Youth for challenging the Umno Youth head-on. Using strong language, he was reported to have said “Do not challenge us. We will join hands and meet any challenge head-on”.  MCA President, Datuk Ong Ka Ting has since then come out to reassure Umno leaders that his party would not take advantage of the current fissures caused by Mahathir. 

Misunderstood or otherwise, the whole incident reflected how the race card will continue to be used by politicians out to make a name for themselves in a hurry.  Uproar within the Chinese community aside, the central issue is that whenever there is "leadership crisis or divide", racist, religious and nationalist cards will be out in full force.  The latest developments in the Mahathir-Abdullah spat now point worryingly towards these dangers.

Some observers are critical of the way Khairy is employing all these old tricks.  While some within Umno are sympathetic and point to the “rewards” given to the Chinese community in an exercise of electoral clout when Malays are weak, others note that Khairy’s deployment of the race card is merely the latest in a longer list of controversial name-making positions.  Weeks earlier, Khairy sought to bolster his Islamic credentials by leading thousands of demonstrators against Condoleezza Rice’s visit to Malaysia to protest against Israel’s invasion of Lebanon

The other perennial punching-bag in Malaysian politics that Khairy has not been averse to tap on in recent weeks is the “Singapore factor”.  Actively touring the country talking up the Abdullah administrations plans to develop the Southern Johor Economic Region (SJER) in the coming months, Khairy puts it across as a development that will make Singapore dependent on SJER in time to come.  He said these developments would even make Singapore take the intitiative to build the scrapped bridge.

If one were to read Khairy’s positions in the last few months, it would seem that Khairy’s mind sees competition between Malays and Chinese in Malaysia, as with competition between Malaysia and Singapore, as a “zero sum” game.  While it remains to be seen whether these are really a reflection of Khairy’s political convictions or simply a matter of convenience, whatever the case, it is an ominous development that bodes badly in face of a looming showdown between Malaysia’s top leaders.


Khairy’s use of race cards raises eyebrows (The Straits Times, 26 August 2006)

Khairy bashed for divisive remarks (The Star, 27 August 2006)

Umno Youth chief blasts MCA Youth (The Straits Times, 29 August 2006)