stirs a hornets' nest
By Ioannis Gatsiounis
KUALA LUMPUR - In multi-ethnic Malaysia, constructive criticism is often met
with a vexed stare; any whiff of its loner cousin, dissent, has traditionally
been met with force and attributed to "traitors". Odd, then, that Prime
Minister Abdullah Badawi chose last week, in his maiden speech as president of
the country's dominant political party the conservative United Malays National
Organization (UMNO), to hit out at his core constituency, the Muslim Malays.
Yet, following in the footsteps of his Machiavellian predecessor, the
long-ruling Mahathir Mohamed, that's what Abdullah did, implying that some
30-plus years of generous affirmative action have failed to make Malays the
competitive race Mahathir had envisaged they would be by now.
In some ways, Abdullah's charge - in which he urged Malays to get rid of their
"crutches" or risk ending up in "wheelchairs" and said Malay success will
depend on a "mental revolution" - is a logical next step: developing the
country will depend largely on transforming the mindset of the majority Malays
(partly because of their special rights, Malays dominate many of the country's
And what really was to fear? Haven't many of the Malay delegates taken stock in
Abdullah's calls to reform, seeing them as key contributors to the party's
success in the March parliamentary elections? Isn't the party's youth wing
filled with a "new breed" of foreign-educated progressives, at odds with the
intolerant backwardness that has long tainted the UMNO elite?
Think again. What last week's 55th General UMNO Assembly made clear is that any
suggestion that Malay rights should be scaled back or repealed will be
sententiously attacked every step of the way - even by empowered, educated
At the assembly, deputy chairperson Badruddin Amiruldin - brandishing a book on
the 1969 racial riots here, which paved the way for pro-Malay policies, as the
economic disparity between the Chinese and the Malay is widely thought to have
triggered the riots - likened questioning Malay rights to stirring a hornets'
nest and warned to rapturous applause that "if it were disturbed, these hornets
will strike and destroy the country".
"Let no one from the other races ever question the rights of Malays on this
land. Don't question the religion, because this is my right on this land."
Aside from the majority Malays, there are sizable Indian and Chinese minorities
on the Malay Peninsula.
The next day, UMNO Youth executive council member Dr Pirdaus Ismail defended
Amiruldin's comments and said they should remind "Chinese chauvinists" not to
question Malay privileges. "Badruddin did not pose the question to all Chinese
in the country," Ismail was quoted as saying. "Those who are with us, who hold
the same understanding as we do, were not our target. In defending Malay
rights, we direct our voice at those who question them."
Then there was Higher Education Minister Dr Shafie Salleh's remark: "I will
never allow non-Bumiputra students to enter [Universiti Teknologi Mara]
UiTM. I will not compromise on this matter." Bumiputra means "sons of
the soil" and refers to Malays and a handful of indigenous minority groups,
such as the Ibans and Orang Asli. Government policy grants the Bumiputras
Intolerance of this sort is not new in UMNO, with its race- and
religion-centered agenda; last year the youth wing's information chief Azimi
Daim said, "In Malaysia, everybody knows that Malays are the masters of this
land. We rule this country as provided for in the federal constitution. Any one
who touches upon Malay affairs or criticizes Malays is [offending] our
Not too long ago, UMNO members threatened to burn down the Chinese Assembly
Hall. So it was par for the course when Pirdaus said, "If the Malay agenda were
strengthened, wouldn't Islam be strengthened? This is an order of Allah, [for]
which UMNO has [striven] for a long time."
But what makes the recent spate of vitriol notable is that it comes at a time
when the Malay community here is more anxious than at any time in recent memory
- trying to balance progress while clinging to religion and traditions in a
world it accuses of conspiring against Islam.
Progress itself has been a struggle. The New Economic Policy (NEP), launched in
1970 and which ended in 1990, was intended to help the Malay community,
traditionally agrarian, catch up economically. And while Malays' economic
holdings reportedly rose from 2.4% to 19.3% over that period, the Malay
bourgeoisie that developed was smaller than hoped for. So Malay favoritism was
extended; meanwhile, between 1990 and 2002 Malay economic holdings dropped to
One writer to a local website attributes this "failure" to the founders of the
NEP missing the essence of Malay "backwardness".
"The truth is that the Malay backwardness was more due to psychological
hang-ups than economic shortcomings." While the NEP and its reincarnations have
nurtured many competent, talented Malays, on the whole the community remains
insecure and suspicious of the outside world.
Abdullah seems to recognize this, hence his call for a mental revolution among
Malays; and his promotion of Hadhari, or progressive Islam, which,
Abdullah says, will breed moderation and mastery of knowledge and greater
integration with the larger world. (Abdullah was set to release a book in early
September detailing this concept, but the launch has been indefinitely
postponed to "fix mistakes", according to an UMNO official.)
Indeed, some of the Malay community's hangups are attributable to how it tends
to identify with Islam. In Malaysia's multi-ethnic fabric, where the Malay is
born into the faith, his Muslim identity is particularly race-based.
Non-Malays, whether they're Indian, Chinese or Western, are assumed to be
non-Muslim. This has created a barrier and sealed off the mind.
With the United States' "war against terror", read also as a war against
Islamic extremism, the Malays' aversion to these "outsiders" has swelled.
"Because of fear, [the Malays] revert to old habits, look for quick fixes and
blame others," Abdullah said at the assembly.
And while Malaysia may be a model of inspiration to the larger Islamic world -
Muslims from elsewhere have praised and come to study the "success" of
Malaysia's Muslims - Abdullah knows his community to be taking on a different
He is concerned with their willingness to grasp only the basic skills of the
globalized economy. "They need to be a race that can communicate and interact
through a global lingua franca such as English to facilitate trade and allow us
to disseminate and acquire knowledge effectively," Abdullah stressed at the
assembly. (Diminishing English-language proficiency has been a hot topic in the
local press of late.)
Abdullah also urged Malays recently not to retreat into Islam; not to focus
more on the afterlife, with its promises of virgins and gardens and rivers
flowing underneath, than their responsibilities to this one.
But will his voice of reason be heard through the babel of rage-filled
entitlement simmering within the UMNO party and trickling down through the
rakyat? And how likely are the Malays to help themselves without a less
self-righteous leadership prompting them?
Part of UMNO's strategy all along has been to use Islam as a political tool,
flexing its Islamic "credentials" to garner support. It is the Malay, not the
party, that has suffered, as Malaysia finds itself ever more visibly a wounded
society, long fated by distrust and pent-up resentment among the nation's three
main ethnic groups.
Abdullah knows it's high time to change this. It's the UMNO machine he's up
against, but that machine is in no mood to change course. Several of Abdullah's
hand-picked cabinet members lost at the polls; and the election was said to be
marred by the worst case of vote-buying in recent memory - this at a point when
party members say fighting corruption is at the top of their agenda.
The assembly has made that clear Abdullah's dream of a mental revolution and a
progressive Islamic community will likely never take hold here, unless it first
backtracks to rescue the party merrily lagging behind.
Ioannis Gatsiounis is a New York native who became a freelance foreign
correspondent for various US dailies after moving to Indonesia in 2000. He has
since co-hosted a weekly political/cultural radio call-in show in New York and
resettled in Malaysia.
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