The racial divide widens in
Malaysia By Ioannis Gatsiounis
KUALA LUMPUR - Malaysia's government
regularly cautions its constituents that open and
honest dialogue of the "sensitive" subject of race
is strictly off limits.
Then comes along
the week-long United Malays National Organization
(UMNO) annual assembly, at which Muslim Malay
party leaders warn the country's minority Chinese
and Indians that questioning the special status of
Islam and Malays in society will
be met with violent doom.
Fists tremble. Daggers are brandished.
Party delegates thunder, "Long live the Malays."
The very predictability of the chest-thumping is
what UMNO members use to rationalize it: "Although
some sides were a bit extreme [this year]," said
UMNO vice president Muhyiddin Yassin, "it is quite
normal to voice feelings during the assembly."
Yet it would be a mistake to confuse this
year's assembly with previous party congresses.
The Islamic and racist zeal was unmistakably more
incessant and explicit, and the proceedings were
considerably less tempered with calls for national
unity. Remarks by Hasnoor Hussein, an UMNO
delegate from Malacca, were typical: "UMNO is
willing to risk lives and bathe in blood to defend
the race and religion. Don't play with fire. If
the [other races] mess with our rights, we will
mess with theirs."
What troubles many
Malaysians about UMNO's lack of restraint is that
it comes at a time when the country appears more
racially polarized than it's been in decades.
Malaysia's mix of ethnic Malays, Indians and
Chinese has long been resentful of each other and
willfully segregate themselves. Those resentments
exploded into full-blown race riots in 1969, when
ethnic Malays attacked and killed scores of ethnic
These days, some 90% of Chinese
students attend private Mandarin-language schools.
Meanwhile, most Malays attend public schools and
most Indians Tamil-language institutions of
learning. Two years ago the government initiated a
public service program to improve race relations
by choosing 18-year-olds to participate in a
military style camp. That scheme has been dogged
by reports of race-related infighting, however.
Unequal rights In the face of a
creeping Islamization, non-Malays and social
activists have recently pressured Malaysia's UMNO
leadership to grant equal rights to all of the
country's citizens regardless of race or religion
- as is guaranteed under the federal constitution.
In particular, they have also become more
vocal in questioning a controversial affirmative
action program intended to help Muslim Malays
catch up economically with the ethnic Chinese, who
comprise 60% and 25% of the population
Started in 1971, the
so-called New Economic Policy (NEP) was originally
intended to last 20 years but has since been
extended indefinitely. That's because, according
to the government, its target of 30% Malay
ownership of the country's total corporate equity
still has not been achieved. According to official
statistics, that percentage now hovers around 18%.
Yet a study conducted by an independent academic
last month contested that figure by claiming that
ethnic Malay total equity ownership could already
be as high as 45%.
The push for more
democracy in authoritarian Malaysia leaves its
ethnic Chinese and Indian minority groups
particularly vulnerable - a fact reflected in the
racial bashing at this year's UMNO assembly. At
the same time, UMNO's preoccupation with racial
politics raises growing doubts about its ability
to lead the country forward faced with the
challenge of China's economic emergence. The party
leadership has openly acknowledged the need for
Malaysia to change course if it is to remain
competitive with its fast-rising neighbors.
Economic growth slowed from 7.2% in 2004
to 5.2% last year, while foreign investment
dropped 15% to $3.9 billion. Prime Minister
Abdullah Badawi has promoted his concept of
Islam Hadhari, or Civilizational Islam, a
modernist interpretation of the faith that
stresses moderation and technological and economic
competitiveness. In that direction, his party has
also introduced plans to transform Malaysia into a
regional information technology, agricultural and
"We need an economic
transformation," Abdullah said in his opening
address at the UMNO assembly. Yet tight curbs on
personal freedoms, implemented to curb racial
tensions, have hindered the open inquiry and
innovative spirit necessary to achieve Abdullah's
vision. The next phase of economic development
will require coincident social transformation,
reforms the current race-obsessed political
leadership is reluctant to implement.
Past tense progressive Oddly,
UMNO was once a progressive party, championing
what seemed a viable vision to improve equity
among the races. Even into the 1990s, under the
iron-fisted leadership of Mahathir Mohamad, UMNO
looked primed to lead Malaysia toward developed
country status. The shimmering steel and glass
that spangle Kuala Lumpur's skyline are remnants
of that now fading vision.
But the plan
went awry as UMNO became politically entrenched in
power. Meanwhile, Malaysia's social development
and technical know-how has not kept pace with its
infrastructural achievements. A common concession
in Malaysia, even among its own leadership, is
that the country has first world infrastructure
but a Third World mentality. Now, that dubious
distinction is becoming increasingly obvious to
The country's leadership must
take much of the blame. UMNO has clung to old
solutions, such as the NEP, to fix new problems.
Put another way, UMNO, which has ruled Malaysia
for four-plus decades through a coalition of other
race-based parties, has become bitter, cynical and
defensive - a party that is emphasizing
preservation at the expense of progress.
Even younger UMNO members, once portrayed
as idealistic, urbane and liberal, have quickly
come to resemble the party's conservative old
guard. And now they often represent the front edge
of the party's increasing racist angst. For
instance, Abdullah's Oxford-educated son-in-law,
Khairy Jamaluddin, who is coincidentally the
deputy chief of UMNO's youth wing, warned in
September that Chinese political groups would try
to take advantage of any split inside UMNO.
When pressured to apologize, according to
media reports, the 31-year-old said, "What is
there to apologize for? ... I am only defending my
race." At the annual assembly, meanwhile, UMNO
youth chief Hishammudin Hussein urged the
government to reject proposals for an inter-faith
commission intended to foster better understanding
among Malaysia's various religious groups.
He brandished a Malay dagger, known
locally as a keris, when speaking. Some
delegates, it seemed, urged him to go further.
"Datuk Hisham has unsheathed his keris,
waved his keris, kissed his keris.
We want to ask Datuk Hisham, when is he going to
use it?" said UMNO Perlis delegate Hashim Suboh.
Non-Malays are seeking to exploit the
fiery tone of the UMNO assembly to their own
political advantage. Liow Tiong Lai, youth chief
of the Barisan Nasional component of the Malaysian
Chinese Association, said the day that the
assembly wrapped up, "All of us are Malaysians in
this multiracial country and hatred must not
exist. Instead, we must find strength in
diversity. We must inculcate love and unity among
the races in order to overcome obstacles
Malays and UMNO party members
will question the sincerity of such remarks, and
not without reason. Following UMNO's example, all
of Malaysia's major political parties are
explicitly race-based, and all have been known to
play the race card to shore up their support
bases. But only UMNO has the weight of an assembly
that has incited anger, mistrust and ridicule of
This year's assembly could
mark a dangerous turning point for a country that
not long ago was often applauded internationally
as a model moderate Islamic nation for its seeming
religious tolerance and clear economic
achievements. Nowadays, it's altogether unclear if
a racially charged UMNO can even manage to
maintain short-term social and political
Ioannis Gatsiounis, a
New York native, is a Malaysia-based writer.