Rallies replace riots in Malaysia
By Chin Huat Wong
KUALA LUMPUR - On May 13, 1969, the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur was a living hell with vehicles, houses and the national consciousness set ablaze. Clashes between ethnic Malays and Chinese claimed 196 lives according to official police estimates. Independent foreign observers estimated the death toll as ten times higher.
Triggered by the outcome of the 1969 elections, that riot paved way for two years of emergency rule and a fundamental change in politics and society. The then ruling Alliance Party - a coalition of three communal parties representing Malays, Chinese and Indians and their regional allies in Sabah and Sarawak - found itself
squeezed by Malay and non-Malay opposition from both flanks.
In terms of popular votes in peninsular Malaysia, the opposition Pan-Malaysia Islamic Party (PAS) rose from 15% in 1964 to 24% at the 1969 polls, threatening the then ruling United Malays National Organization's (UMNO) claim as ethnic Malays' sole political representative. In contrast, the popular support for non-Malay opposition parties was constant at 26%.
Thanks to a first-past-the-post (FPTP) voting system and strategic avoidance of multi-cornered electoral fights, non-Malay opposition parties saw their parliamentary seats rise from six in 1964 to 22 in 1969, while PAS increased its share only marginally from 9 to 12. The non-Malay opposition's electoral gains were at the time conveniently interpreted as an ethnic Chinese challenge to ethnic Malays' political dominance.
When UMNO's junior partner Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA), which suffered a major setback at the 1969 polls, decided to stay out of the cabinet to respect the popular verdict, this was unfortunately viewed as a Chinese decision to abandon communal power sharing with UMNO. The riot resulted in a transfer of power from Malaysia's first Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman to his deputy Abdul Razak Hussein, the father of current prime minister Najib Razak.
In the wake of the riot, Abdul Razak implemented a series of pro-Malay policies, most significantly the New Economic Policy (NEP), and co-opted most of the opposition into Barisan Nasional (BN), an expanded version of the previous ruling Alliance. He effectively built an electoral one-party state which remained unassailable until 2008, when opposition parties that later came to form the Pakatan Rakyat (PR) coalition made historic gains at the ballot box.
These historical facts are worth revisiting because history seems to have repeated itself in many ways in the general election held on May 5. Like in 1969, BN lost its majority in popular votes, polling only 47%, despite allegations of widespread irregularities and fraud. Nevertheless, mal-apportionment and gerrymandering of constituencies allowed the ruling coalition to maintain 60% of parliament's total seats.
Najib's first response to the poor popular showing was that BN's electoral setback was due to a "Chinese tsunami". Altogether, the PR opposition coalition won only 40% of parliament's seats while notching a bare majority of 51% in popular votes.
Individually, popular support for the PR's Chinese-dominated Democratic Action Party (DAP) rose from 14% to 16%, while PAS's vote share also rose from 14% to 15%. The Malay-dominated centrist People's Justice Party (PKR) won 20% of all votes cast, compared to the 19% it garnered five years ago.
Thanks to the first-past-the-post electoral system, DAP emerged as the largest party with 38 parliamentary seats, while PKR and PAS lost respectively one and two seats at 30 and 21 respectively, despite winning more votes than they did in 2008.
Following Najib's cue, the UMNO-controlled Malay language daily Utusan Malaysia asked on its front page the next day "What more do the Chinese want?" - painting an unbecoming portrait of a greedy and insatiable minority. The following days saw more provocative headlines on the same theme. Former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad joined the attacks, accusing the Chinese of "rejecting the Malays' hand of friendship". (Ethnic Chinese account for around 25% of the national population, while ethnic Malays account for around 60%.)
On May 12, a retired senior judge and card-carrying UMNO member upped the ante by warning the Chinese of a Malay backlash against their "betrayal". "When the Malays are betrayed, they will react and their wrath will be endless," he said. The judge even called for an expansion of NEP-related privileges for ethnic Malays that "from today on, every business would have a 67% share ready for Malays to be taken up at any time".
As in post-election 1969, the MCA has decided against joining the new cabinet in response to the popular will. With only seven Chinese members among BN's 133 parliamentary delegates, the question of a lack of Chinese representation in the new government has already been raised in certain quarters.
Like UMNO's relentless efforts to co-opt the opposition after the 1969 polls, calls have been made for the DAP to join BN to represent the Chinese, or for a grand coalition government to include both BN and PR. The pro-BN Chinese daily Sin Chew misleadingly reported that DAP was contemplating the proposal of forming a coalition government with BN.
Unfortunately for Najib, the Malaysia he faces is vastly different from the racially-charged one his father took over in 1969. Malaysians' knee-jerk reaction to speculation of possible race-based riots and political violence has virtually disappeared in the past five years. Post-election riots have not materialized, despite UMNO and BN stalwarts race-baiting public statements.
The 2008 elections saw PR take power in five out of Malaysia's 13 federal states, including the comparatively prosperous states of Selangor and Penang. Significantly, Malaysians have grown more cohesive in their protest against electoral fraud and corruption under the BN. Even though political violence may break out anywhere anytime, the probability of it spreading along communal lines is almost nil.
Thanks to UMNO's pro-Malay policies after 1969, the socio-economic status of many Malays has improved over the years, closing once yawning inter-communal gaps in wealth and income. After the Utusan Malaysia's provocative headlines, warnings have spread through SMS to the Chinese that they should refrain from any protests against election fraud to avoid becoming the target of another May 13, 1969 riot.
Despite those threats, the protest rallies organized by PR in Kuala Lumpur and the states of Penang and Perak have attracted tens of thousands angry citizens clad in black, the symbolic color for mourning, to lament the death of democracy after BN's questionable victory on May 5. The rally participants have been multi-ethnic and youthful.
In the early 1970s, then prime minister Abdul Razak dismissed democratic participation in the name of communal harmony. "In our Malaysian society of today, where racial manifestations are very much in exercise, any form of politicking is bound to follow along racial lines and will only enhance the divisive tendencies," Razak said.
Now, in 2013, young adults and even teenagers are marching in high spirits to the opposition rallies, almost as if they are attending dance parties. Ironically, politics now unites Malaysians who yearn for change regardless of their ethnic and cultural backgrounds. In the first black-clad rally held in Kelana Jaya, where some 120,000 reportedly attended, a group of Malays shouted "we are Chinese" in response to Utusan Malaysia's racial hate-mongering.
Personified by the marching multi-ethnic youth clad in black, Malaysia has finally left behind the threat of ethnic riots after 44 years. Najib may believe that his party and coalition won the 2013 election, but anyone who has seen the recent rally crowds will conclude otherwise: they have lost a generation and the popular mandate to rule.
Chin Huat Wong is a fellow at the Penang Institute, a think tank linked to the Penang State Government. He earned his PhD from the University of Essex on a thesis focused on Malaysia's electoral and party systems. He is also a steering committee member of the Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections 2.0, also known as Bersih 2.0.
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