Deepening Malay Polarization More Dangerous Than Inter-Racial Divisions

Bakri Musa
21st Sept 2015

Over 46 years ago a largely Chinese group of demonstrators celebrating their party’s electoral victory triggered Malaysia’s worst race riot. Last Wednesday, September 16, 2015, an exclusively Malay rally in predominantly Chinese Petaling Street of Kuala Lumpur triggered only the riot police’s water cannons.

What flowed on Petaling Street last Wednesday was clear water, not red blood as in 1969. There was also minimal property damage (except for loss of business) and no loss of life. That is significant; that is progress.

Malaysia has come a long way since 1969, the current shrill race hysteria notwithstanding. However leaders, political and non-political, Malays as well as non-Malays, are still trapped in their time-warped racial mentality of the 1960s. They still view the nation’s race dynamics primarily as Malays versus non-Malays.

That is understandable as the horrific memories of that 1969 race tragedy, as well as the much earlier and more brutal Bintang Tiga reign of terror, had been seared into the collective Malaysian consciousness, permanently warping our national perception.

The challenge today is less the risk of inter-racial conflagration of the 1969 variety, more a Malay civil war similar to what is now happening in the Arab world and what has happened on the Korean Peninsula. Last Wednesday’s red-shirt rally illustrates this point.

While the earlier and visibly non-Malay Bersih 4.0 demonstrations had considerable Malay support, including from such luminaries as Tun Mahathir and National Laureate Datuk Samad Said, the exclusively Malay red-shirted Himpunan Rakyat Bersatu drew condemnations from many Malays, leaders and otherwise.

The head of the Malay NGO Group of 25, Noor Farida, contemptuously dismissed the red shirts as “rent-a-mob crowd.” As a former diplomat I would have expected her to be, well, a bit diplomatic and try to heal the division, not add to it.

The fact that these supposedly enlightened Malay leaders saw fit to condemn and not try to at least understand the aspirations and frustrations of those red-shirted protestors underscores my contention.

Make no mistake. Ethnic and racial conflicts are still a tragic reality today in much of the world, even in the enlightened West. Witness the reaction in Western Europe to the current flood of non-European refugees. Only a few months ago America went through another of its all-too-frequent wrenching race riots in Ferguson, Missouri, a century and a half following Reconstruction and over half a century after the adoption of the Civil Rights Act.

In the Middle East, the Jews and Arabs are still at it. Nonetheless and to put things in perspective, more Arabs have been killed in modern times by fellow Arabs than by Jews, or the Jews and the West combined.

That observation underscores the lethality of intra-racial conflicts. The present undercurrent of Malay xenophobia however, blinds us to this new emerging and far more dangerous reality.

This peril is amplified and abetted by the glaring deficit in our community today of a buffering body or mediating mechanism to bridge and heal the divisions within us. While our traditional ethics and culture had served us well in the past, our pseudo or culup modernity has destroyed those pristine values.

Consider that when the British imposed the Malayan Union Treaty with the acquiescence of our sultans, Malays (except for our sultans of course) were united in opposing it. Our grandparents expressed their disagreement and displeasure with our sultans in our traditional halus (subtle) ways – by demonstrating our loyalty publicly. That mass display prevented our sultans from attending the inauguration of what would have been the first British Governor of Malaya. The protest was so subtle that our sultans missed the message. Bless the British, they did not.

Back then we were blessed with “towering personalities” like Datuk Onn. His courage led him to defy his own sultan in the tradition of Hang Jebat, to the point that he (Onn) was once labeled a derhaka (traitor) and banished to Singapore.

Today we are bereft of such smart, strong and honest leaders. Instead we are cursed with an abundance of the pseudo-towering variety. Like Hang Tuah of yore, they are corrupt, incompetent, and obsessed with sucking up to their superiors, the sultans as well as sultan wannabes. These leaders do not bring us closer; they would rather divide us so as to maintain their positions.

Najib personifies this type of leadership.

One expects our commonality of Islam to bind us. Far from it! Islam and its institutions in Malaysia have failed miserably on this front. Instead of bringing us together, Islam divides us, mocking our Koran and the teachings of our Prophet.

Our muftis could not even agree as to what is halal and haram. Our government-issued ulamas could not say enough kind words on UMNO leaders, even blessing their corrupt deeds, all in the name of Islam! Meanwhile those aligned with PAS would have us believe that not voting for PAS would doom us to eternal hellfire.

In many villagers there are separate mosques for PAS and UMNO followers. Even funerals and marriages have been boycotted in the name of Islam.

This religious fissure goes deep. The intolerance of a hijab-clad Muslimah for her tudung-free sisters goes beyond attire.

There are other equally dangerous fissures. There are those who consider English fluency an asset and strive hard to acquire that for themselves and their children. Others view that as denigrating our national language and culture, an act of treason no less. Again, that reflects the profound differences in our worldview.

These fault lines are fast converging. Given their proper alignment and timing, they could all explode simultaneously, with catastrophic consequences to all, Malays as well as non-Malays.

I am less concerned with the differences between non-Malay yellow-shirters and Malay red shirts, rather between yellow-shirted and red-shirted Malays. The latter division is becoming increasingly irreconcilable and more dangerous. Yet they share some common elements beyond race and faith. Both recognize and value the rights of citizens to demonstrate publicly and or otherwise petition their grievances to the government.

Yes, both have a lot to learn about public demonstrations. They are not alone. Even the University of California is still grappling with the issue of where to draw the line between freedom of speech and intolerance.

Barisan, specifically UMNO, must appreciate and address the concerns of Bersih if it hopes to win the next election and then govern without much harassment. Likewise Pakatan, specifically DAP, must not dismiss the apprehensions and frustrations of the Himpunan Group. Those red-shirted Malays may be crude in expressing their frustrations nonetheless their concerns are legitimate.

The shrill offensive cries of Tanah Melayu and Balek Tongsan are but emotional outbursts of those who feel marginalized and helpless. Their emotions preclude them from seeing beyond. If all the pendatangs were to leave and Malaysia to become exclusively Tanah Melayu, who would fix those Mat Rempits’ motorcycles, defend them in courts, or sell them smart phones at affordable prices?

Bersih and Himpunan need to appreciate each other’s positions, and then help solve or at least ameliorate those differences. To Himpunan, Bersih’s criticisms of the UMNO government are seen as belittling Malay leadership specifically and the Malay race generally. To Bersih, if only the government and UMNO leaders were to be a wee bit more competent and a whole lot less corrupt, the plight of Malays generally and those red-shirters in particular would be much better.

It does not take much effort to appreciate the other side’s point of view. I was impressed with the recent incident at Bayan Lepas when a redshirt leader came to disrupt a Berseh 4 gathering. The quick and counterintuitive thinking of the organizer had that individual address the gathering. Thus instead of confrontation, there was communication. That is the sort of gestures that need to be done and encouraged.

For Malays, we first need to build bridges, not dig trenches within our own community. As for the offensive cries of pendatang and Balek Tongsan, Zunar’s latest cartoon encapsulates my point well, and with lots of humor. It depicts a Mat Rempit begging an Ah Peck to fix his (Mat’s) motorcycle.

Intra-Malay fissure is not just a Malay problem. Malaysia cannot be stable if its largest racial entity is fractured.

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  1. #1 by Bigjoe on Monday, 21 September 2015 - 8:32 am

    Intraracial conflict worst than inter-racial conflict in Malaysia? Its possible that intra-Malay conflict, or rather intra-Muslim, can be worst- just look at IS and Al-Qaeda before and its pretty easy to see how.. But look historically at Konfrontasi and other intra-Malay conflicts including PAS-UMNO and Sultanate wars and it does not get anywhere near the horrors experienced in other places.

    So whether intra-Malay conflict can be worst depends on whether it turns religious and its very possible. Its all the more reason why the increasing religosity and attrition of our founding secularity should have been more alarming from the start among Malay intellectuals.

    I have always argued that Malays must LEAD GLOBAL ISLAMIC REFORM – its for their own good as well as for their Muslim brothers. Instead of being inspired by their Middle East brethens, THEY SHOULD BE THE INSPIRATION. But instead its one more challenge, the corrupt UMNO leadership succumb to its convenient failures..

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