Harassment of pro-democracy activists in Malaysia reveals a worrying undercurrent of racism

Jul 14th 2012 | KUALA LUMPUR
Politics in Malaysia
The racial question

THE house of Ambiga Sreenevasan in a leafy neighbourhood of Kuala Lumpur looks ordinary enough. Getting into it, though, betrays a different reality. A security guard greets visitors, who are then scrutinised by newly installed surveillance cameras. A bodyguard hovers somewhere inside the house.

The precautions are revealing. Ms Ambiga has become the target of what she describes as “relentless attacks”, including death threats. They have thrust a middle-class lawyer (she is a former president of the Malaysian Bar Council) into the centre of politics in the run-up to what could be a pivotal general election.

Ms Ambiga is co-leader of the Bersih movement, a coalition of NGOs campaigning for free and fair elections. To her supporters, Bersih, which means “clean” in Malay, is dedicated to strengthening democracy in Malaysia, where the system is heavily skewed in favour of the ruling United Malays National Organisation (UMNO). The party has been in power continuously since independence in 1957; it governs in a coalition known as the Barisan Nasional (BN) mainly with two minority parties, one ethnic Chinese and the other Indian, reflecting the racial composition of the country. To many within UMNO, Ms Ambiga is a grave threat, the more so because Najib Razak, the prime minister, has to go to the polls by the second quarter of next year, but appears to be reluctant to call the election. Though his personal support rating is high, the coalition is less popular.

A mass rally called by Bersih in the capital in April attracted tens of thousands of people, including many opposition leaders. The event ended in riots and violence. Ever since, UMNO and its underlings have been demonising the leaders of Bersih, which may have cheered some from the majority Malay population but could also backfire against the government.

When it started in May, the harassment of Ms Ambiga was almost farcical. A posse of traders turned up outside her door frying burgers to protest about their lost earnings on the day of the rally; silly stuff, though still offensive to a Hindu vegetarian. Sillier still, a group of ex-soldiers marched on her house and shook their buttocks at it, calling her a subversive.

Then things turned nasty. Several hundred men handed over a petition saying that she was anti-Islamic (in a Muslim-majority country) and should leave Malaysia. Ms Ambiga says that these protests were “either sanctioned or supported by the state”. Finally, on June 26th, a veteran UMNO politician, Mohamad Aziz, said in parliament: “Can we not consider Ambiga a traitor…and sentence her to hang”.

This has caused a storm. Quite apart from the overt threat, the MP lit the touchpaper of Malaysia’s highly flammable racial politics; this was a Malay MP insulting a prominent member of the Indian community. The country’s 2m Indians are normally a divided lot, but they quickly rallied behind Ms Ambiga. Even the leaders of the BN-aligned Malaysian Indian Congress party denounced the MP, ostensibly their political ally. Mr Mohamad issued a limited apology to Indians in general, but not to Ms Ambiga personally.

Ms Ambiga believes the attacks on her, all by Malay men, are racist. She points out that her Malay co-leader of Bersih, a famous writer called A. Samad Said, has never been targeted.

It is as yet unclear whether the souring climate could turn Malaysia’s Indians against the BN. They make up only 8% of the population. Traditionally they have mostly voted for the BN, but some may now change their minds, especially in urban areas where Ms Ambiga is respected. After the BN’s Indian vote fell at the last election in 2008, Mr Najib worked hard to court Indians. Now, that may have been to little avail.

Mr Najib may also be personally tarnished. He portrays himself as a liberally minded champion of multiracial politics, yet critics say he has done little to rein in the racist attacks. When under pressure, the “warlords” of UMNO who constitute its nationalist backbone have often drawn on racial politics, playing up to Malay voters the supposed threats that Chinese and Indians pose to their institutionalised privileges in jobs and education. Under Mr Najib people had hoped for something better. Ms Ambiga accuses him of being “wet” for failing to take a stronger stand. His belated rebuttal to Mr Mohamad merely urged MPs not to say things that might “hurt the feelings of other races”.

Meanwhile, Ms Ambiga and other Bersih co-leaders (not the Malay one) have been issued with a bewildering demand for compensation from the Kuala Lumpur city council for costs incurred during the April rally. This includes a claim for “damage to trees” ($5,246) and “food and drink” for staff. The government has also brought charges against Anwar Ibrahim, the leader of the opposition, and several of his colleagues for a variety of offences arising from their participation in the April rally. Their cases go to court in the next few months; if they are convicted, they could be banned from standing in the election.

Political analysts argue that such tactics are a sign of nervousness—though the BN is very unlikely to lose the election. Since May, surveys suggest his support among Chinese and Indian voters has fallen, though that of Malays has increased a bit. It is all likely to make for a more acrimonious election when one is at last called.

  1. #1 by sheriff singh on Friday, 13 July 2012 - 12:03 pm

    ‘….the “warlords” of UMNO …….playing up to Malay voters the supposed threats that Chinese and Indians pose to their institutionalised privileges in jobs and education….’

    The biggest warlord could be Mahathir? He suppressed the recognition of TAR College’s Diploma and Certificates during his 22 years tenure and is now very sore with Najib for recognising them with the ‘stroke of a pen’. It was all about politics, not about the standards. What else did this Mahathir warlord suppress? The list could be many.

  2. #2 by sotong on Friday, 13 July 2012 - 12:04 pm

    With power, one can be more racist.

  3. #3 by dagen wanna "ABU" on Friday, 13 July 2012 - 12:23 pm

    We have moved beyond Best Democracy, ie BD. We are now in the era of BDuv or Best Democracy (updated version), i.e. Lagi Best Democracy or in short LBD.

  4. #4 by k1980 on Friday, 13 July 2012 - 1:58 pm


    As Stalin boasted, “It is not the voters which is important in a democracy. It is the people who counts the votes”

  5. #5 by k1980 on Friday, 13 July 2012 - 2:03 pm


    Will Jibby also replace the Sodomme Act and rename it the “Bonga-bonga Act”?

  6. #6 by monsterball on Friday, 13 July 2012 - 2:47 pm

    It’s the same old story and the same old song.
    It’s protecting the majority from the minority taken over power..and UMNO b is the protector of Muslims…race and religion.
    BERSIH 3 was the nightmare to these DIRTY rouges and thieves.
    Najib flip flopping are well known.
    Today…the nice guy.. Santa Clause is in town.
    No more a Patriots fighting Traitors.
    Gangsters and small time thieves are doing the dirty work with his blessings.
    Holding on to an appointed power….by holding off 13th GE as long as he can.

  7. #7 by digard on Friday, 13 July 2012 - 11:10 pm

    What I feel is not really supported by evidence. Though I do tend to have good intuition. I for one feel that Najib wants a tad of what k1980 said above. Najib has learned one thing from his father: If you can’t be sure to win the election, at least be sure that you can declare an emergency.
    And that’s where he is heading. Projecting himself as a venerable democrat, globally, almost a nice man. While in the background, his storm troopers are waiting. And provoking. And waiting. One day or another, the sanity and constraint of the Malaysians will fail. That’s what he is waiting for. He’s not interested in becoming a blood-thirsty dictator. He only wants to stay in power. Stay safely in power. With high personal standings, he can project himself as Mr. Clean-Enough and accepted by a good majority, to take over as governor during the times of a potential upcoming emergency. Mahathir and Muhyiddin will go in a fell swoop, easily. Then, no further challenger can pop up for the next decade to come. Then we might even go back to the usual style of somewhat fair elections, Malaysian style. And Najib will become the White Night in the textbooks, the man who almost single-handedly saved Malaysia.
    It would need too much diligence and dialectics for the majority to understand, that he would have become the savior of the nation from his own crooked undercurrents.

  8. #8 by yhsiew on Saturday, 14 July 2012 - 7:38 am

    BTN indoctrination has sown the seed of racism in this country.

  9. #9 by boh-liao on Saturday, 14 July 2012 - 8:32 am

    Dis demoncrazy thingy here – not just RACISM but also FASCISM
    Mayb we will C more ppl RUNNING AMOK in P’jaya, an excellent excuse 2 declare emergency
    Anymore houses/homes of PR n Bersih’s kakis kena broken into, residents threatened, injured, beaten up?
    AhCkor not worried, after all dis is d most democratic n safest (lowest crime rate) tanah

  10. #10 by dagen wanna "ABU" on Saturday, 14 July 2012 - 11:53 am

    Imagine this. Umno could well have the personal info of all contributors / commentators here in this blog compiled and recorded in its black book!

    • #11 by PoliticoKat on Monday, 16 July 2012 - 8:42 am

      Actually, they probably do.
      Wasn’t there an attempt to link our IC to our web presence? The equivalent of the great bamboo wall of china. But we laughed at it and Rais dropped the idea cause it was too expensive and too difficult to implement.

      Also if i am not mistaken there was an attempt by Rais to make that everything we write must be truthful and unbias, else we can be sued. Thus a malaysian blogger is held to the same standards as a newspaper (aside from utusan).

      So… yeah SB is watching.

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