By Ida Lim
The Malay Mail Online
Saturday July 18, 2015
KUALA LUMPUR, July 18 — Malaysia will not likely see a repeat of the May 13, 1969 racial riots but isolated clashes like last weekend’s melee at Low Yat Plaza will not be uncommon in a society still divided along ethnic lines, regional observers said.
Although Malaysians are largely deemed a peace-loving lot, the observers cautioned that racial politics and years of race-based policies have created a lingering resentment among the country’s different ethnic groups.
In such an environment, they said economic gloom and even minor personal disputes could cause ethnic tensions to flare easily.
“So, tremors like we’ve just felt in Low Yat will doubtlessly recur—for the ethnic fault line in Malaysia is widening,” Prof William Case told Malay Mail online.
The academic attached to City University of Hong Kong’s Department of Asian and International Studies said ethnic relations in Malaysia have already suffered over the years, largely due to Umno’s calls for Malay dominance and “aggressive Malay supremacist and Islamist organisations”.
This has created hostilities between the Malays and non-Malays, he said, and contributed to a highly flammable situation.
But unlike the ethnic riots in Jakarta and Kuala Lumpur in 1998 and 1969 where some politicians had failed to rein in the situation, Case said the Umno leaders and the police have no real desire to see “real ethnic showdown and bloodletting” happen here.
“Without top politicians egging them on, or the police giving a green light, I don’t expect to see street brawling erupting in large-scale ethnic rioting in Malaysia any time soon,” Case said, in reference to the Low Yat brawl.
Singapore-based observer Dr Oh Ei Sun said most Malaysians are known to be peace-loving but economic concerns such as “falling income, rising prices, high unemployment or underemployment among the young” create an environment conducive for rioting.
“Political uncertainty will aggravate this, as there will be those opportunistic few who would like to achieve political ends by resorting to violence,” the senior fellow at Nanyang Technology University’s Institute of Defence & Strategic Studies told Malay Mail Online in an email interview.
But Oh said Malaysia has a relatively low vulnerability to violence with only a small group wanting to instigate racial clashes, also noting that the wealth gap between ethnic groups today is no longer as prominent as it was during the 1969 race riots.
Ironically, the survival problems in the country are also drawing Malaysians closer to each other as all races face the same uphill challenges, he said.
“If anything, we see a more mutually understanding society because as Malaysia is urbanising rapidly, people from across the racial lines are facing very similar challenges: falling income, worsening traffic, housing shortage, failing education, etc., all of which, ironically, increase the empathy of Malaysians for each other,” he added.
To prevent ethnic riots from happening again in Malaysia, Oh said Putrajaya’s top priority should be improving socio-economic conditions for all Malaysians, while misunderstandings should be thrashed out in honest and peaceful dialogues.
Australia’s Prof Clive Kessler said racial riots are symptoms of a “regime crisis”, which in Malaysia’s case could happen as the decades-old Umno and Barisan Nasional governing formula comes into question after poor showings in Election 2008 and Election 2013.
Although Malaysians are largely deemed a peace-loving lot, the observers cautioned that racial politics and years of race-based policies have created a lingering resentment among the country’s different ethnic groups. — Reuters picAlthough Malaysians are largely deemed a peace-loving lot, the observers cautioned that racial politics and years of race-based policies have created a lingering resentment among the country’s different ethnic groups. — Reuters picA regime crisis typically happens when there is economic slowdown, political deadlock, an inept or faltering government and falling public confidence, the long-time observer of Malaysia said.
Citizens may take to the streets in anger when they find the old and familiar governing structure no longer works, but such protests could unfortunately turn into ethnic riots in Malaysia due to the entrenched racially-driven politics and racially-structured life here, Kessler said.
Malaysia can only hope on the good sense of most Malaysians, he said, conceding that the danger of ethnic riots is never remote as risks continue to grow.
To truly move on, Malaysia has to face up to the history of the 1969 riots, Kessler said.
But there has never been a clear and adequate analysis of the event as it was more convenient to use it as a bogeyman and threat, he said.
“But so long as the nature of the 1969 crisis is not addressed squarely, Malaysia will never be fully free of those events, their continuing residue and after-effects, it will never manage to get over and put to rest what happened—and to learn the lessons,” the emeritus professor of sociology and anthropology at the University of New South Wales said in an email interview.
The 1969 riots left hundreds of Malaysians injured and dead, while the Low Yat Plaza mob violence last week saw five injured.