The Big Read: On Malaysia Day, a reminder of racial politics at play


Race politics are very much alive in Malaysia, say analysts and observers. Going forward how will this affect Malaysia and even Singapore?

SINGAPORE — On Sept 16, Malaysia celebrated its 52nd Malaysia Day, which marks the birth of the Malaysian federation consisting of Malaya, Sabah, Sarawak and, briefly Singapore.

Malaysia Day is often a low-key affair, coming just two weeks after the splashier Merdeka Day celebrations. Yet this year, the day was marked by two important events.

The first was the Red Shirts rally by a Malay rights groups to show solidarity with Malay leaders whom these groups claimed are under attack by the Chinese community. The second event was the launch of the Parti Amanah Negara (PAN) or Amanah, a breakaway party of the Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS). PAN is a moderate Islamic party which calls for the strengthening of Malaysia’s multi-ethnic and multi-religious social fabric. But for PAS leaders, PAN is just a front for the Democratic Action Party (DAP) — the opposition’s ethnic Chinese party.

There is concern within both PAS and the ruling United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) that PAN could further split the Malay vote and help propel DAP to an electoral victory over UMNO at the next general election.

With some cracks appearing in UMNO over Prime Minister Najib Razak’s role in the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) scandal, the party has revived the old narrative that the Malay community’s political position in under threat in a bid to bolster its support base. These developments are a reflection of how race politics are very much alive in Malaysia, say analysts and observers. Going forward, the race card will continue to be used, and this will affect not only Malaysia’s stability: There could be a spillover effects on Singapore.


The pro-government rally — officially called Himpunan Rakyat Bersatu — was a direct counter to the Bersih rally late last month. Bersih 2.0 (The Coalition for Free and Fair Elections) had traditionally called for electoral reforms, but this year it was rallying for the resignation of Mr Najib. The Bersih rally was seen by the Red Shirts organisers as a Chinese-led protest against the leadership of UMNO.

Notably, the police estimated that some 35,000 turned out for the Red Shirts rally, far less than the 100,000-plus turnout claimed by Bersih. Prior to the Red Shirts rally, politicians from both sides of the political divide had expressed concerns that it could stoke racial tension. Despite this, Mr Najib did not criticise it, and said that UMNO would not prevent its members from attending. The presence of a number of top UMNO leaders, including former ministers Annuar Musa and Noh Omar as well as former Malacca chief minister Ali Rustam, were clear indications of tacit support by the party for the event.

While the rally was ostensibly organised to show support for UMNO leaders, there was little doubt that it was also aimed at asserting Malay dominance. The event saw incendiary remarks and racially charged banners and placards. Riot police used water cannons on protesters who had attempted to breach the barricades to gain access to Petaling Street, also commonly known as Chinatown.

Reflecting on the rally, Dr Wong Chin Huat, the head of political and social analysis at think-tank Penang Institute, told TODAY that “the Red Shirts are showing in the most candid way what the narrative of Malay supremacy means: ‘We (Malays) are the hosts, you (the Chinese) are the guests/squatters. If we do not get what we want, we will run amok’.”

The vast majority of Malaysian Malays did not approve of the event. A survey by polling firm Merdeka Center showed that only 24 per cent of Malays supported the rally, with 53 per cent against it. Mr Najib later justified the rally, saying it was a manifestation of the rise of the Malays to defend their dignity and protect the country’s leadership from being humiliated. He added that it was a peaceful gathering.

Analysts have said that the fact that the government has turned a blind eye to the rally suggested an attempt by UMNO to divert attention from an embattled, unpopular Prime Minister by stoking racial and religious tensions. Mr Najib has been under intense political pressure over the large debts incurred by 1MDB and opaque political donations from the Middle East before the 2013 general election. The ringgit is also at a 17-year low.

The rally drew a strong backlash, particularly from the opposition. Mr Tony Pua, a DAP lawmaker, described the Red Shirts event as a “thinly masked attempt to incite race-based support for the Prime Minister using racist rhetoric and sentiments”.

In an email interview with TODAY, Mr Pua added that given how the government gave the Red Shirts a free hand to openly threaten the other minority communities, this will “increase scepticism among the minorities (against the government) and hurt racial relations in the long run.”

DAP secretary-general Lim Guan Eng yesterday also called on Mr Najib to come down hard on those playing the race card. “That is the problem, and the direction is coming from the PM. He seems to be allowing it. He has to come down harshly (on plans like that),” Mr Lim told the media in Penang.

The backlash has also foregrounded the hairline cracks in the ruling coalition, Barisan Nasional (BN). Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) president Liow Tiong Lai this week urged the government to stop these rallies as they “threaten to tear the fabric of our nation apart”, as the MCA youth wing in Pasir Gudang announced they will sever all ties with Mr Najib. But despite these differences, Mr Liow, who is also the Transport Minister, said that the MCA will remain a component party of BN to defend multiculturalism in the country.

Race politics are affecting not only BN unity, but also threatening to split the opposition parties.


PAS today views the DAP as a bigger threat than UMNO. In an internal study conducted by PAS recently, the party concluded that the DAP is seeking to undermine the Malaysian government by dividing Malay votes. The study noted that there are as many as 85 seats in the country that have at least 40 per cent Chinese voters. These are seats that the DAP could capture if the Malay votes are split.

The DAP could either contest these seats directly or field its allies in PAN. The fear in PAS, and UMNO, is that the DAP could win the most number of seats in the next election. This would allow the DAP to dominate the government for the first time in Malaysia’s history. The announcement this week of a new opposition coalition, Pakatan Harapan (PH, Alliance of Hope), comprising PAN, DAP and Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR), will now drive a bigger wedge between PAS and its former allies in the now-defunct Pakatan Rakyat opposition pact formed after the 2008 general election. By teaming up with PKR and DAP, PAN has effectively taken over PAS’ position in the alliance.

PAN was formed after months of infighting within PAS between the more conservative ulama (clergy) faction and the moderate progressive wing. Following June’s party election, which saw the progressive group completely routed, a decision was made by these PAS leaders to leave and form a new party. The party’s launch was a grand affair attended by about 3,000 members and the who’s who of Malaysia’s opposition, including PKR president Wan Azizah Ismail and DAP chairman Lim Kit Siang.

In his opening speech, PAN president Mohamad Sabu stated clearly that the party will have a multi-ethnic membership without renouncing its Islamic goals. This goal was underscored by the fact that two of its central executive members are non-Muslims. PAN is believed to enjoy some traction among the urban, professional Malays who have become disenchanted with the perceived rigidity and conservative outlook of PAS and are also less comfortable with PKR’s secular approach.

Mr Wan Saiful Wan Jan, head of the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs, a think-tank in Malaysia, said that the PH needs to quickly make public its common policy framework. “This document must outline answers to some difficult questions from the economy to education and ethnic relations. The public wants to see leadership. They must provide that leadership and they must do it quickly,” he told TODAY via email.

PAS leaders and members have meanwhile accused PAN of being a DAP puppet. Already there are claims that PAN is bankrolled by the DAP, an accusation neither denied nor confirmed by PAN leaders.

Analysts have pointed out that beneath this rhetoric is PAS’ worry that PAN will further dilute the Malay vote. “PAS sees PAN as a competitor which erodes its hard-won urban Malay and, for that matter, Chinese and Indian supporters. PAS will see itself losing urban votes to PAN,” Dr Oh Ei Sun, a former political secretary of Mr Najib, told TODAY.

Dr Ooi Kee Beng, deputy director of Singapore’s Institute of Southeast Asian Studies – Yusof Ishak Institute, added that despite the ulama wing routing the moderates during the PAS general assembly in June, the traditionalists have found that they are now the ones being sidelined rather than the moderates who were knocked out of the top party positions. “This is because support for PAS in recent years has been based on disapproval of UMNO, and not so much about Malay unity,” he said.

In this regard, despite PAN having split from PAS, the new party will also appeal to voters now that is part of the opposition pact.

The PAS-PAN conflict has taken a new turn with the formation of the PH. The decision of the opposition parties to form a new alliance without PAS will have several consequences. First, with the absence of Anwar Ibrahim as an overarching figure within the PKR and with PAS absent from the coalition, the DAP will emerge as a dominant partner in the alliance. Mr Kamaruzzaman Mohamed, press secretary to PAS president Abdul Hadi Awang, told TODAY: “We all know that Wan Azizah (PKR president and Anwar’s wife) is no leader. She is just a figurehead. We have no doubts that DAP will now emerge as a key partner in PH and will call the shots in all issues. Knowing this, how can we join this coalition?”

Second, PAS’ distrust for PAN and the DAP could lead to the party breaking all ties with the opposition coalition. In the state of Selangor, a PAS withdrawal will leave the new coalition with 30 seats in a state assembly of 56 seats. The razor-thin margin could lead to UMNO attempting a takeover of the state government. One PKR executive council member who is close to Selangor chief minister Azmin Ali told TODAY: “PKR cannot break our working relationship with PAS (or) the Selangor state government will be on a knife-edge.”

Third, PAS leaders who are friendlier to UMNO will be empowered to push for a closer working relationship with the government.

The Red Shirt rally and the formation of PAN on Malaysia Day have starkly different objectives. Yet, both events feed into the narrative that the Malay community is under siege. The scandal surrounding the state investment firm 1MDB, Mr Najib’s sacking of his deputy Muhyiddin Yassin for asking questions in public about 1MDB, and the attacks against Mr Najib from former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad — again over 1MDB — have weakened UMNO significantly. The formation of PAN has further divided the Malay votes by creating another alternative to PAS and UMNO. Meanwhile, the Chinese community appears firmly behind the DAP, given how weak MCA is perceived to be. The DAP controls virtually all the Chinese majority seats in the country. It is also courting Malays, as only two of its current 37 Members of Parliament are Malay.

The political unity of the Chinese was further manifested in the recent Bersih rally, which some believe was an unprecedented show of support from the Chinese community. As such, the rhetoric by some government leaders including Mr Najib that the political dominance of the Malays is under threat has found some traction.

There are voices in PAS calling for the party to establish a working relationship with UMNO to protect the political position of Malays in the country. Mr Shuhaimi Embong, a PAS activist, said that “we need to understand the Malaysian political reality. Even UMNO cannot survive on its own. What makes us think that we (PAS) can survive on our own. I personally think that we should be decisive whether we ally with PKR or form a tacit alliance with UMNO”.


Going forward, politicians from both sides of the political divide will likely continue to use racial and religious sentiments to push their own political agendas, and rising tensions can be expected. This will inevitably affect the country’s stability and economy, and a ripple effect will likely be felt in Singapore, which shares Malaysia’s multiracial make-up.

Analysts TODAY spoke to were sanguine about the impact of these latest developments on Singapore-Malaysia relations. Mr Najib is known to be favourably disposed towards Singapore, and he has a good working relationship with Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. Flagship projects between Singapore and Malaysia, including the high-speed rail link and the Iskandar Development Region, are on track. However, the political uncertainty in Malaysia is likely to worsen the country’s already bleak economic outlook and repercussions will be felt across the causeway. A Bloomberg report this week stated that even though Moody’s rated Malaysia A3, credit default swap traders saw it six levels lower at Ba3 — a junk grade.

Mr Michael Wan, Credit Suisse economist, told TODAY that Singapore’s economy is very dependent on Malaysia, and if the latter slows down, there will be some knock-on negative impact on Singapore. Mr Wan said part of the knock-on effect could hurt the retail sector here. “With a weaker ringgit, it makes more sense for the Singapore consumers to spend in Malaysia rather than Singapore.”

Mr Francis Tan, a UOB economist, said tourist arrivals from Malaysia into Singapore could be affected this year. “Year-to-date we should already see declines because the ringgit has been depreciating throughout the year. It’s not just last month so the impact should already be there. In the tourism industry, businesses like hotels, retail, F&B — the usual things that tourists spend on — will also be affected,” he said.

Another area of concern is exports. Mr Wan pointed out that Singapore exports cater to final demand in Malaysia. “If Malaysia’s consumers get squeezed and they buy less from overseas, it accounts for about 3 per cent of Singapore’s GDP. Indonesia is probably about the same at 3 to 4 per cent of GDP. If you add up the whole of ASEAN I would say it’s maybe like 8 to 9 per cent of GDP, so it’s quite sizeable,” he said. ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY ALBERT WAI AND LEE YEN NEE

  1. #1 by boh-liao on Sunday, 27 September 2015 - 5:00 pm

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