Huang Huikang, the Chinese ambassador to Malaysia, is expected to be summoned to the country’s foreign ministry on Sept.28 to explain a remarkable visit last Friday to the center of a Chinese area threatened by Malay-supremacy thugs. He pointedly inserted himself into racial tension in the country, saying at the time that the Chinese government is opposed to terrorism, extremism and discrimination based on race.
Such an action by an ambassador, not just in Malaysia but anywhere, is virtually unheard of. By any measure, it constitutes unprecedented interference in domestic politics and is viewed by critics as a raw assertion of Chinese power. China is now Malaysia’s second-largest trading partner, with bilateral trade amounting to US$28.2 billion in 2014 and may well be the largest, since Malaysia’s trade with Singapore is US$33.3 billion and Singapore acts largely as an entrepôt, shipping goods on to other countries.
Huang’s stroll through Chinatown as Malay "Red Shirt" supremacists threatened the area was a clear indication that China would not tolerate any form of criminal intimidation. But it has also raised serious concerns in the ethnic Chinese community that what is regarded as mainland ham-handedness could make it worse for them rather than better.
Nonetheless, Huang’s visit to the Petaling Street area appears to have played a role in bringing to a halt, at least for now, growing threats and intimidation by the Red Shirts led by a United Malays National Organization division chief named Jamal Md Yunos against Chinese hawkers and merchants in the area. The street is the epicenter of the urban Chinese community, home to the historic 127-year-old central market and hundreds of Chinese street hawkers and traders. Police arrested Jamal Yunos and warned Red Shirt protesters against marching through the area. The Red Shirts had been scheduled to march through Petaling Street on Saturday, Sept. 26, amid outright threats of violence.
The Red Shirt protest is closely tied to Malaysia’s deteriorating political situation, in which critics say the Prime Minister is attempting to use a perceived threat by the Malaysian Chinese, who dominate the economic landscape, to dominate the political one as well via the Democratic Action Party, the predominant ethnic Chinese party. Najib’s position is threatened not just at home, but by investigations into allegations of money laundering and corruption by the US, Swiss, UK, French and Singaporean governments.
He and UMNO officials have responded by blaming an international conspiracy to bring down parliamentary democratic rule in Malaysia. Add to that international conspiracy the Chinese community. On Aug. 29, the good government NGO Bersih brought hundreds of thousands of protesters again to the streets in a two-day rally dominated by ethnic Chinese, giving UMNO the opportunity to characterize the rally as a DAP stratagem to wreck the Barisan Nasional, the ruling national coalition.
As tensions have grown, the Red Shirts have flung insults including Cina babi, meaning “Chinese are pigs,” seemingly with the support of officials linked to UMNO. Last week, police had to use water canon to drive back Red Shirt protesters attempting to force their way into the Petaling Street area, to demand that authorities raid traders allegedly selling fake goods or running other illegal activities.
Mahathir Mohamad, the 90-year-old former prime minister, who is attempting to bring down Najib, charged last week that Najib is paying the protesters to distract from charges that US$861 million had mysteriously appeared in his personal bank account in 2013. Some of the protesters have acknowledged that they have been paid although Najib, in New York for the opening of the United Nations General Assembly, denied he had done so.
Huang, wearing a batik shirt, presented mooncakes to the traders in recognition of the Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival. Reading from a prepared statement, he said, “Nobody has the right to undermine the authority of the law or trample on the rule of law. The Chinese government has always pursued peaceful co-existence in international relationship and non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries. But with regard to the infringement on China’s national interests, violations of legal rights and interests of Chinese citizens and businesses which may damage the friendly relationship between China and the host country, we will not sit by idly.”
“I think Najib has brought [the ambassador’s action] upon himself,” said Din Merican, a longtime academic and blogger now teaching at a university in Cambodia. “His racist rhetoric is raising international concerns since in a globalized world, there are many stakeholders. Najib must show that he can protect the interest of foreign investors who have stakes in Malaysia. Fanning the flames of racial hatred and Islamic bigotry is not an option for him. China is sending a message to Najib to stop going overboard with his racism. The non-interference argument can no longer be used when human rights are being abused with impunity. The Red shirts are Najib's paid proxies. The besieged Prime Minister is looking for a pretext to declare emergency rule to extend his political life. He knows that UMNO and Barisan Nasional will lose the general election in 2018 if he remains Prime Minister.”
Leaving a big trace
Ambassadors “don’t do that,” said Wong Chin Huat, a political scientist and fellow at the Penang Institute in Penang. “I find it extraordinary because ambassadors don’t do things in public. You go make a call, you don’t leave a trace."
Wong pointed out that the ambassador didn’t make a clear distinction whether he was speaking for Chinese nationals or also Malaysia’s ethnic Chinese.
“That is a no-no in Malaysia,” Wong said. “Some ethnic Malays feel uncomfortable with the idea that a Chinese ambassador is acting in a way that he appears to be representing the Chinese here. I would be offended myself if he is saying that. If he wants to express concern, he should be doing it privately."
Najib catches much of the blame from observers over Huang’s move, although Gerakan and the Malaysian Chinese Association, two ethnic Chinese component parties in the Barisan Nasional, the ruling national coalition led by UMNO, come in for their own share of criticism.
“Najib is fomenting this to save his political skin,” said a Malay businessman who declined to be quoted by name. “But Gerakan and the MCA haven’t got the balls to stand up to him.”
"Malaysia views his remarks seriously,” a foreign ministry official told local media. “It is tantamount to interfering in Malaysia's domestic affairs."
Armand Azha Abu Hanifah, a member of UMNO’s youth wing executive committee, demanded an apology from Huang for both the government and the Malaysian people.