Malaysia Race Tension a Move to Detract from PM’s Troubles?

On Sept. 30, a force of 19 Malaysian immigration officers – all ethnic Malays – raided a Malacca karaoke parlor to arrest women illegally in the country who were working as prostitutes. That instigated a melee when as many as 40 Chinese characterized as thugs and gangsters attacked the immigration officers, injuring three of them.

That in turn threatened to trigger yet another of Malaysia’s frequent racial brouhahas, with ethnic Malay marchers promising to descend on Malacca to avenge Malay dignity, until angry authorities put a stop to it. But there is deepening fear among opposition leaders and others that one of these incidents – with apparent backing from the United Malays National Organization – will spiral out of control, triggering harsher laws and arrests of opposition figures.

The theory is that the events are designed to take the heat off UMNO and Najib and divert attention from investigations into the affairs of the debt-ridden 1Malaysia Development Bhd. state-backed investment fund, as well as the transmittal of US$681 million into his personal bank account in 2013 from unknown sources.

The man who threatened to lead the Malacca marchers is a close supporter of Prime Minister Najib Razak, Mohd Ali Baharom, the president of the Armed Forces Veterans Association. Baharom was denounced by Malacca police, Malacca’s chief minister, Idris Haroun, and immigration officials who say that he and his followers were seeking to foment an incident that would upset the state’s racial harmony.

The “Butt Exercise”

In May of 2012, Mohd Ali, who goes under the nom de guerre Ali Tinju and who claims to be a United Malays National Organization district chief, held what was called a “butt exercise,” leading a group of former Army veterans to bend over in front of the home of former Law Society head and rights activist Ambiga Sreenevasan and shake their buttocks at her for allegedly insulting the nation as head of the Bersih good government NGO.

Certainly there is rising rancor on both sides. During an August 28-29 rally calling for Najib to step down, Chinese protesters were filmed stomping on pictures of Najib and Parti Islam se-Malaysia (PAS) leader Abdul Hadi Awang. Ali Tinju and Jamal Md Yunos, another UMNO division chief, have all but dared the Chinese to take them on physically.

Ali Tinju was one of the leaders of a mob of Malays that invaded Kuala Lumpur’s Low Yat shopping center – occupied by Chinese traders – in July after a 22-year-old Malay youth was caught trying to steal a cellphone and was handed over to security guards. The youth called friends, who stormed the shopping center, beating the workers in the stall where he was caught and doing RM70,000 worth of damage to goods.

Ali Tinju and Jamal Yunos led tens of thousands of red-shirted ethnic Malays through the capital on July 16 in what they called an answer to the August rally, which they characterized as an ethnic Chinese affair intended to bring down a Malay government. Riot police were forced to use water cannons to disperse Red Shirts who were making a show of trying to break through barricades into the Chinatown neighborhood. They shouted slogans including Cina babi (China pigs) and denounced Chinese community and Democratic Action Party leaders. UMNO officials have acknowledged that they paid some of the protesters to rally during the event.

The Red Shirt protesters, according to the national reform organization Aliran, “allege, with no evidence whatsoever, that Chinese Malaysians at the rallies were `rude’ to Malay Malaysians. Of course those who were there have been quick to dispute this. Bersih 4 clearly spelt out demands: clean elections, a clean government, saving our economy and the right to dissent and protest.”

Red Shirts Out to Intimidate

What the Red Shirts planned, Aliran said, “is clearly to threaten public order. There have been published threats about spilling blood. The route they plan to take for the rally is also one clearly aimed at sparking off ethnic tension and even violence. What is even worse, indeed callous, is that top government officials, including the prime minister, deputy prime minister and UMNO Youth chief, have virtually declared their support for this rally. By allowing UMNO members to join the rally, they are, indeed, condoning it.”

On Sept. 25, another rally led Jamal Yunos was shortstopped on Sept. 25 by the Chinese ambassador when he visited the center of Kuala Lumpur’s Chinatown district to warn against possible violence by so-called Red Shirt protesters after Yunos warned Chinese traders to stay out of sight when his forces showed up. The implication was that any Chinese who got in their way would get hurt.

Rulers Act

Last week, the nine-member Council of Rulers – the country’s Sultans – in an unprecedented formal statement warned that investigations into Najib’s affairs and 1MDB must be completed as soon as possible or the country’s image would be harmed. But in addition, they warned that racial tensions are increasing and that steps must be taken to cool them off.

"The Malay Rulers take seriously issues affecting race and religion and would like to remind leaders of political parties and non-governmental organizations not to sensationalize racial and religious issues to garner support from the people for their parties or for themselves," the statement said, adding that inter-racial and inter-religious harmony and solidarity had been the main pillar for the stability of an independent, peaceful, progressive and prosperous Malaysia.

"The Malay Rulers have the religious obligation of ensuring that peace and prosperity can continue to prevail in the country in a stable political atmosphere with the people living in harmony," the statement said.

There has been intimidation enough. More than 120 people, most of them from the opposition or critics of Najib’s finances, have been arrested on charges of sedition or “security offenses” and the country’s most influential financial daily was shut down for three months. The Sarawak Report, edited and reported by Clare Rewcastle Brown, the prime minister’s most persistent critic, has been blocked electronically from the country.

The irony, according to many on both sides, is that Malaysia doesn’t have so much a religious or ethnic problem as a political one, in which government leaders, particularly those from UMNO believe they can frighten ethnic Malays back into their camp by making ethnic minorities the focus, and in doing so keep a flagging government in power against charges of massive corruption.