Najib Picks Race-baiting Candidates for Malaysia Poll

The extent to which the United Malays National Organization has abandoned Malaysia's historic multiracial governance is exemplified by last Saturday's naming of flamethrowing Malay nationalists Ibrahim Ali and Zulkifli Noordin as parliamentary candidates in the upcoming May 5 election.

In addition, UMNO has "borrowed" at least five parliamentary seats from the faltering Malaysian Chinese Association, the second-biggest party in the Barisan Nasional, or ruling coalition, and filled them with candidates picked by Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak.

"We have taken back many seats from the MCA," said an UMNO source. "A lot of MCA seats were actually UMNO seats in the first place as Malay majority areas but in the spirit of cooperation we gave them the seats. Now we take them back."

The decision for UMNO to basically go it alone is viewed as ominous for the country by political analysts in Kuala Lumpur, who say that if, as expected, the party pulls out a victory in the 13th general election, they fear that it consigns the ethnic minority Chinese and Indian populations, who make up 22.9 percent and 7.1 percent of the country's population respectively, to powerlessness in government and society. Ethnic Malays make up 60.1 percent according to the 2010 census.

Ibrahim and Zulkifli are the president and vice president respectively of Perkasa, a conservative, extreme-right Malay superiority organization that got its start after the country's 2008 electoral debacle that cost the Barisan Nasional its two-thirds majority in the Dewan Rakyat, or Parliament. It has the backing of former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, who urged that the two be named candidates.

Mahathir has become increasingly strident over protecting the status of ethnic Malays in Malaysian society despite Najib's continued stressing of Malaysia's composition as a moderate multiracial country. The naming of the two Perkasa leaders as candidates is a clear demonstration of Mahathir's continuing clout despite having left power a decade ago, in 2003. After bequeathing the premiership to his chosen candidate, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, Mahathir turned on Badawi after the 2008 election and played a major role in driving him from power so that Najib Tun Razak could take over.

"Maybe Mahathir didn't tell Najib directly, but the message was clear, and having seen what he did to Badawi, Najib didn't want to clash with him," a well-wired political source said. Ibrahim Ali will contest a seat in Kelantan, a largely mountainous state dominated by rural Malays. Zulkifli was picked to run in Shah Alam, a Kuala Lumpur suburb.

It is questionable whether naming the two will cause the Barisan to lose the affection of more ethnic Indian and Chinese voters. Continuously calling for Ketuanan Melayu, or a Malays first policy, Perkasa, which claims 300,000 members but actually appears to have far fewer, has been called Malaysia's Brownshirts, a reference to the Nazi militia created by Adolf Hitler in 1921 that disrupted rallies and beat and intimidated bystanders during Hitler's rise to power.

Perkasa members, about 60 percent of whom are said to be regular UMNO members, have continually been accused of attacking and injuring demonstrators and journalists during opposition rallies. They have threatened protesters with racist remarks, attacking DAP state assemblymen and party supporters physically by throwing eggs and stones at them.

Ibrahim especially has railed against the use in Malay-language Christian bibles of the word Allah as a pronoun for God, despite the fact that it is used widely in the Middle East and Indonesia.

Despite complaints to authorities by the opposition parties that Ibrahim and other Perkasa leaders have continued to make inflammatory racist and religious statements, particularly against the Chinese and Indian communities, no action has been taken to rein them in.

"It's early days to see what effect (naming Ibrahim and Zulkifli) will have," said a Kuala Lumpur journalist. "I think we have to wait a few days to see."

For most of the time from its 1957 inception as an independent nation, the country has been governed by a carefully engineered amalgam of ethnic parties led by UMNO, the Malaysian Chinese Association, the Malaysian Indian Congress and, to a lesser extent, Gerakan, which has faded in recent years. However, in the debacle of the 2008 election, the MCA was left with just 15 seats in parliament. Gerakan, the second mostly Chinese ethnic party, ended up with just two seats. The MIC was left with three. UMNO won 78.

Crippled by infighting and loss of popularity, the MCA has surrendered several seats traditionally held by the Chinese component of the Barisan to candidates picked by UMNO. The discarded candidates include former vice presidents Ong Tee Keat, Gan Ping Sieu and Ng Yen Yen, all of whom are said to be in a bitter factional dispute with MCA President Chua Soi Lek.

Chua said the Chinese party would contest 37 parliamentary and 90 state seats, three fewer parliamentary seats in the upcoming election, the fewest the MCA has contested since 2004. In 2008, MCA won only 15 Parliamentary seats and 32 state seats, its worst showing.

The decision to take the seats back from UMNO is hardly new. UMNO operatives, disillusioned by MCA infighting and by the flight of the ethnic Chinese to the DAP, have been discussing the idea of going it alone for more than a year, counting on the population dominance of ethnic Malays to pull the party through to continue governing the country.

That decision is at least partly responsible for the rise in race-baiting in recent months as UMNO and its attack-dog ancillaries such as Perkasa raise the specter that ethnic Chinese, and particularly Chinese Christians in a Muslim country, will take over the reins of power.