Rising Racial Tension in Malaysia

photo: Malaysiakini

In a nearly unprecedented statement, Malaysia's armed forces chief, General Abdul Aziz Zainal, Tuesday warned the Malaysian government to calm racial tensions before they become a threat to the country's security.

Malaysia's military has traditionally distanced itself from speaking out about domestic affairs and politics. However, tensions have been rising in the country as opposition parties increase their efforts to oust the Barisan Nasional, or ruling national coalition, from power. A large segment of the country's Chinese and Indian voters have sided with the opposition since national elections held March 8.

"Racial issues are the most feared by security forces as they could lead to chaos," Abdul Aziz told reporters. At the same event, an UMNO women's conclave in Kuala Lumpur, the deputy inspector general of police, Ismail Omar, said the police are "ready to work day and night, rain or shine, without food and drink to ward off such threats."

Political and racial tensions in what was until recently one of Southeast Aisia's most prosperous and stable nations have driven down the stock market. New spending by the Barisan Nasional has resulted in rising deficits and caused ratings agencies to express concern about the country's credit rating.

"I don't see why (Abdul Aziz) should be making that statement," said a nervous political observer, who said that traditionally the military has stayed out of domestic affairs. "He should keep his comments to the barracks."

Tension ratcheted up dramatically on August 25, however, when Ahmad Ismail, the chief of a United Malays National Organisation division in Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi's own Penang State district, said publicly during the by-election that brought opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim back to parliament that ethnic Chinese in Malaysia were "immigrants squatting in the country, and thus were not entitled to equal rights in Malaysia."

Subsequently police reports were filed against Ahmad, alleging sedition in five states including Kuala Lumpur, Penang, Ipoh, Malacca, Seremban and Petaling Jaya by Chinese-based parties – not only the Democratic Action Party but the Malaysian Chinese Association and Gerakan, both of which are members of the ruling coalition along with UMNO. The police are expected to submit their investigation shortly to the Attorney General for further action, if any.

Ahmad subsequently refused to back away from his comments, threatening to sue the Chinese-language newspaper that published them and saying the paper had misrepresented his statement. That further angered the Chinese community on both sides of the political aisle. On Monday, he held a 50-minute press conference to warn ethnic Chinese, according to local media, not to emulate US Jews who he said seek to control not only the US economy but political power.

Subsequently, Penang UMNO members pulled down a picture of the head of Gerakan, smashed the glass and tore his picture in half. Ominously for race relations, Ahmad has gained significant backing from the Penang UMNO district and appears to have growing support within the national organization as wel.

In fact, the issue is being regarded as a major indicator of Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi's inability to control members of his own party, as well as his overall political weakness. Despite criticizing Ahmad's statement, and a public apology by Deputy Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak, Ahmad on Tuesday met with Abdullah Badawi and said he was sticking to his guns. That is being interpretedas a direct slap to the premier's face and an indication that he doesn't have the power in his own party to discipline its members after the disastrous March elections.

"As far as I am concerned, I did not say or do anything wrong. So why should I apologize?" Ahmad told Malaysiakini, the Internet publication. Malaysiakini quoted Ahmad as saying he wasn't a racist, adding that he said he had been friends with many Chinese and Indian Malaysians since his childhood.

Anwar Ibrahim, who has threatened to take over the political reins of the government by luring 30 to 40 coalition members of parliament to his side, has made ending special privileges to the Malays an essential part of his platform, arguing that the program had only enriched a handful of rent-seeking cronies and delivered little benefit to rank and file ethnic Malays.

Race is a hugely sensitive subject in the country, and has been for nearly 40 years, since three days of riots in May 1969 took hundreds of lives. Ethnic Malays make up about 60 percent of the country's population, the Chinese another 25 percent, and Indians about 8 percent. Despite the creation of the so-called New Economic Policy in the early 1970s that was a de facto affirmative action program for the majority Malays, most Malays have not caught up to the Chinese economically, although UMNO cronies and leaders have benefited through government-linked companies.

Periodic racial flares have resulted in the government's use of the controversial Internal Security Act, which was put in place by the British colonial government to control a Communist uprising in the 1960s. It has never been repealed. Under its provisions, the government can arrest anyone deemed to be a threat to national security or racial harmony and hold them without recourse to habeas corpus or trial. In October of 1987, the biggest since 1969 occurred when Malaysian police arrested 106 persons under the act, including the heads of the opposition Democratic Action Party, jailing 40 of them for two years. Included were DAP leaders Lim Kit Siang and Karpal Singh, a number of the leaders of Parti Islam se-Malaysia and several social activists including the widely respected Chandra Muzaffar. Two daily newspapers, both allied with the Chinese community, were closed.

Both PAS and the DAP are in an uneasy alliance in the opposition coalition today and aspire to take power if Anwar delivers on his promise to take power. As another indication of Abdullah Badawi's weakness within his own party and government, some 41 Barisan backbenchers were put on planes for Taiwan yesterday and today for a hurriedly-arranged educational trip to study agriculture and technology, thus delivering them away from opposition attempts to lure them across the aisle.