Race still driver of politics – Johan Saravanamuttu
Ethnic relations in Malaysia may have hit a new low as a result of the mysterious death of opposition political aide Teoh Beng Hock after he was questioned by the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission.
Though the moral outrage the incident has generated has cut across ethnic lines, there is little doubt that Teoh’s death has been fanning the flames of resentment among non-Malays in particular.
Alarmingly, because of how politics is structured in Malaysia, even institutions of government have taken on or been given an ethnic complexion. The Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission, for instance, has been defended by Malay newspapers as a “Malay” institution.
Race relations in Malaysia, already on a downslide since the 1980s, have deteriorated further in the 2000s.
The root of the problem is ethnic mobilisation through political parties. The melding of ethno-religious parties into political coalitions such as the Barisan Nasional (BN) and Pakatan Rakyat may have contained ethnic tensions in the short term but it is not a formula for enduring racial harmony.
There have been several eruptions of ethnic strife since the disastrous May 13, 1969 Sino-Malay riots, which resulted in the deaths of at least 196 people. The most serious of the later conflicts were the 1998 Kampong Rawa clashes in Penang and the 2001 Kampong Medan incident in Selangor.
The Kampong Rawa clash was a conflict between Muslims and Hindus. The two communities clashed after Muslim Friday prayers were said to have been disrupted by Hindu rites that involved the ringing of bells.
Hindu shrines and mosques in Penang were said to have been attacked and it was reported that some 5,000 Malays from outside the area came to support their Muslim brethren. The incident was defused only through the mediation of then-deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim.
Six people were killed and scores were injured in the Kampong Medan incident, which is still under a veil of secrecy despite an official investigation. Judging from the casualties and the demography of the area, one can safely surmise that it was a conflict that involved Indians and Muslims.
The escalation of ethnic tensions in Malaysia has been evident in a more generalised manner across Malaysian society.
In 2007, the 55-member National Unity Panel revealed sobering evidence of the frequency of ethnic conflict. It was disclosed that there had been a 15 per cent spike in the number of ethnic “fights” from the previous year.
Chairman Maximus Ongkili alluded to the fact that “70 per cent of the cases started with fights between groups or individuals from different races”.
The panel proposed that an Institute of Ethnic Relations be established, a proposal that was later taken up by the Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia.
Ethnic riots broke out in Xinjiang province in China this year, resulting in about 150 deaths. This incident ought to give Malaysians pause for thought. Typically, a majority community – Han Chinese in this case – takes umbrage when a minority – Uighurs in this case – insists on its rights.
The same scenario can be observed in ethnically divided societies across the globe.
In Malaysia, a tenuous ethnic peace has been maintained by a well-meaning political leadership that has chosen to forge ethnic alliances politically and has created neutral, secular institutions of governance.
At the apex of this system is a coalition of political parties, most of which are mobilised along ethnic lines. The ruling coalition consisted of just three ethnic-based parties in 1960s, when it was known as the Alliance, but has now morphed into the 14-party Barisan Nasional.
But the BN’s political legitimacy is slipping away. The coalition suffered a major blow in the March 8 general election last year, when it was defeated in five states and lost its two-thirds majority in Parliament. This setback has contributed to the highly tenuous state of ethnic relations in the country today.
The BN’s nemesis, Pakatan Rakyat, is also an alliance of political parties organised largely along ethnic lines. As a result, it suffers from the same underlying flaw as the BN. Some commentators predict that if Pakatan gains power, it will flounder as its predecessor, Barisan Alternatif, did after the 1999 general election.
Racial harmony in Malaysia will remain elusive so long as ethnicity remains the basis of politics and of political mobilisation.
Malaysian public institutions such as universities often bear the mark of ethnicity or religion. If this trend continues, ethnic relations in the country will deteriorate further.
The situation can be turned around only if enlightened Malaysians forge a non-ethnic or multicultural discourse as the basis of political mobilisation and civil life.