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Racial divisions of Malaysia's politics harm whole country

Parties should not play off races against each other

| Malaysia
Indian cleric Zakir Naik, pictured on Sep. 7, provoked tensions.   © Reuters

Instead of celebrating Malaysia's independence day on August 31 with gusto and optimism, citizens observed it with disquiet and bitterness. The honeymoon period for Pakatan Harapan (Alliance of Hope), Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad's ruling coalition, is over, with his approval rating dipping and nearly half of those surveyed in an opinion poll saying the country was heading in the wrong direction.

While stunted reforms and elite infighting have turned off many voters, it has also been the continuing entrenchment of racially divisive politics in the diverse country which has infuriated many.

Malaysia's system of ethnic politicking is reflective of the disproportionate role race and religion play in larger Malaysian society, where they permeate almost every aspect of everyday life.

While Malaysians have understood that political stability was predicated on maintaining racial harmony, recent controversies pointing to rising Islamization and a chauvinistic form of Malay politics have left many worried about the health of the country's multicultural fabric.

Malaysia's racial divisions were brought home most vividly in early August after the Ministry of Education announced it would introduce khat, the Malay-Arabic form of calligraphy, into the primary curriculum of Chinese and Tamil language schools next year. The move caused a furor among Chinese and Indian educational groups, who believed the move would alter the character of these "vernacular schools."

The apparent failure of the Chinese-majority Democratic Action Party, part of the governing coalition, to stand up for Chinese interests led to people egging DAP offices and grassroots DAP officials rebelling. Malay nationalists, for their part, came out in support of khat. The government eventually backtracked and made khat optional.

An Islamic calligraphy at a mosque in Kota Bharu: the government eventually backtracked and made khat optional.   © Reuters

A more explosive issue revolved around hard line Indian cleric Zakir Naik. Wanted in India for alleged money laundering and instigating terrorism, the controversial evangelist was granted permanent residency under Malaysia's previous administration.

He provoked tensions during an August sermon when he accused Malaysian Hindus of dual loyalty to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and referred to ethnically Chinese Malaysian citizens as "old guests." The comments incensed public opinion, with even cabinet ministers demanding his deportation. The government's ultimate inability to meet these demands disheartened many.

For all of Malaysia's proud proclamations of its multicultural character, its communities continue to remain divided, within a zero-sum racial system tacitly adopted at independence by its earliest leaders which saw Malay supremacy as tantamount and any furtherance of the welfare of non-Malays as being at the expense of their own.

It was perhaps naive to expect the ruling coalition to be interested in moving Malaysia away from its communal politics, with two of the four parties composing Pakatan Harapan -- including Mahathir's own -- explicitly set up to represent Malay interests.

Pakatan's leaders themselves have made comments betraying their own Malay nationalist sympathies, including calls in July by Mahathir for the Malays to unite under his party else they become "weak."

On October 6 he also provided a keynote address at an event focusing on "Malay dignity," during which resolutions were mooted calling for top government positions to be reserved exclusively for Muslim Malays.

Entrepreneur Development Minister Redzuan Yusof suggested as much when he claimed the Malays had "compromised" too much and called for a defense of Malay culture. Malaysia's 26-year old Youth Minister Syed Saddiq courted an online backlash and mockery after hosting Zakir Naik at his house and calling for forgiveness, barely a week after having publicly joined calls for his deportation.

Less than 30% of Malay votes went to Pakatan Harapan in the last general election, so the effective survival of the administration in the next election will hinge heavily on allaying Malay fears. A new coalition of former rivals, including a Malay nationalist party and an Islamist party, in mid-September will only exacerbate racial pandering.

Malaysians could perhaps be forgiven for experiencing a sense of deja vu. In Mahathir's first stint as prime minister in the 1980s, his brand of moderate bureaucratic Islamism was in fierce competition for Malay votes against more orthodox Islamism.

Although he eventually won, this competition brought conservative Islamic norms into Malaysia's institutions, igniting an unstoppable turn toward Islamization and hardening communal boundaries.

For Pakatan Harapan, survival beyond a single term will mean having to stand for a truly inclusive Malaysia. Indications in a recent government policy paper that Malaysia's controversial pro-Malay affirmative action policies must shift toward a more inclusive "needs-based economic approach" are heartening. But Mahathir's attendance at the pro-Malay event only a day after the document was released undermines the government's sincerity.

As Mahathir finds himself a second time fighting against a new alliance unabashed in its Malay nationalism and orthodox Islamism, we can only hope history doesn't repeat itself.

Imran Shamsunahar is a freelance writer focusing on the Asia-Pacific, currently based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. He has previously written for the South China Morning Post, the National Interest and War is Boring.

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