New Malaysia and revisiting the May 13 tragedy

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We are a much more mature society now and thus our actions are more measured and firmly couched in rationality, writes Azmil Tayeb.

This week we remember and reflect upon the bloody chapter of modern Malaysian history: the racial riots of May 13, 1969.

The riots, primarily between the Malays and the Chinese, took 196 lives (by official count) and caused many more injuries and untold property damages.

Exactly 50 years have passed and Malaysian society has since changed tremendously. The wide socio-economic gulf between the Malays and the Chinese that existed then has significantly diminished to a more tolerable level.

For instance, the Malays’ share of the economy in 1970 was 2.4%, and it has currently surpassed the New Economic Policy (NEP) projected target of 30%. The overall poverty rate has dropped sharply from 52% in 1970 to less than 5% now.

There is also now a sizeable Malay middle class, who barely existed half a century ago. In 1970, 85% of the Malays lived in rural areas but now the reverse is true as more than 70% of the Malays reside in urban areas.

The questions now as we revisit the 50th anniversary of the May 13 racial riots are:

  • how much of our political culture has changed since then?
  • are we still haunted by the same spectre that wreaked havoc upon Malaysian society in 1969?

We can certainly draw some general parallels between what happened after the 1969 general election and the 2018 general election.

In the 1969 general election, the Alliance (former Barisan Nasional) lost its two-thirds majority, which also corresponded with increased support for the DAP and Gerakan, both Chinese-majority parties.

The stellar electoral performance of these parties stirred a deep sense of insecurity among the Malays which was unscrupulously exploited by the ultra-nationalist Malays within Umno. Racial riots broke out a few days following the conclusion of the election.

Similar dynamics are being played out now minus – heaven forbid! – the blood-letting as the sudden change in status quo has led to a perceived loss of privileged status among the Malay-Muslim majority.

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Ever since the conclusion of the 2018 general election, we kept hearing the term “Malay insecurity” being bandied about, chiefly to describe the threats faced by the Malay-Muslim community in the aftermath of the unprecedented political change.

Various right-wing Malay-Muslim groups have asserted that the political ascendancy of the non-Malays in the Pakatan Harapan (PH) government has eroded the special status of Malay and Islam in Malaysia. Their grievances were manifested in the mass protests against the ratification of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forums of Racial Discrimination and the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, to name a couple.

Recently, the mufti of Perlis, Mohd Asri Zainul Abidin, waded into the debate and claimed that Islam is being bullied under the PH government.

If Malaysian society has transformed so much economically in the last 50 years to the point that the Malays now constitute the largest percentage among the top 20% and the middle 40% of earners in comparison to other ethnic groups, what then explains this siege mentality, the so-called “Malay insecurity”?

A siege mentality among an ethnic majority is not unique to Malaysia. It is a phenomenon seen across the globe as symbolised more recently by the rise of right-wing populism in Europe and the US.

Here in South East Asia, WF Wertheim uses the term “majority with a minority complex” to describe the siege mentality found within the Muslim majority in Indonesia.

Its causes are as much psychological as they are rooted in real economic grievances, perhaps even more. Oftentimes legitimate economic concerns get channelled into emotionally driven ethno-religious issues as a means of mass mobilisation, such as what we are witnessing in Malaysia now.

While the Malays dominate among the top 20% and middle 40% earners, they also constitute the biggest percentage among the bottom 40% of earners. According to a 2015 parliamentary report, bumiputeras, who include the Malays, Orang Asli and the indigenous tribes of Borneo, make up 74% of the bottom 40% of earners.

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Economic hardship imposed by stagnant wages, the Goods and Services Tax and the high cost of living, compounded by the seemingly limitless rapacity of the kleptocratic former Umno-BN government, was what finally drove many Malay bottom 40% households into the PH camp.

“Malay insecurity” was kept in check during the BN years due to Umno’s dominance within BN, which served as a guarantee that the Malays’ special status would be protected even as these very same Malay leaders were robbing the nation blind.

The post-2018 general election ruling coalition, however, is comprised of political parties of equal standing, including the Malay party Bersatu. This then gives the impression that Malay-Muslims are losing their special status within the government in tandem with the rising political prominence of non-Malays.

The “Malay insecurity” is evident in a nationwide survey carried out by the Merdeka Centre in April 2019. The survey shows a mere 24% of Malays feel that the country is moving in the right direction – a sharp drop from 49% in August 2018 at the 100-day mark of the PH government.

What can the PH government do to combat the perception that it is acting against the best interests of the Malay-Muslim community?

Francis Loh suggests that the PH refocuses its economic policies to address the plight of the bottom 40% of earners. Tackling and solving economic grievances, especially among the Malay bottom 40%, can suck the oxygen out of the ethno-religious movements that have been exploiting these grievances as fodder for their divisive and destabilising agenda.

Johan Saravanamuttu, meanwhile, sorts the past year performance of the PH government into three narratives: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.

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What the government needs to do, among others, is to:

  • continue with the Good – pursue corruption cases and various institutional reforms
  • remedy the Bad – stop reneging on manifesto promises and backing down on matters of human rights
  • resolve the Ugly – bring to justice the culprits behind the forced disappearances of Pastor Raymond Koh and Amri Che Mat; pass the independent police complaints and misconduct commission (IPCMC) to hold the police accountable for its actions; and counter the polarising ethno-religious narrative purveyed by the Umno-Pas partnership

Bersih gives the PH government a score of 36.4% for its first year performance when it comes to instituting electoral, political and institutional reforms, exceeding the 20% passing mark (100% divided by a five-year term).

Still, there is room for improvement, according to Bersih, such as providing equal allocations for opposition MPs and increasing the days for parliamentary sitting so more reforms can be debated and passed.

Meanwhile, the Center to Combat Corruption and Cronyism (C4) has come up with a litmus tracker to evaluate the performance of the one-year old PH government.

The report surmises that while the PH government has proposed to undertake some critical institutional and structural reforms to ensure transparency and stamp out abuses of power, its pace has been agonisingly slow and, in cases like reforming the Official Secrets Act, the PH government is actually moving backward.

When it comes to neutralising the toxic ethno-religious narrative that is currently dominating the public sphere and disrupting PH’s smooth transition into power, Noor Asmaliza Romlee strongly urges moderate Malay-Muslims to wrest the reins of religious interpretation away from the extremists so that these moderates can cast Islam in Malaysia as compassionate, tolerant, inclusive and peaceful – in other words, rahmatan lil alamin or a blessing for all humankind.

Going back to the earlier question whether present-day Malaysian society is still haunted by the May 13 spectre, the answer is yes – to a certain extent.

But more importantly we are a much more mature society now and thus our actions are more measured and firmly couched in rationality. As such, we as a country are all the better for it.

Azmil Tayeb
Co-editor, Aliran newsletter
14 May 2019
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