Now see what happens when you play around with the keris?

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As the broken remnants of the Barisan
Nasional recuperate and recover what is left of their shattered
pride, it would be prudent to take a step back and look at some of
the factors that have certainly contributed to the dismal showing of
the BN component parties and Umno in particular, says Farish Noor.



It is clear to many that this election
was, in some ways, a singularly unique event in the same way that the
2004 elections were special. The 2004 election results could be read
as a collective sigh of relief on the part of the Malaysian
electorate after twenty years of rule under the Mahathir government,
which witnessed a host of controversial incidents ranging from the
BMF scandal of the early 1980s all the way up to Ops Lalang in 1987.
The enormous mandate given to the Badawi government was a sign that
the public was thirsting for change and that they were no longer
willing to live with the modes of governance and politics that we
have all grown sadly accustomed to for lack of a choice.

This time round, the electorate has
once again spoken to signal their utter disillusionment after it
became painfully evident that none of the reform policies
foregrounded by the Badawi team were ever going to come true. Instead
this had been an administration long on gimmicks and novelties, but
short on substance and delivery. Was it necessary to send a Malaysian
astronaut to space on a Russian craft to make the vain boast that a
Malaysian citizen had been there and done that? If this was meant to
assuage the anger and frustration of Malaysians who lived in estates
and poorly-run low-cost urban housing, it certainly had the opposite
effect of driving home the point that this administration was out of
touch with reality and totally disconnected with the needs and wants
of the people.

But vain boasts notwithstanding, the
Badawi government suffered its long-overdue shock due to the vain
boasts of some of its leaders and spokesmen. Here is it worth noting
the effect that Umno’s own overheated pyrotechnics had on the
sentiments and sensibilities of a significant section of the
Malaysian public; namely the non-Malays and non-Muslims of the
country. In particular we are referring to the repeated assertion on
the part of some hot-headed Umno leaders who continued to harp on
about the notion of Malay dominance in a racially and religiously
diverse and plural society.

The Malaysian electorate’s
abandonment of the MCA, Gerakan and the MIC would suggest that
non-Malay voters have grown fed up with the toothless apologia of the
non-Malay leaders and representatives of the BN when faced with the
antics of Umno demagogues and soap-box orators. In particular we will
recall the incidents when Umno Youth Wing leader Hishamuddin Hussein
brandished the keris in public, on stage, and pontificated at
some length about Malay pride and the place of the Malays in Malaysia.

The use of the keris as a symbol
of racial unity and identity was and is in itself problematic,
considering that the keris in Malaysia today is such a politically
loaded symbol that is pregnant with meaning and historical
connotations. Hishamuddin’s brandishing of the keris did not
take place in a historical vacuum, even if the politician had no
sense of history (which is unlikely to be the case.)

As we all know, the keris has
been transformed into a marker for a particular sort of right-wing
ethno-nationalist ideology that serves the agenda of Malay racial and
cultural supremacists since 1969 and all the way up to 1987 and
beyond. Need we remind Umno leaders that some of them were also
present at the Malay nationalists’ rally in Kampung Baru in 1987,
when once again the keris was identified with Malay pride as
well as the threat of violence? Umno leaders like Najib Razak were
present when their supporters chanted and carried banners with
slogans like ‘This keris will drink Chinese blood’.

It is against that specific historical
context – that was fully engineered by Umno, mind you – that
Hishamuddin’s raising of the keris on several occasions
aroused both the fear and anger of many non-Malays and Malays as
well. Was this not an act of provocation, where once again Umno was
brandishing its muscle in defiance of the other communities in the
country?

Compounding the problem was the MCA,
Gerakan and the MIC’s relative impotence and quietism when Hisham
gave us this theatrical display of misplaced ethnic pride and
muscular nationalism. Despite the MCA, Gerakan and MIC leaders’
plaintive appeals to desist from such soapbox pyrotechnics, neither
Hisham nor Umno Youth nor the Prime Minister himself altered course:
Umno Youth was allowed a free hand to make such outrageous
ethnic-communitarian demands at a time when the MCA, Gerakan and the
MIC wished to assert their identity as equal BN partners. It seemed
almost as if by raising the keris in the way that he did,
Hisham was indicating that Umno Youth was more important than the
other non-Malay component parties, and this repeated act of defiance
drove the nails into the coffins of the MCA, Gerakan and the MIC.

Crucially, the one person who could
have said and done something to stop the erosion of the MCA, Gerakan
and the MIC’s credibility was Prime Minister Badawi, who could
simply have pulled the reins on the Umno Youth hot-heats and
chest-thumpers. Yet even Badawi stood paralysed, allowing them to
raise the ante further. His apparent paralysis rendered null and void
his now-vacuous claim that he was the ‘Prime Minister of all
Malaysians’. If he was indeed such a universal leader-figure, then
why did this ‘Prime Minister of all Malaysians’ do nothing and
say nothing when the younger leaders of his own party were raising
the spectre of racial supremacy before his very eyes?


Thus, it can perhaps be said that the
election results of 2008 are an indicator of the extent to which the
MCA, Gerakan and the MIC have been seen as the ‘running dogs’ of
Umno in a BN coalition that has grown more and more unbalanced in the
eyes of so many. Playing around with kerises is something you
do in old movies about silat warriors – but not in the context
of modern-day Malaysian politics, where respect for cultural
diversity and the equal pride and status of all communities should be
paramount. The Umno Youth hot-heads may have been playing to the
Malay gallery when they pulled the stunt of drawing the keris
in public, but the catastrophic damage they did to the image and
standing of their component BN partners was beyond calculation. In
the end, however, it is not the keris, but rather the clumsy
hand that wields it that is to be blamed. Umno’s two-faced
management of race-relations, which was flawed from the outset, has
undone itself and the BN. To quote the popular refrain: “Padan
Muka
”.

Dr. Farish A. Noor is a senior fellow
at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang
Technological University of Singapore; and one of the founders of the
www.othermalaysia.org research site.

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