When Malaysia's Barisan Nasional government lost power for the first time ever in May last year, many hoped for change. One issue that the incoming Pakatan Harapan (PH) administration was expected to address was the racial divisions in a Malay-majority country with significant Chinese, Indian and indigenous minorities.
The outgoing prime minister, Najib Razak, was a reformer but his insistence on being a leader for all Malaysians caused him trouble from Malay chauvinists on his own side. They attacked Mr Najib, for instance, for wearing “Hindu” attire when he agreed to don a garland at a Malaysian Indian festival – even though the organisers insisted it had nothing to do with religion.
The new government may have been helmed by Dr Mahathir Mohamad, who made his name as a young politician in the 1960s with his strident defence of Malay rights; but one of the most prominent figures in the election campaign was Lim Kit Siang, the veteran leader from the predominantly Chinese Democratic Action Party (DAP), while the main component party of PH alongside the DAP, was the People's Justice Party of Anwar Ibrahim, whose slogan was the self-explanatory "reformasi".
“New Malaysia”, as it was swiftly named, was not expected to be held back as Mr Najib was by right-wing elements in the ethnic Malay majority.
Just over a year and a half later there is a huge amount of disappointment. Political reforms have proceeded at a snail’s pace while what has really dismayed many is that race relations appear to be getting even worse.
Over the last year there have been riots around a Hindu temple in a suburb of the capital, Kuala Lumpur, which led to the death of a Malay firefighter. A campaign was launched to urge Malays, who by law are Muslim, to boycott goods produced by non-Muslims, even if they are certified as halal. A radical preacher, Zakir Naik, has been indulged even as he referred to Malaysian-Chinese as “old guests” who should be asked to leave before him (he is a wanted man in India) and said that Malaysian-Indians were more loyal to Indian prime minister Narendra Modi than to their own prime minister.
Another row blew up over a proposal to make the study of khat – a form of Arabic calligraphic art – compulsory for all schoolchildren, including non-Muslims. The list goes on: from the authorities still apparently having no leads on a Christian Chinese pastor who disappeared two and a half years ago to a Malay Dignity Congress in October demanding that all main ministries and top positions, such as the head of the police and the chief justice, be reserved for Malays.
Some have pointed the finger of blame for the rising tension at Dr Mohamad. The premier certainly offended many when he attended that congress and referred to the non-Malays who came to the country during colonial rule as “foreigners” in his speech. “The prime minister should know that such remarks are highly sensitive and threaten racial harmony,” chided an MP from the DAP, Ramkarpal Singh.
But Dr Mahathir is 94 and the country has a guide to his views from his previous 22 years as prime minister from 1981-2003. The former opposition projected their aspirations onto him when they chose him as their leader before the election. But there was little reason to believe that he shared any of them apart from the desire to bring down Mr Najib’s government. Dr Mahathir’s thoughts on race should have been priced in – not least as the party created as his vehicle restricted membership to Malays-only.
In fairness, credit is due to him for appointing to his cabinet a Chinese finance minister in Lim Guan Eng, son of the aforementioned Mr Lim, and an Indian attorney general, Tommy Thomas. These were controversial moves, he must have known, as they are considered particularly crucial roles in Malaysia. When I asked a well-educated, well-travelled elderly Malay about them at the time, he thought a Chinese finance minister was “okay”. When I raised the attorney general, however, he demurred. “Could they not find a qualified Malay?” he said.
This type of attitude, and the positive discrimination in favour of Malays in the country, is sometimes misunderstood by outsiders. In fact, it stems from a deep-seated fear among Malays about “never being masters in the only country we can call home”, as I have heard it put numerous times.
Historically, parts of the country were ruled by the Portuguese, Dutch, British and Thais. On independence, the Malays found themselves with very large minorities – the Chinese made up 40 per cent of the population in 1957, for instance – who had largely been brought or encouraged to come by the colonial rulers, and by the late 60s Malays still owned only three per cent of the country’s wealth.
Although huge strides have been made to improve equality of distribution between the races, the sense that Malay language, culture and religion may still be under threat persists. This is what the designated premier-in-waiting, Mr Anwar, and others have in mind when they warn against “spooking” the Malays.
The trouble with that is it requires the non-Malays to walk on eggshells. The DAP has been very quiet, precisely over the fear that a government that won only a minority of the Malay vote cannot allow the impression that it is dominated by belligerent Chinese. The “nons”, as they often refer to themselves on Malaysian websites, believe they are being asked to be even more quiescent than they were before.
Unfortunately, this makes sense electorally as no government can win by counting purely on non-Malay support; the proportion of the Malay vote is what is most crucial. Demographically the case is strengthened by the fact that Malays are making up a gradually increasing percentage of the population. The ramifications are not theoretical: rumours have been flying for months of secret plans to break up the ruling coalition and form a new government consisting of all the Malay- and indigenous-based parties, consigning the other ethnic minorities to the margins.
Dr Mahathir once stood for an inclusive “Bangsa Malaysia”, or Malaysian nation, and his predecessor Mr Najib advocated a “1Malaysia”. The way things are going, however, the end point could be what Mr Anwar’s daughter Nurul Izzah called a “Malaysaja” – Malays only.
For a country that prides itself on its diversity, that would be a tragedy.
Sholto Byrnes is a commentator and consultant in Kuala Lumpur and a corresponding fellow of the Erasmus Forum