The politics behind Malaysia’s recent anti-Chinese rally

A peaceful gathering?
A peaceful gathering?
Image: EPA/Fazry Ismail
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To an outside visitor, Malaysia’s underlying racial tensions might not be readily apparent. But a pro-government rally this week (Sept. 16) in Kuala Lumpur brought them to light. The red-shirted demonstrators were for the most part young Malay men, many bused in from rural provinces with help from the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), the nation’s dominant political party.

Ethnic Malays are the majority in the country, but ethnic Chinese make up about a quarter of the population and, overall, have more economic power. UMNO has controlled Malaysia for nearly 60 years, and it has reserved economic and other advantages for Muslim Malays, saying they’re needed to prevent dominance by the ethnic Chinese and Indian minorities.

The Sept. 16 rally was in fact a counter-rally. It was a show of force in response to the Bersih rallies held on Aug. 29-30. “Bersih” is the Malay word for clean, and the yellow-shirted protestors were calling for clean elections, clean government, the right to dissent, a strengthened parliament, and the rescue of Malaysia’s faltering economy. They were especially incensed over accusations that prime minister Najib Razak pocketed nearly $700 million from a government investment fund.

The government, then, had reasons to paint the Bersih rallies—held around Malaysia and in cities across the globe—as being driven by the ethnic Chinese. In truth, many ethnic Malays also attended the Bersih rallies, as did Indians and other minorities.

By contrast, the demonstrators at today’s “Malay Dignity Gathering” were almost entirely Malay, as the name would suggest. The pro-Malay sentiments—and anti-Chinese ones—were clear. One group gathered near the national mosque and carried placards reading: “Don’t challenge Malay Rights” and “Rise Malays Rise.” Another sign read: “Damn the racist DAP,” referring to the predominantly Chinese opposition Democratic Action Party.

On Sunday night (Sept. 13), a group of red-shirted Malays burned effigies of prominent ethnic Chinese politicians in yellow Bersih shirts, while performing religious chants. The event took place in Kota Bharu, the capital of the deeply conservative northern state of Kelantan.

In response, the Malaysian Chinese Association issued a statement condemning the act and drawing comparisons to the racist organization the Ku Klux Klan in the US:

Effigy burning amidst racial and religious chants at night bears a striking similarity to the culture of the Ku Klux Klan in the American south where they set wooden crosses ablaze after dark. Such actions reek of intimidation detrimental against public peace and security.

While no major violence broke out at today’s rally, there was plenty of chest-thumping. The Straits Times quoted one participant, a retired army officer, who hinted that violence was an option. “I am here today for Malay dignity, for the nation and the country,” said Haji Nasir Rasyid. “If Bersih can show off, we can also show off. If Bersih tries to be funny, we can do even more as I am ex-army.”

The official organizer of today’s rally was the National Federation of Silat Associations, a martial arts group. Silat is a form of martial arts indigenous to Southeast Asia, including the Malaysia and Indonesia, in which knives are sometimes incorporated. Some of today’s demonstrators wielded knives.

The “red shirts” seemed primed to intimidate, even before the Bersih rally. One group conducted an Aug. 25 counter-rally practice session that involved beating each other with sticks, even as the participants professed non-violent intentions.

The tensest moment today occurred at barricades police had set up to protect parts of Chinatown. Protestors demanded to be let in, and the police used water cannons to try to disperse them. Even after the rally officially ended, the demonstrators still lingered in the area in hopes of breaking through, before eventually dissipating.

Many Chinese-owned shops, fearing the worst, had closed for the day.