It’s rally season in Kuala Lumpur. Last month, around 40,000 opposition parties, trade unions and non-governmental organizations braved thunderstorms and roadblocks to demand fair elections. Two weeks ago, the Hindu Rights Action Force (Hindraf) demonstrated, demanding fair treatment for Malaysian Indians. A fracas broke out and some 200 people were arrested.
These rallies are clearly not for the faint-hearted, as each one has been preceded by stern statements from the government, which included warnings about invoking the Internal Security Act. But they have a deeper import, beyond the threat of jail: These protests indicate a tectonic shift in the way we exercise our democratic rights. Whether this will permanently alter our country’s political culture remains to be seen. For the moment, the question for many observers is: Why now? First, the eve of a general election is perceived as a good time to air public grievances. There is also the burgeoning public perception that the current government’s grasp of policy issues is weakening. Over the last couple of years, Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi’s administration has been weighed down by corruption in the police; judicial probes into court decisions; tension over religious conversion cases; recent spikes in the cost of living; and a bunch of bloggers who refuse to remain silent.
The occasional public appearance of former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim is undeniably another source of annoyance for the current administration.
But more deeply, Malaysia’s 50-year-old social contract, shined up in August by independence celebrations, may also be losing its gloss. The promises made in the 1957 constitution guaranteed that if we followed the rules laid down by leaders of the main ethnic communities and behaved ourselves, we could be confident of an increasing quality of life and racial harmony. For the most part, the contract has worked, as Malaysia’s steady economic growth demonstrates.
Yet, it is racial discord that still drives cold fear into the hearts of most Malaysians. We are terrified of it. Yet, oddly enough, we read racial agendas into everything from policy formulation to court decisions, police arrests, hiring and firing as well as who gets their trash removed first.
Race relations and its many perplexing permutations have pulled us together and also widened the gulf between the different ethnic groups. This was demonstrated in last week’s Hindraf demonstration, where protesters proposed to sue the British government for neglecting the rights of the Indian community at independence, the majority of whom were brought in by colonialists as indentured labourers.
The organizers brought a claim of 14 trillion ringgit ($4 billion) in a petition to be delivered to the British high commission in Kuala Lumpur—meant, eventually, to be handed over to Queen Elizabeth II. Some protesters were reportedly angry that a 100-year-old Hindu temple had been demolished. Others demanded either the abolition of affirmative action —which has largely benefited the Malays—or inclusion in it.
Naturally, the non-Indians have not been too pleased. Rumours were rife last week that Malays in Kampung Baru (an inner-city enclave largely inhabited by Malays) were buying long knives to defend themselves against the Indians. Last Saturday, a full week after the event, the usually mild-mannered Prime Minister furiously condemned the group for appealing to the British government to send Malaysia to the World Court and the International Criminal Court for crimes against ethnic minority Indians. Hindraf had also alleged that government-backed Islamic extremists were committing ethnic cleansing—an idea so shocking to the Prime Minister that he has offered to resign, should there be any evidence of such atrocities.
Is there a basis for the Malaysian Indian to be aggrieved? Compared with the other races which have advanced in proportion to the nation’s economic progress, the Indian community —roughly 10% of the population —is far behind.
All “Indian problems” are relegated to the Malaysian Indian Congress, a component of the ruling alliance. Loud on rhetoric and soft on action, the party has been emasculated by internal succession issues, rather than addressing the very basic needs of its constituents. For the very poor, many quality-of-life improvements from school shoes to a place in university, an IT job, or even a burial place for a loved one are painfully difficult to come by. To gain visibility, the fight had to be reoriented. The queen of England, therefore, became the most fitting recipient of the petition, capturing media attention across the world. A hotline has been set up to respond swiftly to Indians’ grievances.
In the end, the petition never reached the high commission but the Indian story will be remembered for two reasons—as an extraordinary public relations exercise and, like the other rallies, a watershed event for political expression in Malaysia.
Edited excerpts from The Wall Street Journal. Rose Ismail, a former editor with the New Straits Times and senior fellow at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies, heads a media consultancy in Malaysia. Comment at firstname.lastname@example.org