Worsening race relations can be arrested if Putrajaya gets act together, say analysts

Desmond Davidson

Asian governance expert James Chin says Putrajaya has shown no desire to crack down on those peddling racial hatred. – The Malaysian Insight file pic, April 14, 2024.

THE recent controversy over the word “Allah” on some socks may have further battered Malaysia’s fragile race relations and sent it into a steeper downward spiral, but not one that is beyond recovery, according to politicians and political analysts.

Universiti Putra Malaysia (UPM) political science professor Jayum Jawan said there was still hope as the people stoking the tensions do not represent the “many rational-minded Malayans”, be they the Malays, the Chinese or the Indians.

The fellow in the Academy of Sciences said the country is full of diversity – ethnically, culturally and religiously – and no amount of provocations, especially made by a small number of individuals, is going to change that diversity.

Sarawak PKR information chief Abun Sui Anyit said it will get better if, and when, the government starts taking “stern and prompt action” against those manipulating sensitive issues and acting provocatively to create tension among the races.

“The government is there to administer the rights of all citizens as enshrined in the federal constitution,” the PKR senator added.

Asian governance expert James Chin said the country’s race relations took a turn for the worse after the 2018 general election when the opposition Pakatan Harapan coalition won the election to leave the two major Malay-Muslim parties, the dethroned Umno and the Islamist PAS, on the sidelines.

The two parties became unlikely allies when they found common ground by playing the race and religious cards in their attacks to discredit the new multiracial PH government which had picked Dr Mahathir Mohamad as prime minister.

One common accusation frequently hurled at the PH government then was that it was controlled by the Chinese, alluding to DAP, which had become a major partner in the PH coalition.

PAS and Umno were trying to show that the Muslims and Malays were marginalised, Chin said.

The University of Tasmania director of the Asia Institute said race relations became worse in November 2022 after yet another general election.

The Malay-Muslim parties, this time PAS and Bersatu – an Umno splinter group – found themselves again outside the corridors of power.

“Except Umno, all the Malay-Muslim parties were on the other side (of the political divide). PAS and Bersatu were playing with the same sentiment – the Chinese are marginalising everybody and Anwar Ibrahim is being controlled by DAP.

“Hadi had even gone all out in saying things he did not say in 2018,” Chin said about PAS president Abdul Hadi Awang.

He said Hadi was even calling for the overthrow of the “un-Islamic government”.

Chin said he considered this second phase worse than the first for two reasons.

The first was PAS’ clever use of various social media platforms, particularly Tik Tok, and the second was the government showing no desire to crack down on those peddling racial hatred.

“The government also can’t seem to get its act together to provide an alternative narrative to the hate speeches that are dominating the social media spaces,” he added.

Via the TikTok platform, PAS was able to reach out to the Malays in the rural areas of the peninsula, Chin pointed out.

Jawan agreed with Chin that race relations in Malaysia “is not getting better” in the last few years.

To him, this was because Malaysia lacked “good and fair leadership for a multiracial, multi-religious and multicultural” society.

The problem, he said, was perhaps exacerbated by the long-time race-based politics of parties that were purely formed to represent the interests of one ethnic group like Umno and PAS for the Malays.

Jawan said some political parties appear to be multi-ethnic but are dominated by one ethnic group such as DAP and Parti Pesaka Bumiputera Bersatu (PBB), the lead party in the ruling Sarawak coalition Gabungan Parti Sarawak (GPS).

He said recent controversies, like the “Allah” socks controversy, showed that some young Malaysians “had gone overboard in their attempt to portray themselves as champions of their community”.

“This does not augur well for a country that has diversity.”

While Abun Sui might disagree with Chin and Jawan when he said the race relations “are still good”, he warned that there are politicians who manipulated religious and racial issues for political support.

He said they are those who do not have anything to offer to the rakyat so they resort to exploiting the 3Rs – royalty, race and religion.

For three civil society organisations in Sabah – Borneo’s Plight in Malaysia Foundation (BoPiMaFo), Persatuan Pembangunan Sosial Komunity Sabah (Bangun) and Forum Adat Masyarakat Dataran Tinggi Borneo (Formadat) – the push by PAS to make Malaysia an Islamic state had them again raising the spectre that Malaysia could break up if Muslims insist on imposing their interpretation of Islamic laws on non-Muslims.

The CSOs, whose view is endorsed by the president of the Sarawak pro-independence outfit Parti Bumi Kenyalang, Voon Lee Shan, said the insistence is “violating the fundamental or basic terms of the Malaysia Agreement 1963 (MA63) which guaranteed the concept of a secular and multicultural Malaysia and entrenched by federal constitution”.

Malaysia, they added, was formed on the basis that it would be a secular state.

They said Act 355, which PAS was actively seeking to pass in parliament, was in effect seeking to amend MA63 “by the backdoor”.

“This would have the effect of destroying MA63 and the concept of a secular Malaysia,” they said.

“The people of Sabah and Sarawak have expressed from day one when the idea of Malaysia was proposed that they do not want an Islamic state.

“If Malayans want an Islamic state, Malaysia, as we know it, ceases to exist and Sabah and Sarawak are free to end the federal relationship with Malaya.

“In this event, Malayans are free to have their Islamic state and Sabah Sarawak are free to have their independent secular states. The sea already divides us so it would be just the severing of political ties with Malaya,” they noted. – April 14, 2024.

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