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Youth Perspective : Path to Ethnic Reconciliation in Malaysia

Pro-government ethnic Malay hardliners wave flags and shout slogans during a demonstration in Kuala Lumpur on September 16, 2015. Thousands of ruling-party supporters marched through Malaysia's capital on September 16 to support the embattled government and assert the political dominance of the Malay majority, in a demonstration whose racial overtones have sparked concern  .   AFP PHOTO / MANAN VATSYAYANA

While the nation’s leadership remains in political turmoil and growing radicalization remains a threat to the stability of Malaysia.

Malaysia as a nation has been historically diverse and many argue that it will remain so for the foreseeable future ethnically and religiously. While the nation stands divided on many societal issues, the youth of Malaysia form a general consensus on the direction forward for the Southeast Asian nation in terms of the preservation of its unique identity born from the ashes of the British Empire and the dynastic rule of the ages old Sultans and Rajas of Malaya.

While the nation’s leadership remains in political turmoil and growing radicalization remains a threat to the stability of Malaysia, the next generation of Malaysia’s leaders almost unequivocally show promise in the preservation of Malaysia’s constitutional freedoms from coast to coast and across the South China Sea. Despite this, there is growing concern that the plethora of opportunities for the adoption of religious fundamentalism and state level nationalist ideologies that lurk dangerously above the heads of Malaysia’s youth.

With the wounds of the 1969 May 13 Riots that ended in a dynamic shift in Malaysia’s policymaking and the resignation of Malaysia’s first Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman together with the racially and religiously provoking statements by proponents of extremist ideologies within Malaysia still fresh in the minds of Malaysia’s youth, reconciliation among Malaysians for what some describe as the ancestral sins that lie within the cement that holds the nation together remains the biggest obstacle to the peace and prosperity of the Southeast Asian nation.

Malaysia’s Misrepresented Racial Composition

The issues faced are primarily due to the fact that Malaysia’s racial identity has been misrepresented domestically and in some cases even internationally as an amalgamation of three ethnoreligious groups that are taken primarily in respect to the roles they play in Malaysia’s complex political system.

While unlike other ethno religiously composite nations that have founded a panethnic identity such as Lebanon where the 1943 national pact maintains that its president must remain Maronite Christian, the speaker of the parliament is reserved for a Shiite Muslim, the office of prime minister is reserved for a Sunni Muslim, and the Deputy Speaker of Parliament and the Deputy Prime Minister are saved for the Greek Orthodox Lebanese, reservations of political positions in Malaysia are not divided among the three ethno religious groups per se.

The three ethno religious groups that are said to compose a majority of Malaysia’s population are:

1. The Ethnic “Bumiputera” that are primarily Malays as defined by Article 153 of the Malaysian Federal Constitution

2. The Malaysian Chinese diaspora, descendants primarily from the Han Chinese ethnicity

3. The Malaysian Indians, primarily of ethnic Tamil descent

Malaysia’s ethnic Chinese and Indian populations are by far one of the second largest Chinese and the largest Indian populations overseas and both ethnic groups together make up close to 32% of Malaysia’s population while Bumiputeras hold a majority of Malaysia’s population with roughly 68% of Malaysia’s population (Department of Statistics Malaysia, 2011)

While these three ethnic groups remain statistically the three largest ethnic groups in Malaysia, the description of the nation’s identity as a composite of the three races is still highly debated and many hold the opinion that this method of division remains based on the ruling governments political composition of the three primary parties within the Barisan Nasional coalition; The United Malays National Organisation, The Malaysian Chinese Association and the Malaysian Indian Congress.

A contemporary example of an issue that has wedged open the Pandora’s box of questions on the validity of this method of classification lies in the disturbingly complex position of the aboriginal people of Malaysia. The literal translation of the word “Bumiputera” would be “sons of the soil” a direct reference to the belief held by many that the ethnic Malays and the various sub-groups within the Bumiputera definition are the original inhabitants of Malaysia’s land.

The Bumiputera group presents a unique case where the majority of Malaysia’s population were politically dominant but were simultaneously an economically disadvantaged group. Post the 1969 May 13 riots, the 1971 New Economic Policy was introduced in a manner that appeared to many as a direct response by the government to close the socioeconomic gap between the ethnic Chinese and Malay communities to prevent further tensions from erupting into violent conflict. This left two large issues where:

1. The nation was divided into Bumiputera and Non-Bumiputera citizens, which to many appeared as an extension of the relegation of non-Malays to second class citizens that was defined in Article 153 of the Federal Constitution

2. The ‘Orang Asli’, that is the aboriginal people of Malaysia were classed as Non-Bumiputera and while they had extended privileges under Article 8 of the Federal Constitution, they were now subject to economic policies that would put them at a disadvantage in certain respects

Ethnic Conflict in Malaysia’s Past

This controversial shift in Malaysia’s political hemisphere is indicative of the scale of the damages caused to Malaysia’s delicate ethnic balance as a result of the May 13 riots. While not an isolated incident, the scale of the May 13 riots was so large and damaging that the nation was declared to be having a national Emergency with the then Yang di Pertuan Agong Sultan Ismail Nasiruddin Shah suspending Parliament and handing over power to the National Operations Council (NOC) which significantly curtailed the Prime Minister’s power and governed the nation for 2 years.

While the riots and killing were clearly divided among racial lines due to increased extremist ideological influences from both sides of the conflict the deep seeded discontent resulted in a riot that burned the capital city of Kuala Lumpur for 2 months with Malays, Chinese and Indians taking refuge in large stadiums under a ‘shoot to kill’ curfew. The riots were triggered by the extremely close results in the Malaysian General Election that weakened the control of the Federal government as states were lost to opposition parties and for the first time, the ruling coalition had lost the popular vote. While the opposition was seen as mainly non-Malays in opposition to the political domination of Malaysia by the rural Malays, the immediate outcome of the election were large street rallies in favour of political parties that were highly aggravated by each other and were on the verge of erupting into a wildfire of ethnic violence. Once the fist fights broke out at the Setapak district, the other districts fell like dominos to the violence.

Even during such tense moments in Malaysia’s history, it can be noted however that the violence was conducted by a highly vocal and violent minority; a trait still visible in the extremists that provoke Malaysians to this day. In an article by lawyer Adrian Ng, his recollection of the events of the day as a child provide a vivid example:

“Then someone called out in Malay… everyone panicked, thinking that they had been ambushed. Everyone kept quiet. After a long wait, Grandpa whispered “Don’t worry, he is Pak Mat, he and a few others will help guard around the squatters.” The day went by, and soon night fell. That night, mom heard on radio that an emergency had been declared by Tunku Abdul Rahman.”

(Adrian Ng; May 13: A Recollection, 2011)

Similar accounts exist of the May 13 riots where Chinese, Malays and Indians would cooperate to keep areas safe from rioters and many would recollect the riots as not a war between Chinese and Malays but a war between moderation and extremism; one Malaysians still fight to this day. With the press and media banned and printing licences revoked during the emergency, very little information aside from the report provided by the NOC was made available after the riots. The May 13 riots remained the unspoken tragedy that fractured the fragile cooperation that had been present among Malaysians prior to the riots.

Ethnic Chinese were told the majority of victims were Chinese and thus they had been the victims of the riots, the ethnic Malays on the other had were told that the riots were a result of Chinese provocation and that Malay rioters were absolved of responsibility and thus began years of distrust among communities. Neighbourhoods lost neighbours, schools lost children and most importantly Malaysia lost the state of peace it had been in for years within a night.

In the years after the May 13 riots, Malaysia saw politicians use the events to justify their political ideologies and young politicians such as the fourth Prime Minister, Tun Dr. Mahathir Mohammad used the events of the riots to justify racially insensitive ideologies that were then considered ‘acceptable’ that cemented the importance of racial identity over national identity in the nation’s political system. This has been carried forward for nearly 50 years and today, the 1969 riots is considered the pivotal moment in Malaysia’s history that triggered the rapid degradation of the carefully built racial harmony in the country.

The Path to Reconciliation

It is unequivocally accepted that Malaysia’s youth are the torchbearers of hope for racial and religious reconciliation in the years after the fracture of Malaysia in 1969 deepened into the soil of extremism and poisonous ideologies that plague Malaysia today. With organisations such as ‘Perkasa’ promoting “Malay dominance” and right wing ideologies, going on to great lengths to provoke the Non-Malays of Malaysia, there is a growing fear of another May 13 incident.

The BERSIH 4.0 protests in favour of more transparent elections and other electoral reform demands were seen by such groups as a threat to the Malay dominance of the ruling party and was worsened by statements from members of the government that were indicative of support for the perspective held by right wing organisations. Tensions grew and a counter rally was organised in response, the “Himpunan Maruah Melayu” which directly translates to “Malay Honour March” was organised by the President of the Malay Army Veterans Association. Participants claimed to be attending in support of the Malaysian Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak who had been facing allegations of corruption and nepotism by members of the oppositions, international media and corruption watchdogs internationally.

While the rally was relatively small in contrast to the BERSIH rally, the primary reason for the failure of the provocations by the rally lies with the strong opposition from Malaysia’s Youth. Even within the ethnic Malay community, many young Malaysians strongly opposed the racial narrative and ethnic Chinese refused to respond to the slurs and slander hurdled towards their community. To many, this was an indicator of hope. Where this time the violent and vocal minority within Malaysia’s youth itself had no power over the vast majority of Malaysia’s moderate youth that stood in solidarity with the rest of Malaysia against the rally.

The path to national reconciliation lies in the adoption of a national identity in Malaysia, the adoption of the principles of non-violence and peaceful coexistence derived from religious teachings rather than the abuse of religious and racial identity for selfish means. The only way forward for Malaysia is for Malaysians to become Malaysian first, and anything else second. Despite the positive indicators, there are also extremist student wings and as every ideology never truly dies, extremism lives on even in Malaysia’s youth. Even as the nation faced the possibility of a terror threat in Kuala Lumpur, the Prime Minister was found to have told UMNO party members to be brave like ISIL fighters:

“As proof — whether we agree or not is another matter — the group ISIL with the strength of just 1,300 people, can defeat an Iraqi army of 30,000 soldiers, until four, five generals with three, four stars run for their lives, jump out the window at night. Why? Because they are afraid of those who are brave,” (Datuk Seri Najib Razak, 2014)

While the Prime Minister has clearly been in strong opposition to the terror organisation as the Prime Minister of a moderate secular nation with Sunni Islam as its official religion, statements of this nature are extremely dangerous and point to the direction in which the party is heading, bringing along with it hundreds of thousands of youth members.

In summary, the youth of Malaysia have been given the mandate to guide Malaysia towards rebuilding our long lost national identity and in due time will be given opportunities to bridge the gaps between communities that remain polarised after years of political manipulation and finally reconcile the fractured identity that defines what “a Malaysian” truly is. Only time will tell if the future is as bright as it seems for our small Southeast Asian nation.

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The author, seen in the picture above, will be writing future articles on the issue at hand in Malaysia and the role of youth in the path to ethnic reconciliation. 

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