New Malaysia shows signs of older, uglier politics

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia (CNN) Traditional Chinese lion dances dazzle jubilant shoppers at a trendy shopping mall beneath Kuala Lumpur’s iconic Petronas Towers.

Elsewhere in the Malaysian capital, signs are everywhere wishing people a happy Lunar New Year.

These, along with the minarets, churches and temples that dot the city, are small signs of the multicultural fabric of Malaysian society, a complex web of Malay, Chinese, Indian and other identities.

The new government, formed last year by a coalition of political parties that ousted former Prime Minister Najib Razak, reflects this combination. For the first time in the country’s post-independence history, the main party in government is a multi-ethnic cupboard It also includes many Chinese and Indian Malaysians who hold important positions.

But whether it will help new Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad unite the country behind a single Malaysian identity is debatable.

For decades, Malaysia has had an institutionalized affirmative action policy that favors the Malay majority.

The party, which ousted Prime Minister Najib and became an opposition party for the first time in its history, has been accused by opposition parties of stirring up racial tensions among conservative Malays in order to expand its power. . There are fears that racial and religious tensions will once again grip the country.

Neither Najib nor his party responded to CNN’s requests for comment.

diverse people

In Malaysia, more than 60% of the country is Population: 32 million people The Bumiputera people are a group known as the “sons of the soil” and include ethnic Malays and natives of the Borneo states of Sarawak and Sabah. Chinese Malaysians are the next largest ethnic group at 21%, followed by Indian Malaysians at 6%.

That diversity owes much to Malaysia’s time as a British colony, when the colonial powers imported Indian and Chinese workers, many of whom prospered economically.

Some believe that this immigration’s success came at the expense of indigenous peoples, and the Barisan National Union (BN), which led the country until 2018, moved to uplift Bumiputeras.

Perhaps the best known and most far-reaching means of achieving this goal are: new economic policy. Introduced in 1971, it gave Malays benefits such as cheap housing, business loans, and generous quotas for admission to public universities. The goal was to have that community control at least 30% of the national economy within 20 years. Although the policy has since been revised, Bumiputeras continue to enjoy much of the same privileges.

Malaysian today constitution It remains committed to “protecting the special status of the Malays and indigenous peoples of either Sabah or Sarawak”. The document considers all Malays to be Muslims, and governments have promoted policies that benefit Islam over Malaysia’s two main minority faiths, Buddhism and Christianity.

Supporters of the Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) gather on election nomination day in Pekan on April 28, 2018.

The rise of conservatism

Najib’s United Malays National Organization (UNMO) has dominated the ruling coalition for many years and has implemented pro-Malay policies.

“UMNO under Najib ran a very clear pro-Malay campaign,” said Ross Tapsell, director of the Malaysian Institute at the Australian National University. “Racist politics has increased under the Najib-UMNO regime.”

Since losing power last year, UMNO has been accused of playing into racial and religious issues and has allied itself with its former rival, the conservative Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS).

In the by-election held in Cameron Highlands last month, diverse ethnic seating In central Malaysia, UMNO-BN candidates won a landslide victory, thanks in part to the new alliance.

A worker on a farm in Cameron Highlands. The opposition recently claimed a big victory in the seat in a by-election, buoyed by mainly Malay Muslim voters.

In a statement after the vote, UMNO vice-chairman Mohamed Khaled Nordin said the victory would “create a large and important Malay-Muslim wave that could potentially silence” the ruling coalition.

He claimed that the “Malay voice” in Mahathir’s government was “very small”. According to local media.

The losers blamed their loss at Cameron Highlands on UMNO and PAS inciting racial tensions, but Tapsell, of the Malaysian Institute at the Australian National University, was skeptical.

He said the opposition ran a “pretty poor campaign”, but “UMNO ran a better campaign and had better candidates”.

Representatives for UMNO and PAS did not respond to requests for comment.

Mr Najib is seen as one of the driving forces behind the new partnership with PAS. The former prime minister also began frequently attacking the government on Facebook. Bringing rural Malay voters to justice Under the slogan “Malu Apa Bossku” (“Why should my boss be ashamed?”). Najib has denied corruption allegations surrounding the 1MDB scandal, and his supporters say prosecutors’ case against him is politically motivated and there is no reason to shame him. .

There are signs that this approach is working.a recent research It was found that 54.4% of Malay respondents do not believe that the new government is serious about adhering to the “” policy.malay language agenda. ”

Petaling Jaya Old Town, southwest of Kuala Lumpur, is home to a large Chinese-Malaysian community.

“We’re worried.”

Concerns about a backlash against Chinese Malaysians were on Albert Chan’s mind as he celebrated Lunar New Year with ethnically diverse friends at a food market in Kuala Lumpur’s Petaling Jaya district.

“(UMNO and PAS) bring up the Malay language, the Malay language… They are already talking about racial issues,” he said. “We’re worried about that.”

Mr Chan’s friend Dave Singh said after decades of pro-Bumiputera affirmative action, new policies were needed that were favorable to all Malaysians.

“The rest of the population, especially the Chinese and Indians, were not considered,” he said of the previous government. “The Chinese have to do business, business, but the Indians have to struggle and toil. We weren’t being helped.”

But Democratic Action Party (DAP) MP Tony Puah, who forms part of Mr Mahathir’s coalition government, said the conservatives’ racist campaign in Cameron Heights was an act of desperation. .

“This is their only strategy,” he said. “They have no strategy other than to prey on the racial and religious fears of their communities.”

Pua said UMNO was clutching at straws because the party’s reputation had been tarnished by the financial scandal that ousted the former prime minister, but admitted it was not good for national harmony.

“It causes concern and fear,” he acknowledged. “I feel anxious and lack confidence.”

Azim Awi (right) manages a kindergarten run by the Malaysian Islamic Party in Kampung Baru, a traditional Malay village in central Kuala Lumpur.

“Malay supremacy is being eroded.”

In Kampung Baru, a traditional Malay village in central Kuala Lumpur, other Malaysians had opposing concerns.

Inside a kindergarten run by PAS, director Azim Awi said he was wary that the new government would exclude Malay Muslims. For example, Pua’s DAP party has long been accused of being pro-China and anti-Malay.

“The Malays’ perception is that their political supremacy is being usurped by other races,” Azim said.

One of the main sources of tension for Mahathir’s government is likely to be focused on education.

Non-Muslim Malaysians complained for a long time The increasing Islamicization of public schools and the shift to private schools, especially among middle-class parents; According to scholar James Chin.

Kampung Baru is a predominantly working-class Malay-Muslim neighborhood where the national flag is often seen, along with that of the Islamic Party of Malaysia.

“Education is usually front and center in the larger issues around Bumiputera policy and special rights for Malays,” Tapsell said, especially at the university level, where Malays have traditionally been given preferential treatment. It pointed out.

A review of poll data conducted by Singapore’s Lee Hock Aung found that the social impact of segregated education is that “Malaysian friendships tend to be ethnically homogeneous”. ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Research Institute.

In Kampung Baru, Azim happily admitted that one of the aims of his kindergarten was to indoctrinate a new generation of PAS voters and raise them according to the party’s strict interpretation of Islam.

Abel Chong, a young Chinese Malaysian who took part in the anti-Najib protests, said he believed promoting secularism was important for a united Malaysia.

“The first thing we need to do is eradicate the idea that religion and politics are intertwined,” he said.

“The idea that they are forcing Islam at this point is really bad. If people drink alcohol and eat pork, that’s their choice, but we shouldn’t involve that in politics. We are not a Muslim country. That is the only thing that binds us.” Back. ”

In the past, Muslim Malaysians who did not fast You will be arrested if you eat, drink or smoke in a public place. “No Pork” signs remain prominent at many restaurants in the capital during the holy month of Ramadan.

DAP lawmaker Charles Santiago said the PAS-UMNO alliance was a calculated move to divide and conquer the country.

“It’s no longer a matter of religion, it’s a matter of politics and winning the hearts and minds of Malays,” he said. “The more you poison the hearts of the Malays, the better it is for them.”

Journalist Hadi Azmi contributed to the report.

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