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POLITICS-MALAYSIA: Umno Stokes Racial Fires to Regain Lost Ground

Baradan Kuppusamy

KUALA LUMPUR, Aug 23 2009 (IPS) - Race relations here, unsteady even in the best of times, are worsening with Malaysia's ruling United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) party ratcheting up racial and religious issues to maintain its influence over majority Malays, who make up some 60 percent of the population of 27 million.

Since the party’s staggering defeat in the 2008 elections, some UMNO leaders have gone on a warpath, raising sensitive racial and religious issues to win over Malay loyalties.

Critics, for instance, have accused the UMNO-owned mass-circulation newspaper, 'Utusan Malaysia', of stoking the fires of racism and religious animosities through its sometimes inflammatory reporting.

The party’s exclusive Malay-only composition has had a grip on power since 1957, when the country achieved its independence. The UMNO-led Barisan Nasional (National Front) coalition suffered its worst-ever defeat in the 2008 polls, losing five state governments and two-third majority of seats in Parliament to a resurgent three-party Pakatan Rakyat opposition coalition led by the charismatic Anwar Ibrahim, a former UMNO deputy president and now leader of the opposition.

The UMNO losses were made possible by a combination of minority Chinese and Indian voters and urban Malay poor voting for the opposition.

Urban Malays, alienated by poverty, low income and a constant struggle to survive in crowded low-cost government housing schemes, had discarded long-standing racial, religious and cultural ties with UMNO by voting for Pakatan Rakyat (People's Pact/People's Alliance).

Nine out of the 10 parliamentary constituencies in the Federal capital fell to Pakatan, indicating the extent of alienation of urban population with the Barisan Nasional.

Since its defeat, UMNO has been working to win back support by resorting to various measures, including ousting former Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi and replacing him with Najib Razak in April.

While Najib has gained popularity through a slew of reforms and sought to unite Malaysians under his One Malaysia banner, other UMNO leaders have gone on a warpath, raising sensitive racial and religious issues to win over Malay loyalties. For instance, his deputy, Muhyiddin Yassin, has been raising numerous pro-Malay issues to win over Malay loyalty.

It is not clear whether Najib subscribes to these schemes. It is evident, however, that these have taken a heavy toll on his efforts to narrow the credibility gap, build confidence and win loyalties.

"The aim of these strategies is to paint Chinese and Indian minorities as a threat to the Malay race, to Islam and to the Malay rulers," said opposition lawmaker Kulasegaran Murugesan.

"They want to divide and weaken the Pakatan by pitting one race against another," he told IPS. "They are stoking the flames of race hatred in the hope Malays, who voted for Pakatan, would return to UMNO. By such negative strategies they hope to stay in power."

Since the 2008 polls, this racially divided country has been constantly shaken by headline- grabbing street demonstrations and public spats over race and religious issues.

Opposition lawmakers have also accused the Barisan-led federal government of unleashing state investigative agencies to coerce them to defect to the Barisan.

"The agencies are on a witch hunt," said veteran lawmaker Lim Kit Siang. "We are constantly watched, hounded and harassed to weaken the opposition and cause a split. They use Gestapo tactics against us," he told IPS.

In March the Barisan coalition reportedly engineered the defection of Pakatan lawmakers in northern Perak, causing the collapse of Pakatan's hold on the state, which is now ruled by the Barisan.

Similar defections are being attempted in northern Kedah and the economically important central Selangor state, both ruled by the Pakatan, according to opposition lawmakers.

"Ratcheting racial and religious animosities, engineering defection and creating fear among Malays are all part of a grand strategy by UMNO to re-exert their grip on society," said Kulasegaran.

The mysterious death in May of an opposition political aide, Teoh Beng Huat, while under questioning by the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission, has brought the widening race division to a head.

"All these division, debate and national disquiet give the impression that Malaysia is coming apart," said political scientist Denison Jayasooria. "The verbal slugfest aside, the country is stable and the economy is recovering," he told IPS. "Foreign investment is expected to return as well, but all this race and religious debate might spook the investors if it gets out of line."

On the political front, Anwar is bombarded—somewhat like opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi of Burma—with incessant accusations of being a traitor to native Malays for allegedly betraying their interest and failing to fight for their rights against "encroachment" by non-Muslims.

In fact, Anwar, who is charged with sodomy, is accused of advancing non-Muslims by offering equal opportunity rights and affirmative action help to the needy among all races.

Anwar, who said the sodomy charges were framed-up to stop him from becoming prime minister, has had to step up his personal security, warning the government that it was "playing with fire" by labeling him a "traitor."

Before 2008 there was a strong central government and a single dominant voice – in the person of former strongman Dr Mahathir Mohamad, Malaysia’s prime minister for 22 years. Some people found that comforting.

Not for others.

After the 2008 polls, Malaysia has been gripped by tension, unfamiliar and disturbing political trends, street protests and a multiplicity of voices speaking for the people. "The scene today is chaotic; we are learning democracy," said a human rights activists. "I find the situation comforting."


+MALAYSIA: Racial Melting Pot on the Boil (

+POLITICS-MALAYSIA: Anwar Ibrahim Set to Go On Trial ( 021C4FE/?OpenDocument)

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