Photograph: Flickr, malaysianview
Despite the harmonious multicultural discourse within which Malaysian tourism ads continuously endorse its diversity of races, racist discourse has often been an effective tool of repression and power consolidation for the government.
In 2015, the Malaysian political scene erupted with news of a financial scandal, first published in the Wall Street Journal, implicating Prime Minister Najib Razak of having been the beneficiary of nearly $700 million which were traced to his bank accounts, all of which were believed to be linked to crucial government investment funds. In the face of this controversy, Mr Najib took to deflecting these accusations with claims that these were personal donations from the royal family of Saudi Arabia and that none of the funds were appropriated for personal gain. Heightening amounts of criticism and scepticism from both the domestic and international sphere, including those within the government led to Mr Razak’s attempt at silencing dissent, culminating in the elimina
tion of those opposed to him, including the removal of his most vocal critic, deputy Prime Minister, Muhiyiddin Yassin.
Much of this confirmed already persistent public opinion of rife corruption within the Malaysian government. This scandal that the Prime Minister was implicated in was not the first of its kind. The political landscape of Malaysia had also always been primarily dominated by one-party rule, a coalition headed by the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO). This rule has remained largely unchallenged and has brought with it immense infringements of democracy and widespread abuse of power, most of which go largely unquestioned in an increasingly repressive situation of domestic media control and restrictions on freedom of speech.
With political legitimacy effectively reduced within the domestic and international arena, how then has such a progressively corrupt system been upheld? It may suffice to say that the most effective form of consolidation of power both politically and economically boils down simply to race discrimination.
Pulling out the ‘race card’ has often been an effective way of playing on the qualms of the native Malays in the country who harbour fears that the Malay race would be subordinated by the ethnic Chinese who are seen as economically-dominant. This is thus transformed into prime material for political discourse which continuously justifies outright racial discrimination via the distribution of significant economic, social and political privileges to the Malays. This originated from colonial British times in which a social contract was signed to ensure that Malays are guaranteed specific special rights. In contemporary times however, such economic policies are often positioned to strategically benefit the Malay elites instead of those who are in most need of economic and financial aid. By threatening the Malay community that the privileges and rights conferred to them as bumiputeras (which translates literally to mean sons of the soil) would be lost should UMNO lose power and simultaneously banking in on a situation of rising Islamic fundamentalism in which the Muslim/non-Muslim dichotomy is constantly politicised, the Malaysian government is able to continuously maintain power and it’s activities which serve to line the pockets of corrupt officials.
In the latest general election in Malaysia, the Prime Minister took to blaming the Chinese for the significant movement of support from the ruling party to the opposition. Phrases such as ‘Chinese tsunami’ and ‘What more do the Chinese want?’ flooded the headlines of native language newspapers in which was littered with deeply racist undertones, pointing accusatory fingers at the Chinese community for having ‘betrayed’ the government. While unpleasant news to read, most ethnic Chinese were not shocked at such a turn of events.
In prior years, members of the government had threatened to bathe the keris, a Malay blade, with the blood of the ethnic Chinese. In 2009, Malay-Muslims viciously protested the relocation of a Hindu temple to their neighbourhood by stepping on a slaughtered cow’s head (an animal considered sacred to Hinduism) with the threat of bloodshed. Just in the past year, widespread demonstrations in the country’s capital in protest of the Prime Minister turned into heated racist tensions between Muslims and non-Muslims, primarily ethnic Chinese. This culminated in a rally which saw racist slogans demanding that the Chinese return to China amidst various other xenophobic messages. The collective Malaysian memory has been pockmarked with various eruptions of racial tensions that are catalysed by racist discourse in politics trickling detrimentally into pockets of society.
In Malaysia’s situation, race becomes institutionalised to become a feature that continuously upholds corrupt systems of cronyism, the consequences of which are becoming apparent in the country’s weakening economy. Until race becomes divorced from politics and local communities start questioning governmental abuses of power, only then can the beginnings of a transgression to cleaner and more transparent political landscape be formed.