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ALIRAN: A Crisis Of Malay Rights Or An UMNO Crisis?
By Dr Francis Loh

23/12/2000 10:01 am Sat

[Rencana ini amat baik sekali. Ia MESTI BACA, MESTI diSEBAR dan MESTI diFAHAMI, betapa BN adalah satu parti yang 'cakap tak serupa bikin'. Ia pandai bermain kata dan suka meletak jawatan sambil berpura-pura. Atau dengan kata lain, mereka bersandiwara sahaja.... - Editor.]

A Crisis Of Malay Rights Or An UMNO Crisis?

Who's Playing the Racial Card?

by Dr Francis Loh

There exists a basic agreement among Malaysians of all ethnic backgrounds on the principles of sharing power at the level of government, on policies pertaining to language, culture, religion and poverty alleviation, as well as on how everyday relations ought to be conducted. Indeed, in spite of the recent economic crisis and the demand for social and political reform, ethnic relations have probably never been better. It was therefore surprising, even shocking, to learn that a purported threat to Malay rights and privileges had arisen.

An Utusan Malaysia front-page story on 14 August 2000 screeched "Abolish Malay privileges", alluding to remarks allegedly made by David Chua, the deputy chairman of the National Economic Consultative Council II and deputy secretary of the Associated Chinese Chambers of Commerce and Industry (ACCCIM). A careful reading of Chua's remarks, which first appeared in the 10 August issue of the Far Eastern Economic Review, however, reveals that Chua had not made any remarks to that effect, a point subsequently accepted by the Prime Minister himself.

However, based on that misreading, UMNO leaders condemned Chua and all who purportedly questioned those special rights. Ketuanan Melayu or Malay supremacy was considered to be under seige. Chua and the Chinese associations were warned not to play with api perkauman (racial fire). The racial riots of May 13, 1969, were recalled. A police report against Chua was lodged. Malay dailies gave these UMNO politicians wide coverage.


On 17 August 2000, about 400 people from 13 Malay organizations demonstrated at Putrajaya. They were received by the Prime Minister, who assured the crowd that the government would not retreat even a single step in defending Malay rights because it was aware that the Malay community was still weak (Kerajaan tidak akan berundur walau satu langkah pun dalam mempertahankan hak orang Melayu kerana kita sedar mereka ini masih lemah). Indeed, he reiterated, there would be special rights for as long as the Malays wanted them.

The expression of support for Malay rights and privileges reached a climax when a group of some 300 UMNO Youth members demonstrated in front of the Selangor Chinese Assembly Hall in Kuala Lumpur on 18 August.

A day earlier (on the first anniversary of the launch of its 17 Point Election Appeal), the Suqiu (literally "appeal") movement announced that it would be pursuing those Appeals, which it had submitted to the Cabinet just before the November 1999 general elections. Utusan Malaysia (17 August 2000) reported that Suqiu officials had stated that it was adamant in seeking to abolish the different status between the bumiputera and the non-bumiputera in all fields. Significantly, the report chose to highlight only certain aspects of the Appeals which it claimed touched on bumiputera sensibilities.

In their memorandum of protest to Suqiu, the UMNO Youth leaders echoed the Utusan Malaysia's allegations and demanded an apology from Suqiu within a week. If an apology was not forthcoming, they proclaimed that UMNO Youth would not be held responsible for any resulting negative reactions.

Members of the Suqiu group, like David Chua, protested that they had been quoted out of context and misrepresented in the Utusan Malaysia, but to no avail. The unruly UMNO demonstration and Suqiu's protest against its misrepresentation were widely reported in the Chinese newspapers the following day.

The Origins of Suqiu

It was on 16 August 1999, in the midst of political ferment and the mood of reformasi that the 17-Point Election Demands, subsequently presented as the 17-Point Election Appeal, or simply, Suqiu, was launched by eleven Chinese organisations.

The eleven were the United Chinese School Committees Association of Malaysia (known as Dong Zong), the United Chinese Teachers Association of Malaya (Jiao Zong), the United Chinese Schools Alumni Association of Malaysia, Nanyang University Alumni Association of Malaysia, Taiwan Graduates Alumni Association of Malaysia, the Selangor Chinese Assembly Hall, the Federation of Guangdong Associations of Malaysia, the Federation of Guangxi Associations of Malaysia, the Federation of Sanjiang Associations of Malaysia, the Federation of Fuzhou Associations of Malaysia, and the Huazi Research Centre.

The usual "Chinese demands" such as fair and equitable economic policy and multiculturalism as the bases of promoting national unity, the development of Chinese schools and the improvement of Chinese new villages constituted three of the 17 demands. They also called on the authorities to restore constitutional democracy and professionalism in the police force, to uphold human rights and justice, to advance the rights of women, workers and the indigenous peoples, and to provide housing for all.

In addition, they wanted the government to curb corruption, to review privatization policies, to protect the environment, to repeal the ISA and to safeguard the freedom of the press (for full details see AM 19(8), September 1999). Clearly, all these demands were in line with universal goals if not in the spirit of reformasi.

The eleven organisations? initiative caused a stir within the Chinese community. Prior to the launch, they had approached the Federation of Chinese Associations Malaysia (FECAM) and the

Associated Chinese Chambers of Commerce and Industry Malaysia (ACCCIM) to sponsor the 17 Demands as well. However, the two declined, ostensibly because the FECAM elections were to be held the following month and it was claimed that the involvement of the Selangor Assembly Hall would give undue advantage to its president who was going to contest the elections. In fact, their decision not to sponsor the Demands was probably because their leaders had developed close ties with the MCA and the BN parties and disagreed with the critical tone of the Demands.

In the event, 2,095 of an estimated 4,000 Chinese organisations, big and small, endorsed the Demands. The Chinese community was clearly split between those like the FECAM and ACCIM, which were pro-Barisan Nasional, and those in Dong Zong and Jiao Zong (two of the original eleven organisations) who thought that the time was opportune to maintain a critical distance vis--vis the BN, and push for the realisation of a two-coalition system in Malaysia, without specifically endorsing the Barisan Alternatif, the opposition coalition.

There was also a smaller group of Chinese organisations that were supportive of the BA. Although they endorsed the 17 Point Demands, they also launched a separate "The People are the Bosses Declaration" (see AM 19(8), Sept 1999 for details).

Finding itself upstaged, the FECAM insisted that it was the rightful representative of the Chinese community and questioned the right of the eleven organisations in launching the Demands. If the eleven insisted on going ahead, the FECAM in turn insisted that its own demands ought to be included.

Apparently, the appointment of a Chinese as a second deputy prime minister was one of the FECAM?s demands. The FECAM demands were rejected not only by the eleven original organisations but by the Chinese media and the Chinese-based political parties too.

Ironically, when its proposed inclusions were rejected, the FECAM argued that although it supported the original 17 Point Demands, it would not endorse the document since the Demands were too aggressive and amounted to pressuring the BN government on the eve of elections. In fact the president of the FECAM and his ACCCIM counterpart declared their organisations? support for the BN and for Dr Mahathir?s leadership. These demands, they argued, could be pursued after the elections, and in a less aggressive manner, specifically, via the BN Chinese ministers.

BN Parties Accepted Suqiu

In view of popular Chinese support for the 17-Point Demands, the MCA, Gerakan and SUPP, voiced their support for the Demands and made representations on behalf of the Chinese organisations to the Cabinet. At a meeting on 23 September 1999 with the original eleven organisations, the ACCCIM and the FECAM, the ministers from the three BN parties publicly announced their acceptance of the document that, however, was now renamed "Malaysian Chinese Organisations Appeal for the General Elections", or the Suqiu.

Before the meeting, MCA President Ling Liong Sik announced that the Cabinet had considered the Demands and appointed him to head a special team of Chinese ministers to meet the organisations. He said that "none of the issues had caused any controversy or were rejected by the Cabinet outright". (The Star 23 Sept 1999).

Following the meeting Ling clarified that Suqiu was "not a threat". "We feel that the principles are universal and can be accepted by all. They (the Chinese associations) said the principles are meant to benefit all races and not the Chinese alone". He further stated that the appeal represented "99 percent of the Malaysian Chinese in the country", that the BN parties and the Chinese associations agreed that they were "of the same mind and objective" but that their approaches were different. He also clarified that the appeal did not contain any demand for a second deputy Prime Minister to represent the Chinese community.

The Gerakan and SUPP leaders expressed similar sentiments. They promised to hold further dialogues with the Chinese associations and recommend that the government appoint a few representatives from these organisations to sit in the NECC II. (Berita Harian 23 Sept 1999; New Straits Times 24 Sept 1999)

How, then, did we get from Cabinet acceptance of the Suqiu to unruly protests against it?

In fact, there was no political crisis in August 2000 that threatened the special position of Malays as enshrined in the Constitution. There was only a crisis of confidence in UMNO - a major one. It threatened the special privileges enjoyed by a small group of UMNO and other non-Malay BN leaders. Bankrupt of ideas, uninterested in genuine reform, UMNO resorted to its age-old tactics of racial politics to arrest its decline of support among Malays.

No Longer Easily Swayed.

However, there is clear evidence that Malaysians are no longer easily swayed by such race baiting. Significantly, UMNO's attempt to fan racial sentiments did not succeed. In fact it backfired on two counts.

First, Malay opposition leaders like Parti Islam SeMalaysia (Pas) president Fadzil Noor roundly condemned UMNO for irresponsibly playing with racial politics to distract attention from the nation's ills and UMNO's own problems. It is worth recalling that the High Court's decision to sentence Anwar Ibrahim to an additional nine years' imprisonment had resulted in much bad press for Mahathir throughout the world. There was also the sudden departure of Abu Hassan Omar as Menteri Besar of Selangor just weeks before. And there was the Sauk incident involving the Al- Ma'unah, whose resort to militancy was being interpreted by outsiders as a result of a crisis of confidence in Mahathir?s leadership.

Nik Aziz, the Pas Menteri Besar of Kelantan, clarified that there was no such thing as special rights for Malays under Islam; certainly none for a group of cronies. Instead, there was an obligation to help the weak regardless of race. Syed Husin Ali, the Parti Rakyat Malaysia chief, clarified that Malays are granted a "special position" under Article 153 of the Federation Constitution; but there is no provision for Malay "special rights". (See accompanying statements for details - at aliran website).

Second, most Chinese Malaysians were initially confused as to why Chua and the Suqiu movement were being wrongly accused of threatening Malay interests. They were familiar with Chua and the Suqiu group and thought the attacks on them were unbecoming.

Confusion turned to alienation and even anger when the Prime Minister likened the Suqiu to extremists and associated them with the "communists of the past" and the militant Al-Ma?unah extremists in his Merdeka Day speech. Mahathir had even suggested that the Chinese media had "sowed misconceptions among moderate Chinese." On 11 September MCA president Ling Liong Sik made a lame attempt to alleviate anxieties by claiming that the Prime Minister could not have been referring to the Suqiu.

Never Been Better

Despite the 1997-98 economic crisis, and worsening ethnic conflict elsewhere in the world, ethnic relations in Malaysia have probably never been better. The restructuring of Malaysian society as a result of the New Economic Policy partly accounted for the improvement in ethnic relations. For this the early Barisan Nasional leaders should be credited for having the foresight to push through the contentious NEP.

But ordinary Malaysians themselves must be praised for accepting the NEP and reaching a consensus on language and cultural policies. The underlying principles of these policies are hardly ever questioned nowadays. Instead, what is being questioned is how they are or have been implemented. For instance, to what extent have affirmative action policies benefited the needy Malays and other bumiputera rather than a small coterie of Malays as well as non-Malays closely allied with the BN? Or who has benefited from the privatisation policies and the recent bailouts?

There is also no question about the status of Bahasa Malaysia as the national language and Malay culture and Islam as the basis of national culture, or Islam as the official religion; only whether enough opportunities are being afforded to non-Malays to practice and promote their languages, cultures and religions.

Under the circumstances, it is noteworthy, but not surprising, that Anwar?s supporters and the reformasi-minded Malays formed a multi-ethnic party, Parti KeAdilan Nasional, which played an important role in the formation of the Barisan Alternatif just prior to the November 1999 general elections. And in spite of the BN's attempts to fan racial sentiments during the electoral campaign, no racial incidents occurred.

Cakap Tak Serupa Bikin

As UMNO's latest attempt to whip up support through race baiting backfired, and anxieties waned, Mahathir reportedly advised the Suqiu that it should not "make public statements because this can cause a lot of irrational action". Rather, Suqiu and others who have problems of an ethnic nature should "go to representatives of the Chinese community in the government at state or national levels...Go and talk to them quietly" (New Sunday Times 24 Sept 2000).

Ling Liong Sik, MCA's chief, who on the eve of the 1999 elections had boldly stated that Suqiu "was not a threat" and that the principles underlying the appeals were "universal" and "can be accepted by all", now sang a different tune. "Don't be extreme in your demands", "Listen to the PM", he now exhorted. "The PM's advice is pertinent, mature and borne out of his vast experience in governing the country" (The Star 25 Sept 2000).

Meanwhile, the MCA Youth chief declared that the Suqiu represented the feelings of "certain individuals and not that of the entire Chinese community" (New Straits Times, 20 August 2000), thereby contradicting what Ling, his boss, had stated a year ago when he said that the Appeal represented "99% of the Malaysian Chinese." Lapse of memory? Or was it because the elections were over?

Ethnic relations must be handled with care. No one is suggesting that "aggressive" approaches be undertaken. But is talking to government representatives the solution?

When you think through this recent unsavoury episode, and when you recall how the BN parties did not hesitate to fan racial sentiments in the 1999 elections, you begin to wonder: what's the point? At any rate, as the MCA's volte face (turn around) in this Suqiu episode indicates, they are prone to promise a lot, and then do just the opposite. The BN parties love to declare that the opposition parties are: "All Talk, No Action". In this case, the BN parties might be accused of cakap tak serupa bikin, or, "to say one thing and to do another".

Working Together

What is the alternative? It is significant that while UMNO was whipping up these ethnic sentiments, the BA leaders were organising their Forum Perpaduan (unity forum). Thus far, public meetings have been held in Seremban, Penang and Kuala Lumpur.

However, many of us prefer to be non-partisan. But that does not mean we should not take a stand on issues. More Malaysians should join their counterparts of other ethnic and religious backgrounds and work towards the promotion of human rights, the women's agenda for change and environmental protection. We should be in the forefront of the struggle for monthly wages and improved working conditions for estate workers, and stronger housing rights for urban pioneers.

We should throw our collective weight behind the citizen's health initiative, which is fighting for affordable and improved health services. The more artistically inclined among us should try to create an alternative theatre and popular culture. We should also try to initiate alternative educational programmes and to promote dialogue with people of other faiths based on universal spiritual values.

All these efforts will tie us together and make it harder for desperate politicians to stoke racial fires. Undoubtedly, they will also promote the social and political change that Malaysians of all ethnic and religious backgrounds desire - and deserve.