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Political goals overshadow responsible governance in Malaysia

Confidence in law enforcement is dipping due to the federal government’s inaction and slow response from police
KK Super Mart in Malaysia is facing public ire despite issuing a public apology after a controversy over the sale of Chinese-imported socks printed with the word 'Allah' that sparked a call for a boycott of the store.

KK Super Mart in Malaysia is facing public ire despite issuing a public apology after a controversy over the sale of Chinese-imported socks printed with the word 'Allah' that sparked a call for a boycott of the store. (Photo: KK Super Mart/Facebook)

Published: April 15, 2024 04:07 AM GMT
Updated: April 15, 2024 06:33 AM GMT

It started as an outburst by a political leader over socks that had designs resembling the name Allah in Arabic calligraphy on March 13, followed by a call for a boycott of an ethnic Chinese-owned convenience store chain that carried the socks.

Muhamad Akmal Saleh was understandably angry, and the matter could have ended when Chai Kee Kan, founder and executive chairman of the KK Mart Group, apologized publicly twice. It was clear that it was a mistake with no malicious intent.

Within three weeks the boycott calls escalated to incitement of violence, and then there were petrol bomb attacks on two of the stores owned by the KK Mart Group and an attempted attack on another.

Malaysians were holding their breath and wondering at what point the federal government would intervene and stop the attempt to turn what seemed to be an honest mistake into a full-blown clash against “those bent on destroying Islam” as claimed by the politician Akmal.

To this day there has been no action from the federal government.

Other politicians and community leaders admonished Umno youth leader Akmal for going too far. Former Umno youth leader Khairy Jamaluddin publicly told Akmal that he had made his point and that it was time for him to stand down.

 "Better to die standing than live kneeling"

The United Malays National Organisation (Umno) is one of the component parties in the ruling coalition. Party president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, who is also the deputy prime minister, said that Akmal was told to “handle the matter courteously.

It is not known what “handle the matter courteously” meant and why he did not censure Akmal when his hate speech grew stronger and more frequent, and when he posted a photo of him on Facebook with a Japanese sword on March 14.

The photo itself was not the issue but the caption was menacing. It said, “No matter what, we will not waver from our stance. Better to die standing than live kneeling.”

It was regarded as an act by Akmal, and by extension Umno, to incite racial tensions. It was also a grim reminder of two of the darkest moments in Malaysian history.

One was the Malay-Chinese race riots on May 13, 1969, which is the bloodiest incident to date. The official death toll was 196, but some say the figure could have been 600. To this day, the May 13 riots are being used by Malay nationalists and Muslim conservatives as a bogeyman to cow down non-Muslims.

The other was when then Umno youth leader Najib Razak in 1987 brandished a keris, a traditional Malay dagger, and allegedly said he would bathe it with Chinese blood. This added to the racial tension which was one of the triggers in Operation Lalang, a major crackdown on politicians and activists who opposed the then-prime minister Mahathir Mohamad. Umno was then the main party in the ruling coalition.

Akmal insists that his is a call for a boycott to ensure Islam is respected by all, and that he was not creating racial tension or inciting violence.

However, many see his actions as being endorsed by his party and that they are using this issue to stop the hemorrhaging of Muslim-Malay support, and regain support lost in the last few years.

"It was as though political goals were overshadowing responsible governance"

Muslim-Malay support tends to swing towards those who are deemed to be defenders of Islam and the Malay race. The opposition bloc is now regarded as such.

It is unlikely that Akmal acted independently. In Umno and many other political parties, the leaders of the youth wing relay the party's thoughts and sentiments on highly sensitive matters. The senior leaders usually remain silent in the background and gauge the situation.

The public is criticizing Ahmad Zahid and Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim for allowing him to continue fueling mass fear. It was as though political goals were overshadowing responsible governance.

Initially, the police also remained in the background, saying Akmal was not being investigated because no police report was made against him. The police do not see that his actions are a threat to peace.

The inaction of the federal government and the slow response by the police is causing confidence in law enforcement to dip. The predominantly Chinese business community is walking on eggshells wondering when their businesses will be targeted.

Then came the petrol bomb attacks. The first two involved stores in peninsula Malaysia. The first incident was a failed one in Bidor on March 26. In the second incident, a bomb was thrown at the entrance of the store in the east coast city of Kuantan on March 29.

The third incident was at Easter (March 31) at a store in Kuching, the capital of Sarawak.

It came as a surprise to many because the states of Sarawak and Sabah are known for their ethno-religious harmony.

Christian-majority Sarawak was now dragged into the peninsula’s ethno-religious conflict. The two Malaysian Borneo states do not get involved in peninsula race politics and squabbles, but the attack got both states up in arms.

Sarawak politicians, the chamber of commerce and activists condemned the attack and called for police to act fast. It was as if the whole state spoke in one loud voice.

Veteran Sabah politician Wilfred Tangau referred to the bomb attacks as domestic terrorism.

Ironically, it was the police in his home state that acted. On April 5, Akmal was detained for questioning by the Sabah police the moment he landed at the airport in Kota Kinabalu, the state capital. He was later released.

He is being investigated under the Sedition Act 1948 and the Communications and Multimedia Act 1998. No other details were given by the police.

The police investigation and the audience with the King after that probably made him take a step back. The King told him and his Umno leaders, and a representative from the Chinese-based Democratic Action Party, to focus on unity.

The King, and Sabah and Sarawak states have done what the federal government did not — to avert a racial disaster that looked set to happen.

*The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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