Updated: June 12, 2019 04:59 AM GMT
Malaysia's Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad adjusts his headset during a press conference in Tokyo, Japan, on May 30. Malaysians are hoping Mahathir can restore trust and confidence in a new Malaysia. (Photo by Behrouz Mehri/AFP)
Among the democracies of the Association of South East Asian Nations, Malaysia stands out for the entitlements it grants to one group of citizens and for its open acknowledgment that hard trade-offs are needed to secure fairer distribution of the nation’s wealth.
When Malaysia’s leaders made the pledge 50 years ago after race riots to grant privileged treatment to the ethnic Malay majority and indigenous groups, it seemed a good idea at the time. The majority were ill-equipped to compete and needed a leg up.
A disproportionate share of jobs or educational places was allocated to the Malay majority and indigenous groups with the aim of correcting earlier wrongs and to fast-track improvements to their living standards compared to the minority ethnic Chinese and Indian Malaysians.
Today the effects of that decision are keenly felt. The social and economic programs drawn up and tweaked over years in the name of affirmative action are recognized as the root of the corruption and cronyism poisoning Malaysian society.
Policy wonks and rights campaigners now agree that a dangerous line had been crossed which sent a bad signal in the name of correcting social and economic inequalities and that the principle of justice and fairness for all had been violated.
Indeed, last year the country seemed on the verge of breakdown. Corruption was rampant, the economy was shot, the nation faced mounting debts, the major communities in the multi-ethnic country distrusted each other and Islamic radicalism was growing.
A year on, with the long-ruling Barisan Nasional coalition ousted from power by disillusioned voters and the nation getting back on track, the grassroots ethnic Malay population again fear for their future. They believe Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad’s reform-minded alliance government is chipping away at their “special” identity and are demanding continuation of the status quo.
Liberalism and human rights have taken on a dark meaning for hard-line Malay conservative groups. They are challenging the government's contention that the perks they enjoy and the special position of Islam and the Malay royalty will not be diluted by endorsing the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination.
The government blames opposition politicians for creating confusion in the minds of the people that its decision to join the International Criminal Court negates the rights of the Malays.
Ethnic and religious tensions
Observers note that, just as they did 50 years ago, some are again attempting to exploit the insecurities of the majority by claiming Islam, the state religion, is under attack. They believe Islamic “cultural practices” are at odds with any liberal understanding of rights. The answer to this perceived affront is to reinforce the old idea of Malay supremacy.
Some royalty have supported the revolt against government plans to sign the United Nations human rights accord against racial discrimination that would bring the multicultural, Muslim-majority southeast Asian nation in line with the rest of the world, highlighting the challenges facing reformists.
They point to a land tussle over the relocation of a Hindu temple that spiraled out of control last year and refueled ethnic and religious tensions. The death of a Malay firefighter in that incident has proven incendiary. With an ongoing inquest into the cause of his death in danger of pitting Muslims against Hindus, some now believe the incident to have been an attempt to inflame tensions and provoke communal rioting and weaken Mahathir’s reformist government.
Malaysian police are concerned. They have warned how Muslim radicals with links to the so-called Islamic State have attempted to use the tragedy to justify attacks against the nation’s Christian, Hindu and Buddhist places of worship.
The initial euphoria of the change in government has been tempered by the realization that social reform is some way off. A series of by-election losses has also dampened enthusiasm to confront right-wing groups who appear to have gained support from some of Malaysia’s royal houses.
There is also concern that some government leaders are pandering to the baser instincts of the majority by expressing support for the “Malay agenda” or, more bluntly, Malay supremacy or dominance for their political survival.
All this horrifies government supporters who see it as an attempt to slow Malaysia’s push towards a fairer and more democratic nation.
Malaysians are hoping Mahathir can restore trust and confidence in a new Malaysia. On the first day of the Eid al-Fitr celebrations on June 6, the prime minister apologized for failing to live up to campaign vows and bring off key reforms.
But he added words of encouragement. “In this country, we live peacefully and celebrate together the festivals of all races,” he told thousands who attended the festive gathering hosted by him and his cabinet ministers in the nation’s administrative capital Putrajaya.
At 93 years of age and against all odds, Mahathir has managed to convince Malaysians that he has turned over a new leaf. That’s encouragement enough for advocates of human rights mulling over setbacks to reform. Malaysians should continue to fight against oppression in the name of universal rights.
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