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Challenging times for new Malaysia

Photograph: Asyraf Rasid/The Sun Daily

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The fact that peace finally prevailed after the Subang Jaya temple incidents and during the anti-Icerd rally shows that the new Malaysia is on course, says Johan Saravanamuttu.

As the Pakatan Harapan government enters its eighth month, two recent events have been highly troubling for the narrative of “new Malaysia”.

The first was the fracas and rioting at the Sri Maha Mariamman Temple in Subang Jaya on 26-27 November which saw the torching of about 23 cars, the vandalising of a building and the severe injury inflicted on a fireman.

So far, about 99 persons have been detained in the probe of the various incidents. We can take some solace that what initially sparked the rioting was probably orchestrated by a developer and was not the spontaneous actions of ordinary folks. The prime minister was also quick to point out that ‘race’ was not the true factor behind the fracas.

The second troubling event, which I will focus on, was the anti-human rights demonstration held at Dataran Merdeka on 8 December. The large turnout at the rally to oppose the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination may have surprised many. Those unfamiliar with Malaysia may find it puzzling why some 50,000 people would demonstrate against a convention aimed at eliminating “all forms of racial discrimination”.

Malaysia has been lagging behind most countries in signing up to the human rights conventions of the United Nations. Before the change of government in 2018, Malaysia was signatory to only three core conventions, namely, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

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The Malaysian human rights movement has long advocated ratifying all the core human rights conventions and Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah was ready to oblige. As noted by Denison Jayasuria, only Malaysia and Brunei count among the 57 countries of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation that had not ratified the convention against racial discrimination.

But the plan to ratify the convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (Icerd)convention sparked a major protest. It may be too easy to just blame it on ethnic baiting and opportunism of the Islamic party and the machinations of a denuded Umno seeking some sort of revival.

Indeed, the original idea was to protest against Malaysia’s intention to ratify the convention but after the government demurred from signing the convention, the call to protest did not cease or dissipate.

Many reports of the rally showed that most participants may have been somewhat clueless as to what “Icerd” stood for. But for the many who showed up, albeit allegedly incentivised by the generous allowances given, they were clearly persuaded that the rally was held to protect Malay culture, rights and traditions and the institution of the Malay rulers. For good measure, the threat to Islamic ‘values’ and practices was also thrown into this mix.

At the end of the day, “Icerd” was the mere ‘signifier’ not the ‘signified’ of the protests, which tapped deep into the veins of a right-wing and ethno-religious opposition to the new Malaysia.

The question that arises is whether the PH government was too quick to jettison a progressive policy and to cave in under attack from right-wing Malay groups. Viewed soberly, the anti-Icerd rally represents the emergence of a counter-narrative to the new Malaysia by the supposed new opposition of Pas-Umno.

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But can it be sustained? Two factors suggest otherwise:

  • a collapsing Umno, which is fast losing its Sabah base
  • the long-term unsustainability of Pas as a national party without a non-Muslim partnership

In my view, both parties represent the subsiding embers of the old politics. They may die hard but they will surely encounter the rising voices of the new Malaysia, represented no better than in this video by the rap group Music Kitchen.

In truth, many Malays did not participate in the protest rally and many more continued to celebrate with their non-Malaysian friends, comrades and associates the trajectory of ‘new politics’.

This same new politics brought about the collapse of the forces of the old politics and gave rise to the narrative of a new Malaysia. These new forces of progress will not dissipate easily and may have even surreptitiously infected the Pas-Umno political rally. Cast in a positive light, the anti-ICERD rally could even be seen as a triumph of a new threshold of peaceful assembly and freedom of speech.

The struggle for the new Malaysia remains one that is complex and still hugely challenging in Malaysia’s multicultural society. The ascendance of the Pakatan Harapan government and its narrative of the new Malaysia remains a massive undertaking for progressive forces. What must be heartening ultimately for many is that ethnic peace has prevailed despite these two deeply troubling events.

I would like to end this newsletter with my observations of the 2018 George Town Literary Festival on 22-25 November. The panels, readings, conversations and various events during the festival saw refreshing discussions of contemporary issues by international and local literary personalities, commentators and activists. For me, the event provided a corrective to the negative lurches in our trajectory towards a new Malaysia.

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Curated by ‘woke millennials’ and basically driven by their enthusiasm and participation, the festival programme ended with the National Poetry Slam. Twelve finalists, forward-looking young Malaysians of various ethnic communities, participated, their inspiring poetry providing a trenchant critique of the dying throes of the old politics. The winner was one who celebrated the new Malaysia but critiqued it for its failure to come to grips with the question of sexual orientation.

Many new issues continue to challenge and confront the new Malaysia. Despite our worst fears, the fact that peace finally prevailed after the Subang Jaya temple incidents and that no undesired incidents occurred at the Dataran Merdeka protests shows that the new Malaysia is on course.

Johan Saravanamuttu
Co-editor, Aliran newsletter
12 December 2018

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