Political Tsunami in Malaysia


By S.K. Pillai – Syndicate FeaturesMalaysia had a surprise election result, the Barison Nasional dropped down from its overwhelming control of Parliament to a simple majority. Additionally, the alliance was voted out in five important states. The results have brought into the open the strong discontent among the ethnic minorities – the Chinese and Indians as well a loss of support among the Malays.Four years ago, Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi had obtained a record mandate in 2004, winning 91 per cent of the seats in Parliament with 64 per cent of total votes polled. Badawi’s was the clean new face; he was seen as a progressive who had promised to clean up the administration of crony capitalism and corruption that had crept in during the 22-year long reign of Mahathir Mohammad. Adding insult to injury, Mahathir Mohamad, who chose Badawi as his successor, is among the Malaysian leaders who have called for Badawi’s resignation.

Prime Minister Badawi’s United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) is the main constituent of the 14-member Barison Nasional, which has been in power ever since the country gained independence five decades ago. UNMO had tied up a coalition of the main ethnic groups and interests. It brought stability and harmony to the society. Of late, that linkage has broken down. The ethnic minorities have begun feeling that the harmony has been brought at their expense. In addition to the racial issues, such factors as inflation also seem to have contributed to the ruling Front’s defeat. However, Badawi, who announced multi-billion dollar projects to tackle rural poverty when he took over the reins of power five years ago, has refused to step down.

The most surprising was the defeat of Works Minister, Samy Vellu, head of the Malaysia Indian Congress, who was perceived as the leader of the Indian community. Samy Vellu lost the seat that he had held for almost three decades. The Indian dissatisfaction with the government erupted last year during the protests organized by Hindu Rights Action Front (Hindraf), when the government rattled by a large opposition rally two weeks earlier used strong police action against the demonstrators.

Hindraf was not a registered party and its three candidates including its leader M Manoharan, who has been in jail for four months, contested on the ticket of other opposition parties. They have won the elections by handsome margins.

The opposition had a total of just 19 seats in the outgoing parliament. This time around, the People’s Justice Party, the Chinese dominated Democratic Action party and conservative Muslim Malay party, PAS, entered the fray as an alliance promising racial equality and a clean and transparent government. They reaped rich dividends. People’s Justice Party found strong support among the urban middle class and won 31 seats. Many ethnic Chinese and Indians voted for the opposition.

Ethnic minorities form more than 30 per cent of the population but have never been seen as critical factor in any election because of the grand alliance under the Barison Nasional. Aside from the vote of the minorities UNMO had lost the support of ethnic Malays as shown by the defeat in the provinces and the embarrassing defeat of two Malay members of the cabinet.

The minorities have chaffed at the government’s affirmative action policies that reserves the major part of government jobs, education opportunities, housing and even credit for business enterprises to the Malays – the bhumiputras (sons of the soil). At the time of independence, the Malays were a backward community and required assistance to bring them at par with the economically dominant Chinese community. Malay rights form the basic tenet of Malaysian ethos since independence. However, the long years of the affirmative policies had brought the Malays into a dominant position and the Indians had been feeling deprived of government support. As a part of official policy, government resources were directed at the Malays and the Indians felt that even funds for education for Indians were limited, resulting in poor educational facilities.

Malaysia’s economy has been booming, but there is high income disparity and high inflation rates have been hurting the poorer sections. With Malays as the dominant section, the Chinese economically powerful, the ethnic Indians feel disadvantaged and marginalized. The low, simmering discontent was intensified in the recent times with conflicts revolving around religion. The Hindraf had taken up the issue of destruction of Hindu temples in the name of development. Scores of small temples were demolished for road widening and other developmental activities in the recent years.

At the same time, the Islamic resurgence in the country has worried the other religious groups, especially with the tendency of Shariah law being imposed in matters relating to the non-Muslims. The incident about the funeral rites for noted sportsman, M Moorthy had disturbed the Hindus who form the majority of the Indian community. Muslim groups claimed that Moorthy had converted to Islam before his death, and despite protests of his widow who denied that Moorthy had converted, his funeral took place as per Islamic practices.

The Christians have been disturbed by the recent government decree that the word “Allah” could only be used by Muslims. In the Malay language, “Allah” has been used to mean any god and the Christians say that they have used the word in their churches for centuries. The two incidents have brought the main non-Muslim groups, the Hindus and Christians together in their belief that there religious rights are being curtailed. The religious minorities see a disquieting trend of dominance by the Muslim clergy that has tended to erode the constitutional guarantee of equal treatment in Malaysia.

The international reaction to the repressive measures adopted to disperse the Hindraf demonstrators severely embarrassed the government though some ministers took umbrage to statements by political leaders in India. It was shortly thereafter that the Malaysian government announced that it would not give any more work visas to Indians.

Indian expatriates form a large worker population in Malaysia, doing hi-tech professional work as well as menial jobs. The government action was against Indian nationals but it was seen as a retaliatory move by the Malaysian Indians, further alienating them from the ruling party. Voting in the elections has shown the extent of alienation of the minorities, and the new Malaysian government will need to take effective steps to stem that feeling of marginalization among the minorities.

– Syndicate Features –


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