Malaysian Red Shirts, forces of deep-seated fear of democracy

  • <Interview : Dr.Wong Chin Huat>

“The fundamental challenge for Bersih (reform movement) then is to convince the nationalist Malays that democracy is good for them and they should be brave enough to believe in their numbers”  Dr.Wong Chin Huat  

Editor’s Note : I’ve recently interviewed Dr. Wong Chin Huat, one of the few decent political commentators in Malaysia and also Fellow and Head of Political and Social Analysis Section of Penang Institute. In this interview, he has discussed about the Malaysia’s racial politics and the newly formed opposition alliance that was launched on September 22. Dr. Wong has been significantly quoted in my latest story published by <Hankyoreh21>, weekly magazine in South Korea dealing with the subject. Here is the excerpt.

All rights reserved © Lee Yu Kyung 2015


Lee Yu Kyung : There was a press conference by the new opposition alliance called ‘Pakatan Harapan’ on September 22. Critics have commented that the alliance has no substantial contents to announce, but only that the jailed leader Anwar Ibrahim will be the next Prime Minister if the opposition would come into power. Also there has been ongoing dispute among the allied parties and Parti Socialist Malaysia (or PSM) in terms of the Article 153. Given the all complexities, what is your take on the Coalition..?

Dr.Wong : Coordination amongst opposition parties can take two forms: [a] a cohesive coalition with substantial consensus on what they would do and would not do when coming into power ; [b] an electoral pact to coordinate contestation against the government parties, for example, avoiding multi cornered fights. Pakatan Rakyat (former alliance) broke down because the parties could not agree on Syariah criminal laws.

The new coalition with three parties can and do aim to be a cohesive coalition. With Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party or PAS – unless it drops its stand on Syariah criminal laws, the new grouping will only be an electoral pact. And component members may fight after coming into power.

Three opposition coalitions (in the past) – Gagasan Rakyat + Angkatan Perpaduan Ummah (formed 1990), Barisan Alternatif (formed 1999) and Pakatan Rakyat (formed after 2008) all have broken up over the same issue, the PAS agenda to change Malaysia’s secular nature. A marriage of convenience with PAS will repeat the same outcome – will middle-ground voters buy it? I think it’s even hard to achieve a full electoral pact with PAS because PAS will take on Amanah (breakaway faction from PAS and one of the three parties of ‘Pakatan Harapan’) over the constituencies they traditionally contest.

LEE : However, many have pointed out that regime change would be very difficult without having PAS in the opposition alliance. PAS has shown capability of mobilizing grassroots and enjoying mass support, hasn’t it?

Dr.Wong : In terms of support, PAS was very much a (rural based) East Coast party before 1999 and also in 2004. It becomes a recognizable force in (urban based) West Coast thanks to two waves – the reformasi wave in 1999 and the (opposition’s electoral) ‘tsunami’ in 2008 (*). Hence, one should not equate rural anti-opposition Malays as PAS. Amanah is rather strong in west coast states south of Kedah.

LEE : Amanah group, the splinter faction from PAS, has been distinguished as “progressive” comparing to the mainstream PAS. What aspect of the group can be said “progressive”..? Is there any fundamental difference between PAS and Amanah at all?

Dr.Wong  : The fundamental difference between the Hadi faction (i.e. PAS) and the pro-Pakatan (alliance) faction (i.e. Amanah) was on their attitude to coalition politics and ultimately the nation-state. Hadi Awang, the leader of PAS, made his famous Amanat Awang (Awang’s Doctrine) in 1981, which includes this : “We fight Barisan Nasional (the ruling alliance) not because they are long in power. We fight BN because they preserve the colonialists’ constitution, the infidel laws and the pre-Islamic rules.”

(As) a Muslim nationalist yearning to restore his imagined pre-colonial Muslim state, Hadi is fundamentally opposed to the nature of the post-colonial state. Islamic state and its milder manifestation of Syariah criminal law are the natural pursuits under this line of thinking, which justifies PAS’ antagonism with UMNO.

The pro-Pakatan faction did not want to challenge Hadi ideologically during their party election. They played safe, hoping to convince the party grassroots with pragmatic appeals of winning power through Pakatan. But failing to establish the theological merit of inclusive politics, they would be wiped out. Now as a party bound to fight PAS, ideological differentiation becomes important (for Amanah). They are slowly moving to position themselves as universal Islamists versus PAS as Muslim nationalists. Through their NGO allies, they are inviting Tunisia’s Islamist former Premier Rachid Ghannouchi to Malaysia next month to cushion that ideological shift. Tunisia passed a secular Constitution under Ghannouchi last January.

PAS’s Muslim nationalism is fueled not only by religious conservatism but more so Malays’ resentment of their economic backwardness (despite 45 years of positive discrimination under the New Economic Policy, NEP) and fear of weaker position should the opposition come into power. Amanah is framed as the lackey of the Chinese. For Amanah to survive, there must be a clear position on post-NEP policy from the new coalition. The new coalition must prove that change will benefit Malays.

LEE : Let’s talk about the ‘Red Shirts’ and Racial politics. Who do you see Red Shirts are or who is really behind force of them (with proof as much as possible)..?

Dr.Wong : Red Shirts are far right factions in United Malays National Organisation (or UMNO). UMNO once outsourced the task of Malay ultra-nationalism to Perkasa and Malaysian Muslim Solidarity (or ISMA). Perkasa and similar groups organized rowdy protests against opposition parties (mainly DAP) and opposition-run state governments with effective immunity. Red shirts are enjoying the same condoning by the authorities. This is not one single organization but a broad umbrella grouping with different heads. One of them is former Malacca Chief Minister Mohd Rustam Ali who leads a Malay martial art group. Some UMNO leaders like deputy minister and Najib loyalist Ahmad Maslan was there on the Sept 16 rally. But the most (in)famous one is of course Jamal Yunus who is a chief of UMNO division (corresponding to a parliamentary constituency). The task is changed from Perkasa to UMNO ultras because Perkasa is following Mahathir, who paid visit to the ‘Bersih 4’ rally twice. Najib who toyed with a liberal image at the beginning of his premiership now realized that he needed his own ultras, who would defend him. Hence, Najib’s explicit defense of Red Shirts.

LEE : Are you concerned that Reds Shirts would be gaining more power that is to bring violence at last? Or would they get sunk themselves sooner or later..?

Dr.Wong : Are the Red Shirts inclined to violence? Here’s where Najib is caught. His father as Deputy Prime Minister used the 1969 ethnic riot to force his boss Tunku into early retirement. But he was not directly involved in instigating the riot, hence legitimate enough to play the stabliser’s role(**). Harun, the Selangor Chief Minister did the dirty. Had the 916 (Red Shirts) rally turned into a ‘513 riot’, Najib himself would likely be Tunku (the Prime Minister in 1969), while his deputy Zahid who controls the police is more likely to be seen as Harun rather than (senior) Razak, Najib’s father and Deputy PM in 1969. In other words, it does not serve Najib or Zahid well to see a 513.

So what’s the real strategic goal of the red shirts? It’s to cause fear and extract some concessions from either the authorities or the Chinese community out of fear. (The Red Shirts leader) Jamal Yunus wants the Petaling Street Chinese traders to relinquish some of their businesses for the Malays. If they get their way, they will be able to claim applause as Malay champions and put down the Malay-based opposition for kowtowing to the Chinese.

LEE : What about the Article 153 and ‘Bumiputera’ thing..? The Article has been said to protect ‘Bumiputeras’, thus ‘indigenous’ people in Malaysia. But I think we must check the reality precisely, in which I found highly sensitive nature of the Article. The Article seems almost ‘untouchable’.  Even as opposition parties denounce ‘racism’ and ‘racial politics’, they do not consider ‘need of amendment of Article 153’, let alone denouncing it.

Dr.Wong : Article 153 reads “special status for the Malays and the natives of the states of Sabah and Sarawak”. It covers privileged access by the Malays and the natives of Sabah and Sarawak in three aspects – education, public sector employment and business licensing. Nothing was changed to the Article 153 after 1969 but questioning it has been criminalized by the Sedition Act. The extensive ‘positive discrimination’ favoring the Malays and the Bornean natives under the NEP — covering equity ownership and house purchase — goes way beyond Article 153.

To identify the beneficiary, Articles 160 and 161A define both the Malays and the Sabah and Sarawak natives. The Bornean natives are defined by bloodlines. In contrast, A Malay is defined by four elements: (a) professing Islam; (b) habitually speaking Malay; (c) observing Malay customs and (d) geographical origin in Malaya and Singapore. None is about bloodlines. In fact, the geographical origin is forgotten for all purposes. The other three – with almost exclusive emphasis on Islam – is all behaviorial. You can be a Malay by changing your behaviors – most obviously, by converting to Islam, PENDING on official approval. In that sense, if Bornean natives are clans, Malays are a club. The Article 153 and NEP privileges are the benefit that draws membership for the club — which is represented by UMNO of course. In practice, Malays or Muslim natives are privileged over other natives. Hence, there is an incentive for Muslim natives to even identify themselves as Malays. Politically, many Muslim natives in Sabah and Sarawak call themselves as Malays, when they are ethnically others.

LEE : Where do you see Bersih movement among rural Malays population, as the movement appears urban based..? Any ground work by Bersih in rural area..?

I think the ultimate obstacle to Bersih’s support is not ruralness or information gap. Many urban Malaysians like to think that a corrupt regime can only be supported by people who are ignorant. They are blinded by self-righteousness or arrogance. It is perfectly rational to support a corrupt regime if you believe the corrupt regime helps you more than others.

UMNO’s core support comes from its very targeted ethnic-based patronage system. Many Malays simply fear the uncertainty once UMNO is voted out. That’s why they reject (opposition) Pakatan in fear. While Bersih is non-partisan and does not intend to contest (the election), it is still seen as a threat by Malay nationalists. They are not confident if the Malays’ communal interests will be taken care of after corrupt Malay leaders are winnowed out in clean elections. Rather well captured by the red shirts, they feel angry why the non-Malays dared to ask Najib to step down in Bersih 4. For them, any political change must be initiated by the Malays only. This is a deep-seated fear of democracy.

It is ironical because democracy is a number game and normally only minority fear for democracy to turn into a tyranny of majority. The fundamental challenge for Bersih (movement) then is to convince the nationalist Malays that democracy is good for them and they should be brave enough to believe in their numbers.


* ‘East Coast’ in Penisular Malaysia refers to largely rural based states including PAS’s stronghold Kelantan with more Malay and Muslim. Whereas ‘West Coast’ is more urban based and developed states in Peninsular such as Kuala Lumpur, Penang and Putrajaya.

** Kua Kia Soong, author of <May 13 – Declassified Documents on the Malaysian Riots of 1969>has indicated, however, far more active role by senior Razak, who was deputy Prime Minister in 1969. In the said book, the author wrote : “These documents (the declassified documents from the Public Record Office and foreign correspondents’ dispatchs) also show Razak was in complete control from the start of the riots and with the emergency in place, had a free hand in planning the post-1969 political makeup with the backing of the armed forces”.

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