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Racializing the Un-racializable: What is the Red Shirt Rally All About?




Following the Red-Shirt rally in Kuala Lumpur on Sept 16, discussions have been rife that the government of Prime Minister Najib Razak was “playing the racial card” to bolster support and to distract the public, especially its Malay supporters, from distressing issues at hand.

It is true that the demonstration was a purely Malay rally, but what is essential to note is that while the initial impulse to organise it came from people who were undoubtedly trying to highlight and deepen the racial divide, by the time the event did take place, much of that had been deftly turned into a show of support for the beleaguered prime minister by his staunchest followers.

In the end, few incidents took place, and the riot police did not have much trouble keeping rowdy demonstrators at bay, who were symbolically trying to get into the city’s Chinatown.

This is an important point to highlight. The racialising did not spread.

The demonstration was an angry reaction by Mr Najib supporters to the anti-Najib Bersih 4.0 rally that took place on 29-30 August. Notwithstanding the huge turnout at that two-day event, some mass media outlets had focused on the proportionately low number of Malay participants at the Bersih rally.

This in sadly typical of Malaysian journalism, in fact—whatever happens, look for the racial aspect first.

What should be read out of this is that the Bersih Movement has been very successful in achieving its main long-term goal. This is not so much electoral reforms as the gradual shifting of the national discourse away from persistent racial issues over to a passion for democratic governance instead.

Ever since it was formed by a large group of civil society organisations and opposition parties, Bersih [short for Gabungan Pilihanraya Bersih dan Adil—the Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections] has relied for support on its non-racial agenda of electoral reforms.

The latest version of its reforms are (1) free and fair elections; (2) a clean government; (3) the right to dissent; (4) strengthening parliamentary democracy and (5) saving the Malaysian economy. These are generally so technical and generic in nature that one would be hard put to turn them into racial issues.

This was in essence what the red shirts tried to do. They were not simply expressing Malay anger, not simply demanding respect for Malays and not simply standing up to perceived threats from non-Malays. And they were not simply showing support for Mr Najib. They were most essentially trying to racialise something quite un-racialisable.

After the first Bersih rally in 2007, the opposition parties, on gaining control of several state governments, decided not to be directly involved in the movement. This led to the forming of the organisation, Bersih 2.0, which has since organised three more rallies, in 2011, 2012 and most recently in August 2015.

In all of the first three rallies, race did not manifest itself because the support was across the board. All communities were supporting them, and that explains the picnic atmosphere that has come to characterise these rallies. What made Bersih 4.0 different was that it came at a time when Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS) and the Democratic Action Party (DAP), two of the three opposition parties in the now defunct Pakatan Rakyat coalition had fallen out with each other. This led to PAS members being discouraged from attending the rally. What was more, throughout the last 18 years, the Chinese community had been slower in taking to the streets; and when they finally did that in full force, it was exactly when PAS supporters were least enthusiastic.

If one wishes to, one could explain the racial pattern of participation at Bersih 4.0, to a large extent, simply as a result of inter-party conflict. What that pattern allowed though, was for its opponents to finally put a racial stamp on the movement—Bersih is a non-Malay effort!

What was more, since Bersih 4.0 was called in reaction to the recent highly dubious methods used to close options for forcing the prime minister out of power, the low participation of Malays seemed to offer Mr Najib’s supporters a way to present public disapproval of him as something racially informed.

This attempt caused much confusion. There are at least two reasons for this. Firstly, Bersih 4.0 had showcased all the inclusive symbols of nationalism and patriotism its supporters could think of in order to enhance its demands for clean governance; and apparently, the Malay participation was not negligible at all. Secondly, the events that had led to the present crisis of governance all had to do with suspicious electoral practices and financial maladministration.

Calls for Mr Najib’s resignation have for months been coming from the UMNO leadership and from Malay leaders in general, as much as they had from non-Malay Malaysians and even foreigners.The dissatisfaction with the administration is therefore widespread, cutting across many boundaries.

As things look now, the attempt to racialize public demands for Najib to step down has been too palpably ungrounded to work.

Ooi Kee Beng is the Deputy Director of ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute. His most recent books include Young and Malay; Merdeka for the Mind; and The Eurasian Core: Dialogues with Wang Gungwu on the History of the World.


About Ooi Kee Beng

Dr OOI KEE BENG is the Executive Director of Penang Institute (George Town, Penang, Malaysia). He was born and raised in Penang, and was the Deputy Director of ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute (formerly the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, ISEAS). He is the founder-editor of the Penang Monthly (published by Penang Institute), ISEAS Perspective (published by ISEAS) and ISSUES (published by Penang Institute). He is also editor of Trends in Southeast Asia, and a columnist for The Edge, Malaysia.


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