Monday, June 11, 2012


MALAYSIA: Requiem for Democracy?

Kuala Lumpur: "Democracy is dead in this country. It died at the hands of the opposition parties who triggered off the events leading to this violence."

Such was the epitaph delivered last week by Tun Dr Ismail, Malaysia's new Minister for Home Affairs, after the worst racial rioting the country has ever experienced. Hatreds flared up in Kuala Lumpur on the evening of May 13, and by early this week, the official number of dead stood at 137, with more than 300 injured, hundreds of houses gutted and scores of vehicles burnt.

In the early hours of Sunday last week, it had become obvious that the ruling Alliance Party had received a major setback in the general election although it had managed to retain a simple parliamentary majority. Penang had been lost to the Gerakan Party; Kelantan had been held by the PMIP (Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party), and the Alliance was struggling to retain control of Perak and Selangor.

The Alliance had almost certainly lost its old two-thirds majority which had enabled it to amend the Constitution; three of its ministers and two parliamentary secretaries had lost their seats; its share of the valid votes had dropped by 9% since 1964 to 49%; and it faced the prospect of a vociferous and effective (largely Chinese-based) Opposition in the Federal Parliament for the first time since Independence.

Foreign correspondents in Kuala Lumpur who had observed the elections filed despatches praising the Malaysian democratic process and predicting five years of peace, prosperity and more efficient government. The Tunku's initial reaction was naturally one of disappointment, but he conceded that the people had wanted a strong opposition, which they had now got.

Exultant supporters of the Democratic Action Party and the Gerakan filled the capital's streets on Sunday and Monday night with their flag-waving cavalcades of vehicles. Their delight in breaking the Alliance's myth of invincibility inevitably irritated Malay supporters of the Government. Malays were also alarmed by boasts that the Chinese had now achieved some measure of political power.

By 2pm on Tuesday, the MCA (Malaysian Chinese Association), which had suffered badly at the polls, announced that it would withdraw from the Cabinet while remaining within the Alliance. Tun Razak pronounced sentence on the Chinese voters who had been warned before the elections that unless they voted MCA, they would forfeit all Chinese representation in the Government. At UMNO (United Malay National Organisation) headquarters in Batu Road, the feeling was that democracy had gone too far -- in other words, that the political hegemony of the Malays, papered over in the Alliance by the multi-racial front of MCA and MIC (Malaysian Indian Congress), was in real danger. A non-Malay Mentri Besar in both Selangor and Perak seemed dangerously likely.

Late on Tuesday afternoon, young Malays from the whole of Selangor began to assemble outside the residence of the Selangor Mentri Besar, Dato Harun. A retaliatory march had been planned by the UMNO youth to end in a rally at Suleiman Court near Batu Road, but police permission was withheld. While people were still assembling for this parade, trouble broke out in the nearby Malay section of Kampong Bahru, where two Chinese lorries were burnt. By 6.30 pm, a crowd was raging down Jalan Raja Muda towards Batu Road. Another group came out of Kampong Bahru into Jalan Hale, another exit from the Malay section into the Chinese areas.

By 7.15pm I could see the mobs swarming like bees at the junction of Jalan Raja Muda and Batu Road. More vehicles were smashed, and Chinese shop-houses set on fire. The Chinese and Indian shopkeepers of Batu Road formed themselves into a "district defence force" armed with whatever they could find -- parangs, poles, iron bars and bottles. I watched one old man pathetically grasp a shovel. Men, standing in the back of a truck travelling up and down the road, urged the people to unite. A 16-year-old boy tore strips from a piece of cloth to be used for identification. When the Malay invading force withdrew as quickly as it had arrived, the residents took their revenge. Shop-fronts and cars suspected of being Malay-owned were smashed or burnt. Several attempts were made to set fire to the nearby UMNO headquarters where three propaganda jeeps had already been set on fire. A bus, whose Malay driver had allegedly knocked over two Chinese on a bicycle, was also attacked.

The police arrived at about 9pm but did not remain in the area. Later, truck-loads of Federal Reserve Units (riot squads) and the Royal Malay Regiment drove past. The Chinese in the street ran into their shop-houses as soon as the convoy came into sight, but were quickly out on the greets again when they had passed. By midnight, I found the street almost deserted but sounds of gunfire and the glows of fires showed that trouble had flared up elsewhere.

From my own observations, the curfew was not imposed on Tuesday night with equal rigidity in all areas. In the side streets off Jalan Hale, I could see bands of Malay youths armed with parangs and sharpened bamboo spears assembled in full view of troops posted at road junctions. Meanwhile, at Batu Road, a number of foreign correspondents saw members of the Royal Malay Regiment firing into Chinese shop-houses for no apparent reason. The road itself was completely deserted, and no sniping or other violence by the residents had been observed by the journalists.

On Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, troops and police were in effective control, although incidents were still taking place. At one point, Malay youths came out of nearby kampongs to drop bricks on passing cars from a footbridge on the Federal Highway which leads to the airport. Another nasty scene saw groups of armed Chinese youths attempting to make their way to Malay kampong areas.

By Friday, curfews had been imposed in Malacca, Negri Sembilan, parts of Perak, southern Kedah, and Penang as well as Selangor. Six battalions of the Royal Malay Regiment together with Federal Reserve Units and police were spread very thinly over this large area, and all army and police reserves were mobilised. The formation of a Civil Defence Corps was announced, and "loyal" youths were asked to volunteer. Hundreds of houses, deserted during the panic, were set on fire, but by Thursday the Fire Brigade appeared to be on the job. The presence of the police and the army had restored a measure of confidence by Saturday morning, although the Government ignored earlier offers by opposition party leaders to co-operate in damping down the violence.

In a speech on Wednesday last week, Tunku Abdul Rahman said the riots were due to an attempt by disloyal elements to overthrow the Government by force of arms: "The terrorists, under the cover of political parties, are trying for a comeback." This interpretation of events was repeated by the new Minister for Information, Enche Hamzah, and by Tun Abdul Razak at press conferences on Friday. According to Deputy Prime Minister Razak, the Labour Party boycott of the elections had only been a feint. The real strategy of the communists had been to "intimidate" people into voting for the opposition parties. "The unseen hand of communism," elaborated Tun Ismail, "had manoeuvred events using the opposition parties as its tools."

In a second speech, the Tunku said that a great deal of money had been poured into the country by communist agents: "They branded the MCA as pro-Malay... it was astounding to see the response they got through intimidation and threats." By contrast, the Tunku added that the communists had earlier tried to prevent the elections and took the opportunity of parading in their armed thousands for the funeral procession of a youth reported to have been killed in self-defence by police when he was discovered pasting up anti-election posters. While it was true that some Mao-slogans and flags were seen during this parade, the discipline of the 14,000-strong crowd in their eight-mile march may have been due to genuine restraint rather than to communist organisation.

The violence, which the Tunku described as triggered off by the behaviour of opposition supporters after the announcement of the election results, had provided, he said, a situation which the communists "had always tried to create". As if to demonstrate this, it was announced on Friday night that "93 hardcore terrorists" had been arrested in a building in Batu Road with home-made arms and were alleged to have confessed to the intention of attacking innocent people. Another 60 "armed communists" were taken into custody over the weekend.

A day earlier the Yang di-Pertuan Agong had proclaimed a State of Emergency under Section 150 of the Constitution. This gave the Government powers similar to those which it assumed in 1964 during the Indonesian confrontation. On Thursday afternoon, the local press was suspended until censorship regulations could be drawn up but no attempt was made to supervise reports sent out by foreign correspondents. (However, on Saturday, some overseas journalists had their curfew passes removed by armed troops.) Straits Times editor-in-chief, Tan Sri Hoffman, made an impressive plea against these official moves both editorially and at a press conference. (This was particularly significant both because of the standing of his newspaper and because of his own reputation -- especially for courage during the Japanese occupation.) He remarked to Information Minister Hamzah that only Malaysians were to be prevented from finding out what was going on. In reply, Hamzah's explanation was that the ban was due to the inflammatory nature of articles printed by the local press, before and during the elections. Hoffman protested: "Is a civil servant going to tell me what is inflammatory and what is not inflammatory?"

Tun Razak revealed that the National Operations Council, of which he is the head, would consist of the Ministers for Information and Home Affairs as well as representatives of the police and the armed forces. A mini-cabinet was also to be formed, including MCA ministers Tan Siew Sin and Kaw Kai Bo, but it was not clear what its relationship would be with the Council. Tun Razak is still responsible to the Tunku, but all the powers under Emergency Regulations are vested in him. The Council has responsibility for restoring law and order and will be built on a hierarchy of councils at state and district levels.

It is too early to write an obituary for Malaysian democracy -- all the facts are not yet known. However, since they may never come to light, speculation is inevitable. It seems that the Alliance was unable to accept the criticisms which the electorate -- Malay, Chinese and Indian -- registered at the polls.

The sole rays of hope are the peace which prevailed in the former Labour Party stronghold in Penang where Dr Lim Cheong Eu has been sworn in as Chief Minister, and in cholera-stricken Kelantan, where PMIP's Dato Asri announced immediately after the election results that people of all races in his state were to be considered to be "Kelantanese".

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