Another May 13 in the Offing?
Ong Kar Jin examines history and comes up with an interesting theory.
May 13 has arrived and passed with no major incidents. For many Malaysians who sit uneasily with the date, there is a culpable sense of relief. However, is the threat of a nationwide disturbance over? Is it possible still in this day and age for something on the scale of the May 13 riots to reoccur?
Before moving on let me just clarify that this analysis is not meant to monger fear or accuse the government of anything. It is a hypothesis based on my historical analysis of post-election trends in Malaysia, and as with all hypotheses, is unproven and certainly not set in stone.
This article seeks to analyse and answer two main questions:
- How possible is it to have some sort of disturbance that will spark unrest?
- What form might it take?
Through a careful examination of past incidences of civil unrest in Malaysia, three incidents in particular stand out for their scale, their impact on the political narrative of Malaysia, and their nature. The three incidents I speak of are the 13 May 1969 riots, Operation Lalang and the following judicial crisis (1987–88) , and the 1998 sacking of Anwar Ibrahim and subsequent Reformasi movement. In considering the events leading up to, during and following the events, three key traits stand out.
1. Internal UMNO struggle
Firstly and perhaps most importantly, all three incidences have taken place in the foreground of internal UMNO struggles. In Dr Kua Kia Soong’s thesis of May 13, he posits that the riots were in fact a coup d’état initiated by the ascendant Malay capitalist class under Razak to replace the Malay aristocratic class lead by Tunku Abdul Rahman . The validity of Dr Kua’s statement is subject to debate, but the swift and stunning reversal of fortunes that Tunku Abdul Rahman suffered cannot be discounted as coincidence. Even if the riots were not facilitated by the top leadership of the right wing of UMNO, Razak certainly made full use of the opportunity to grab the reins of government. Recently, Gerakan veteran Dr Goh Cheng Teik and ex-UMNO strongman Mohd Tamrin Abdul Ghafar came out to clarify that May 13 was indeed an internal coup orchestrated by irate UMNO members against Rahman .
The Operation Lalang also had similar internal rumblings. In fact, the judicial crisis roots lay in the dismissal of UMNO as an illegal organization due to complaints from Tengku Razaleigh’s UMNO Team B . The same goes for the mass arrests that followed the Reformasi movement. Again, it was an inside UMNO fight between then-Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim and Mahathir Mohamad .
Time and time again, UMNO leaders, especially those from the right wing, have shown that they are more than willing to externalize internal struggles to distract people from the real issues and to eliminate opposition. Come this October, UMNO internal elections will be held, and it will be a titanic clash between the reformers under Najib Razak and the Mahathirists under Muhyiddin’s tutelage. The first shots have already been fired by Mahathir, calling Najib’s performance a “disappointment” and openly stating before elections that given a slim victory, Najib should give way to deputy Muhyiddin .
2. Need for consolidation of power
The second trait is a need for constitutional/law change. As we all know, the last time UMNO was in government with a minority of the popular vote was in 1969 . Post-1969, constitutional amendments made the EC beholden to Barisan Nasional, and various laws such as the Sedition Act were strengthened (see Andrew Yong’s article on the matter) . Similarly, in 1988 the threat from the Semangat 46 coalition posed enough of a threat to the UMNO hegemony of power that Mahathir felt it necessary to cripple the judiciary and rob it of its independence.These changes in law to consolidate UMNO dominance have, however, often been met with significant opposition. It is because of the backlash that comes with these changes in the institutions and the dilution of the rule of law that such exercises were preceded by mass arrests and unrest, preventing any coordinated response. The Reformasi movement of 1998 was rife with similar arrests, but with a firm 76.56% of the seats, BN could comfortably continue its gerrymandering and malapportionment exercises . One must also bear in mind as well that due to the Reformasi movement in 1998 being led by Anwar’s supporters, it took on a different nature.
At the end of this year, there will be a re-delineation exercise which threatens to firmly entrench BN in power, no matter what the popular vote turns out to be in GE 14 . Civil society, opposition politicians and proactive citizens have already begun raising awareness of the exercise. The rakyat, especially the urban folk, are acutely aware of their rights and attendance at rallies such as the 8th May Kelana Jaya rally have shown that from here on, escalation of civil action can be only grow .
It would require a major distraction on an unprecedented scale to divert attention away from the re-delineation exercise.
3. Incitement of racial sentiments
The third trait that has preceded such incidents is the exacerbation — or in some cases, manufacturing — of racial sentiments. This has largely been the domain of the government-controlled mainstream media. In 1969, the mainstream media reported Labour Party processions as shouting “Malai-si!” and provoking the Malays . However, such accounts are doubted and are contradictory to the foreign press accounts that reported the procession as a show of “discipline” and “genuine restraint” .
In 1988, Utusan Malaysia blew the issue of Chinese educationists out of proportion. What followed were the mass arrests of not just prominent members of Dong Zong but also of activists and opposition politicians . In 1999, BN blew up fears of Islamisation, loss of non-Malay rights, etc, to secure a win despite losing the popular vote of Malays to the Barisan Alternatif .
Now the racist rhetoric has reached an all-time high. From Utusan Malaysia’s “Apa Lagi Cina Mahu” (What More Do The Chinese Want?), an ex-judge’s warning of backlash against the Chinese, to Najib Razak’s “Chinese Tsunami”, all UMNO-related media seem to be blasting out racism at every avenue, ,.
A Negative Cycle
The need to change laws, racial sentiments and UMNO internal struggles are all interlinked and form part of a negative cycle that has occurred since May 1969. The government starts to lose popularity and its grasp on power starts to loosen, thus facilitating the growth of opposition movements. The government then needs to consolidate its position, and bending the law to suit such needs is its ultimate tool. To bend the law, however, is to invite dissent. At the same time, the loss of popularity also sparks internal divisions within UMNO itself. Faced with signification obstacles, such power struggles are then externalised in the form of a national crisis to distract from the real issues and to decapitate any unified response. To provide a raison d’etre for such a national crisis, the mainstream media exacerbates and incites racial rhetoric. And when so-called “spontaneous chaos” ensues, fear takes hold of many and allows the ruling coalition to remain in power. This standard operating procedure is not endemic to Malaysia but is something common in the politics and history of many other Southeast Asian countries with similar problems with diversity and nation building, such as Indonesia and the Philippines (see the People Power revolution and the fall of Suharto’s regime) .
It is my view that given the volatility of the current political position and the fulfillment of all three key traits, a national incident is bound to happen. However, despite the incitement of racial sentiments, it is my opinion that any unrest will not be of a racial nature. Unlike in 1969 and 1988, the issues raised by the opposition and civil society have been part of the national consciousness and not ethnic-specific . The opposition platform is also multiracial, unlike in 1969 where it was largely non-Malay, and has enjoyed multiracial support . The racial baiting by UMNO-controlled media has also been met with incredible shows of unity from Malaysians from all walks of life .
Therefore, any incident will likely take on the form of mass arrests in the name of stability and national security. Already 28 Pakatan Rakyat leaders who spoke at the Kelana Jaya rally have been/are going to be called up on charges of sedition . On Monday, a group of NGOs lead by Haris Ibrahim’s Anything But UMNO group have called for 1 million Malaysians to rally against electoral fraud in Kuala Lumpur (note: Contrary to what was reported, in his official statement Haris Ibrahim never called for toppling of a government; see his blog for details). This is the Catch-22 situation faced by every pseudo-democratic government, where in order to remain in power they dilute the institutions of democracy, but in so doing radicalise the populace and further erode their mandate to power. Faced with an escalation of civil disobedience on this scale, it would be an easy thing for the government to crack down on activists, politicians and intellectuals in one fell swoop.
Many a politician used to justify any repression, including use of the Internal Security Act, by stating that the majority of people in Malaysia seemed not to mind as most people voted BN in elections. In the days of Operation Lalang, this was the case. But this time, any action by the BN government will be without the support of the popular vote.
There is a word used to describe the act of a minority cracking down on freedoms without consent of the majority: tyranny. Whether or not such tyranny will continue to work in this day and age will depend on the strength of will of the rakyat. Not the work of NGOs, not the ceramahs of politicians, but the voice of the ordinary citizen in speaking out against injustice.
Again, this is pure speculation on my part, but is nevertheless based on a close analysis of long-term historical trends in Malaysia and throughout the SEA region. In fact, for the sake of this country, I hope that this entire analysis is rubbish, and that I will be proven absolutely wrong and a pessimistic idiot. One can only hope.
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 Among the issues brought up were corruption, high cost of living etc.
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