Politicians in Malaysia are exploiting racial issues to jockey for seats in an upcoming general election, a local human rights group warned this week in a rare report on racial discrimination in the multi-ethnic country.
Pusat Komas blamed the government of Prime Minister Najib Razak for the problem, saying it had reneged on its promises to promote national unity and social cohesion in the country.
“In fact, racism has become more pronounced and is being increasingly used as a tool to divide and rule,” the NGO said in the report released in conjunction with the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination on March 21.
Pusat Komas, which aims to promote and enhance unity through the use of popular media, said incidences of racial discrimination in Malaysia had increased last year based on news reports.
“As the 14th General Elections is around the corner, numerous politicians from all sides, have resorted to the usage of racial politics to win the political support of the people,” it said.
Ruling, opposition parties deny playing race card
Malays and other indigenous groups account for nearly 70 percent of Malaysia’s population of 31 million, with ethnic Chinese making up 23 percent and ethnic Indians and others the remainder.
Most of the Malaysian political parties are race-based, including Najib’s United Malays National Organization (UMNO), the linchpin of the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition.
UMNO has denied exploiting racial issues.
“UMNO does not survive on racial issues despite the fact the party relies heavily on the support of the Malays,” Annuar Musa, UMNO’s information chief, told BenarNews on Friday.
“The core of the party’s struggle is for the benefit of the Malays, but the party still looks into the needs of the non-Malays that are part of the various ethnic groups in the country,” he said.
But ethnic minorities have complained about a lack of educational and business opportunities, saying that a government affirmative-action policy in favor of ethnic Malays had marginalized them.
Among other BN component parties are the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) and Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC), both of which cater to the ethnic Chinese and Indian population.
The key opposition Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (Bersatu) party, led by former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, is Malay-based and he has made it clear that racial politics are here to stay.
“The sophisticated and highly educated urban people may believe that racial politics are not in keeping with the times,” Mahathir, the former president of UMNO, said in a blog post soon after setting up the party in 2016.
“But on the ground it is different. For the rural people who largely are poor, race is not only important but they believe (it) is essential for their well-being. UMNO’s popularity is because it is a racial party.”
Among the other opposition parties are the predominantly Chinese Democratic Action Party (DAP) and Malay Muslim-based Parti Islam Se Malaysia (PAS).
Liew Chin Tong, the head of the DAP in southern Johor state, rejected any notion that his party played the race card.
“DAP has always championed the principles of accepting all Malaysians, including Sabahans and Sarawakians,” he said referring to the people of the east Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak, on Borneo, that joined Malaysia in 1963.
“Racial politics is never part of DAP, we fight for all Malaysians irrespective or race, religion and color,” Liew told BenarNews.
Religious extremism on rise
The Pusat Komas report mentioned “a rise in religious extremism” in Malaysia and said it had “led to discriminatory actions that have impeded the rights of Malaysians from different ethnic groups.
“Though the discriminatory actions may stem from a religious perspective, the intersectionality between religious and racial discrimination is apparent in these cases,” it said. “This new trend is not only worrying but it highlights the inherent danger of the overreach of bureaucratic Islamic institution[s].”
Islam is the official religion of Malaysia, which has sizable Buddhist, Christian and Hindu communities.
The Pusat Komas report also highlighted several positive examples where initiatives were taken to promote national unity and social cohesion, including by high-level politicians, sultans, commercial bodies, youth groups, sportsmen, military, religious authorities and even a beauty company.
“This clearly shows the power of ordinary citizens to stop racism and racist remarks in time and prevent the spread of hatred before it would severely damage the social fabric,” said Rita Izsak-Ndiaye, a member of the panel that monitors the implementation of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD).
Malaysia was among a handful of countries which did not sign and ratify the ICERD, Ndiaye, a former U.N. Special Rapporteur on minority issues, said in a foreword to the Pusat Komas report.
“Joining the other 179 State Parties who have already done so is not only important because it signifies an important pledge toward eliminating racial discrimination, but comes with very concrete benefits,” she said.
Hata Wahari in Kuala Lumpur contributed to this report.