In recent years, the civil sphere in Malaysia has become increasingly dynamic, with civil society organizations of various stripes stepping up to make sure their voice counts. But along with the broadening of civil society influence has come an increase in the number of extremist, sometimes malicious voices. Chief among these are certain Malay right wing non-governmental organizations.
In post-colonial Malaysia,communal politics has been institutionalized and the idea of Ketuanan Melayu (Malay Supremacy) has been perpetuated by the ruling United Malays National Organization. Although Malay-Muslims in Malaysia constitute the largest ethnic group, the perception persists that they need to be united to defend their race and religion against other ethnic minoritiesin the country.
Since last year, there have been allegations of Christians usurping Islam and alleged attempts to convert Muslims through channels such as Christian-related charity organizations (the conversion of Muslims to other religions is prohibited in Malaysia). Similarly, when the chairperson of the Coalition of Free and Fair Election (Bersih), Ambiga Sreenevasan, organized the Bersih 2.0 rally, she was labeled a “dangerous Hindu woman.” Both examples underscore how the norm in public discourse is still for Malaysians from other ethnic minority groups to be cast as a potential threat to the Malay-Muslim community.
The Malay right wing NGO Perkasa and the newly founded NGO Jati are at the forefront of championing Malay rights and Islam. According to the founder of Jati, Hassan Ali, Jati was founded to protect Malay rights, Islam and Malay royalty.
Of course, democratic society often includes a panoply of organizations and perspectives, which encourages freedom of expression. However, it’s disconcerting when identity markers are used again and again to engineer fear and to create divisions. In Malaysia, sadly, the political ploy of using the race card as a defensive strategy to protect the political survival of the UMNO has now morphed into a strategy of victimization by right wing Malay groups.
It’s important to understand that the strategy of victimization is instrumental in all this because it’s this mindset that is used to justify any form of action by stoking the emotions of supporters. In addition, by framing a narrative that perpetuates insecurity, solidarity is strengthened, which in turn fuels deeper suspicion toward others. This victimization narrative is dangerous if left unchallenged, yet in today’s Malaysia, right wing groups are still being left to flourish, with dehumanizing labels such as “parasites” increasingly being used in public discourse.
Although some might dismiss Malay right wings groups as peripheral voices, and while there’s a strong argument for freedom of expression, the time surely has come for the government to take a stand and try to rein in some of the voices that are straying into extremism. After all, freedom of expression in Malaysia doesn’t mean freedom to slander. The unbroken silence of the government is already being seen as condoning extremist voices and helping normalize such a narrative, which in turn has underscored the fragility of Malaysian society.
At its best, civil society in any country should act as a laboratory of competing ideas for resolving problems facing society. It should be embraced as a gift that everyone has an equal opportunity to make their voice count. But although Malaysia has gradually opened up civil space and made progress towards democracy, some participants have yet to exhibit the civility needed to make this changing political culture work.
Turning a blind eye to extremism, and the playing on public fears, may seem to make political sense to the government in the short term. In the long run, though, it will only stunt civil society, making political maturity elusive.
Choong Pui Yee is a Research Analyst at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.