KUALA LUMPUR, Nov 4 — Dismissed by critics as a fringe group and not an embodiment of the largely moderate Malays, Perkasa has muscled its way front and centre into political significance in a divided country, in much the same way as the conservative Tea Party movement has taken hold in the United States.
And just as Tea Party activism has hijacked and forced the Republican Party in the US to tack right, political observers and analysts note that Perkasa also has a similar hold on Umno, the ruling Barisan Nasional’s (BN) lynchpin.
Wan Saiful Wan Jan, chief executive of the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (IDEAS) libertarian think-tank, said that Perkasa’s views likely did not represent the majority of Malays.
But he said Perkasa had grown in strength to be the most vocal group due to Umno’s dependence on support from the Malay rights group’s members.
“If anything, their belief in the position of an ethnic group is more like fascism then the conservative Tea Party movement,” Wan Saiful told The Malay Mail Online.
“Perkasa is nowhere near the Tea Party movement. The Tea Party is driven by a clear belief and ideology about how to improve their country, economically and socially. Perkasa is just a group of vocal individuals who have been very good at exploiting racial sentiments... if you closely examine the content of their message, intellectually it is zero,” he added.
Wan Saiful pinpointed Perkasa’s rise to a federal government, which is dominated by Umno, that is dependent on the blessings of such “extremists”.
“Unless Umno leaders become real men with the guts to demand moderation, Perkasa will continue to dominate our lives. But I do not see evidence that Umno leaders are brave enough to disown Perkasa or to advise their members against working for Perkasa. Similarly, none of the BN component parties are principled enough to take a stand,” he said.
Dr Lim Teck Ghee, director of the Centre for Policy Initiatives, took an even more critical view of Perkasa, comparing it to the Ku Klux Klan, the white supremacist movement in the US.
He said that the rise of Malay right-wing groups like Perkasa and Ikatan Muslimin Malaysia (ISMA) mirrored the growth of the white supremacist organisation in the US in the 1920s.
But noted that the difference was that Perkasa is sanctioned by Umno, unlike the outlawed KKK in the US.
“Perkasa and ISMA are more akin to the Ku Klux Klan, whose philosophy is that all of Christian civilisation depends upon the preservation and up-building of the white race,” Lim told The Malay Mail Online via email today.
“Substitute Malay and Muslim civilisation for Christian and white and you get the equivalent of the KKK in Malaysia, except that Perkasa members are not hooded or outlawed by the authorities,” added the political analyst.
The Tea Party movement is a loose American political group that generally supports the right-wing Republican Party and favours small governments, but differs from libertarians in social issues by promoting anti-abortion and anti-gay Christian conservative views, according to a Pew report quoted by the examiner.com news website in 2011.
The KKK, on the other hand, is a hate group that is on the decline since its membership of millions in the 1920s dwindled to between 3,000 and 5,000 currently, according to the Slate news website in 2012.
The Klan has a history of violence from the 1950s, at the start of the civil rights movement in the US, right until the 1980s, as Klansmen lynched African Americans and bombed activists’ homes.
UK newspaper The Telegraph reported in 2009 that the Klan’s criminal activities were curtailed and the movement was forced to split into smaller groups after civil liberties organisations successfully slapped it with multi-million dollar lawsuits.
“Note that Perkasa frequently alludes to the use of force against those it labels as anti-national — a sentiment which goes down well with the Malay ultra-nationalists. The KKK also justified the resort to violence and terror during its heyday,” said Lim.
Perkasa chief Datuk Ibrahim Ali had once threatened to burn copies of the Al-Kitab, the Malay translation of the Christian bible, that refer to God as “Allah”.
Ibrahim, however, insisted last month that Perkasa is not racist, and said that it is merely an NGO that fights for the constitutional rights of Malays and the sovereignty of Islam.
Political analyst Khoo Kay Peng said that Perkasa and ISMA could not really be considered fringe movements, as their struggle for Malay rights is not out of place in the country’s racial mainstream political discourse.
“Talking about Malay rights, or Chinese or Indian, is well within the confines of mainstream political dialogue or discourse, because our political structure is constructed in a way which is very race-based,” Khoo told The Malay Mail Online.
“What Perkasa is fighting for is not that different from what Umno is fighting for, and look at DAP, MCA, Gerakan, SAPP, pretty much not different — they are all pushing on how well they can protect their voting base,” he added.
The ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) is a race-based coalition, as membership in its three main component parties — Umno, MCA and MIC — is restricted to Malays, Chinese and Indians respectively.
Opposition pact Pakatan Rakyat (PR) has no such race-based memberships. PKR is a multi-racial party, but the DAP is seen as a predominantly Chinese party, while PAS is an Islamist party.
Datuk Dr Shamsul Amri Baharuddin, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM) political analyst, said that every ethnic group in Malaysia has its own “so-called ‘right-wing groups’”, such as the now-defunct Chinese education reform group Suqiu, Indian rights movement Hindraf and Perkasa.
“Even ethnic-based parties are viewed, by the right-wing, as not capable of really fighting across parties for the ultimate ‘ethnic group interest’,” Shamsul told The Malay Mail Online.
“So when ethnic-based parties (DAP and PKR included), of all ethnic groups and stripes, are viewed as unsuccessful in the ethnic cause, then the extremist ethnic organisations appear. Perkasa wasn’t around during the Mahathir era. It appeared after the GE 2008,” he added, referring to the historic 2008 general election where BN lost its customary two-thirds parliamentary majority.
Shamsul questioned why “racist”, “supremacist” and “right-wing” labels are only tagged onto certain groups, and not all groups that fight for the interests of each race respectively.
“Are we, as analysts, so bereft of analytical tools and terminology that we are not able or willing to see them as just simply ‘interest groups’, like other NGOs and CBOs (community-based organisations) — each pushing a struggle based on particular issues, historical or/and contemporary in nature?” added the UKM founding director of Institute of Ethnic Studies.
Like Wan Saiful, James Chin from Monash University (Malaysian campus) said that the rise of Malay right-wing groups is due to Umno’s decision to “sub contract” its “racist” opinions to them, thus allowing BN to claim that “it is not racist.”
“There has always been a market for this type of ‘Ketuanan Melayu’ (Malay supremacy)/ Islam issues, maybe up to 30 per cent of the Malay population, but they did not come out openly because Umno was strong. When Umno was weakened in 2008, they decided that this was the way to go,” Chin told The Malay Mail Online.