KUALA LUMPUR, Feb 5 — So what has the price of coffee (or whatever) got to do with racism? Plenty, it would seem, if one takes a closer look at Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri Yaakob’s call to Malays to boycott Chinese businesses for raising prices indiscriminately, and the subsequent fallout.
Take Annisa, a 38-year-old civil servant, who said she was not surprised when she heard about the federal minister’s boycott. After all, her colleagues feel the same way.
“I’m not sure how a minister can make such a public statement like that. But we know that there are a lot of people who feel that way. I hear about it all the time where I work. Sometimes, I am not sure whether they mean it or (are) just joking. A lot of people are feeling pressured by (the) rising cost of living, so maybe that is why there is a need to blame someone?” said Annisa, who preferred not to give us her full name.
While there was the usual condemnation from civil society and opposition politicians, the agriculture and agro-based industries minister has also found support online. A Facebook page titled “We are all Ismail Sabri” was set up Tuesday and has over 4,500 “likes” at the time of writing.
The comments on the Facebook page reinforce this feeling that the Chinese are taking advantage of the Malays: “Cina bodohkan Melayu” [The Chinese are making fools of the Malays] by Facebook user Abnoor Noor and “This is Negara Melayu... Tanah Melayu… you all ada disini kerana penjajah yang bawa you all datang disini… kami tak jemput pun” [This is a Malay country... Tanah Melayu... you are all here because our colonial masters brought you here… we never invited you] by Facebook user Jita Nola.
Political analyst Ibrahim Suffian from Merdeka Centre said such polarising racial discourse generally bubbles up during times of economic uncertainty, as people are inclined to blame the “other” for their shrinking wallets.
This comes on the back of the rising cost of living — despite the price of petrol falling over the past several weeks — and people feeling the need to tighten their belts.
With the goods and service tax (GST) coming into effect in April, consumers are increasingly wary if they will be able to make ends meet.
“Such right wing talk seeks to divert attention from the failures of the country’s economic managers and seems to work all the time. This phenomenon is not unique to Malaysia; the same can be seen in Greece with the rise of neo-fascist politicians,” Ibrahim told Malay Mail Online.
The far-right Golden Dawn party, whose members use the Nazi salute, rose in prominence during the recession in Greece and is now the European country’s third biggest political force, according to UK daily The Guardian.
Shortly after Ismail Sabri urged Malays to boycott Chinese traders to force a price drop, the Muslim Consumers Association of Malaysia (PPIM) was reported by local daily the New Straits Times on Tuesday as saying they will launch a website next week listing traders to boycott.
Race still relevant
Political analyst Wan Saiful Wan Jan from the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (IDEAS) said racial campaigns are still effective, especially in Malay-majority rural areas, but are gradually losing their potency amid urbanisation and development.
“As the country becomes more educated and urbanised, we are thinking less along ethnic lines,” Wan Saiful told Malay Mail Online.
“What these politicians are trying to do is to maintain people thinking along ethnic lines. Otherwise, they’ll become irrelevant. This is not just about getting more votes — it’s about political survival. They need people to continue thinking, ‘I’m a Malay first or I’m a Muslim first’,” he added.
PKR vice-president Rafizi Ramli said Umno, the ruling Malay nationalist party, was hoping to gain more Malay support by blaming the Chinese for the country’s economic troubles to avoid losing the next general election due by three years.
“Unfortunately, there are still gullible Malays who still believe in such propaganda,” Rafizi said.
The Bumiputeras have higher proportions of households earning less than RM2,000 a month, compared with ethnic Chinese and Indians, according to a Khazanah Research Institute (KRiS) study last November.
Comparatively, Chinese and Indian households have a higher proportion of households earning more than RM5,000 per month, based on 2013 statistics obtained from the Department of Statistics (DoS).
In the past few weeks, race has taken centre stage in the national discourse, possibly because the lacklustre economy is causing ever-present racial tensions to come to the boil.
This was made evident by a protest against the upscale Datum Jelatek condominium project in Taman Keramat of Shah Alam, where a group of residents made it clear they did not want their Malay-majority neighbourhood to be overrun by potential Chinese buyers.
PAS research centre chief Dr Dzulkefly Ahmad noted that racial politics are intertwined with economic disparity.
“The Malaysian constituencies’ demography now is very divided. If they (voters) are pro-Umno, they are pro-Umno for life and likewise. They are so polarised and they are not able to think well, and this is why the racial card comes of use,” he said.
MCA religious harmony bureau chairman Datuk Ti Lian Ker said Malays were being “bullied” to toe the line of bigotry and racism.
Malaysians generally not racist… or are they?
Some Malay moderate groups believe, however, that the average Malaysian is not inherently racist and unlikely to be influenced by politicians’ baiting and goading.
“The recent floods have shown that Malaysians of all races and religions will help one another in times of need regardless of racial and religious differences,” G25 spokesman Datuk Noor Farida Ariffin said.
Azrul Mohd Khalib from Malaysians for Malaysia said Ismail Sabri was out of touch with modern politics and society.
“In the rural heartlands of Malaysia, the lifeblood of communities is Ah Keong’s kedai runcit, which has been patronised by generations of villagers,” he said.
That may be so but it does not mean the Malay villagers have not harboured feelings of resentment against Ah Keong.
Tariq Ismail from #Iam26 said racial politics has always been used to secure political power, and noted that it seemed to also be effective in Malaysia.
“There are some segments of Malay society that feel that way. The fact that some Chinese tycoons are opportunists doesn’t help. But having said that, when I visited rural areas like Jerantut, I saw many Chinese and Malays hanging out together and they told me they never had any problem with each other,” he said.
* Shaun Tan, Shazwan Mustafa Kamal, and Yap Tzu Ging also contributed to this article.