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Abdullah stirs a hornets' nest
By Ioannis Gatsiounis

KUALA LUMPUR - In multi-ethnic Malaysia, constructive criticism is often met with a vexed stare; any whiff of its loner cousin, dissent, has traditionally been met with force and attributed to "traitors". Odd, then, that Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi chose last week, in his maiden speech as president of the country's dominant political party the conservative United Malays National Organization (UMNO), to hit out at his core constituency, the Muslim Malays.

Yet, following in the footsteps of his Machiavellian predecessor, the long-ruling Mahathir Mohamed, that's what Abdullah did, implying that some 30-plus years of generous affirmative action have failed to make Malays the competitive race Mahathir had envisaged they would be by now.

In some ways, Abdullah's charge - in which he urged Malays to get rid of their "crutches" or risk ending up in "wheelchairs" and said Malay success will depend on a "mental revolution" - is a logical next step: developing the country will depend largely on transforming the mindset of the majority Malays (partly because of their special rights, Malays dominate many of the country's key sectors).

And what really was to fear? Haven't many of the Malay delegates taken stock in Abdullah's calls to reform, seeing them as key contributors to the party's success in the March parliamentary elections? Isn't the party's youth wing filled with a "new breed" of foreign-educated progressives, at odds with the intolerant backwardness that has long tainted the UMNO elite?

Think again. What last week's 55th General UMNO Assembly made clear is that any suggestion that Malay rights should be scaled back or repealed will be sententiously attacked every step of the way - even by empowered, educated Malays.

At the assembly, deputy chairperson Badruddin Amiruldin - brandishing a book on the 1969 racial riots here, which paved the way for pro-Malay policies, as the economic disparity between the Chinese and the Malay is widely thought to have triggered the riots - likened questioning Malay rights to stirring a hornets' nest and warned to rapturous applause that "if it were disturbed, these hornets will strike and destroy the country".

"Let no one from the other races ever question the rights of Malays on this land. Don't question the religion, because this is my right on this land." Aside from the majority Malays, there are sizable Indian and Chinese minorities on the Malay Peninsula.

The next day, UMNO Youth executive council member Dr Pirdaus Ismail defended Amiruldin's comments and said they should remind "Chinese chauvinists" not to question Malay privileges. "Badruddin did not pose the question to all Chinese in the country," Ismail was quoted as saying. "Those who are with us, who hold the same understanding as we do, were not our target. In defending Malay rights, we direct our voice at those who question them."

Then there was Higher Education Minister Dr Shafie Salleh's remark: "I will never allow non-Bumiputra students to enter [Universiti Teknologi Mara] UiTM. I will not compromise on this matter." Bumiputra means "sons of the soil" and refers to Malays and a handful of indigenous minority groups, such as the Ibans and Orang Asli. Government policy grants the Bumiputras privileges.

Intolerance of this sort is not new in UMNO, with its race- and religion-centered agenda; last year the youth wing's information chief Azimi Daim said, "In Malaysia, everybody knows that Malays are the masters of this land. We rule this country as provided for in the federal constitution. Any one who touches upon Malay affairs or criticizes Malays is [offending] our sensitivities."

Not too long ago, UMNO members threatened to burn down the Chinese Assembly Hall. So it was par for the course when Pirdaus said, "If the Malay agenda were strengthened, wouldn't Islam be strengthened? This is an order of Allah, [for] which UMNO has [striven] for a long time."

But what makes the recent spate of vitriol notable is that it comes at a time when the Malay community here is more anxious than at any time in recent memory - trying to balance progress while clinging to religion and traditions in a world it accuses of conspiring against Islam.

Progress itself has been a struggle. The New Economic Policy (NEP), launched in 1970 and which ended in 1990, was intended to help the Malay community, traditionally agrarian, catch up economically. And while Malays' economic holdings reportedly rose from 2.4% to 19.3% over that period, the Malay bourgeoisie that developed was smaller than hoped for. So Malay favoritism was extended; meanwhile, between 1990 and 2002 Malay economic holdings dropped to 18.7%.

One writer to a local website attributes this "failure" to the founders of the NEP missing the essence of Malay "backwardness".

"The truth is that the Malay backwardness was more due to psychological hang-ups than economic shortcomings." While the NEP and its reincarnations have nurtured many competent, talented Malays, on the whole the community remains insecure and suspicious of the outside world.

Abdullah seems to recognize this, hence his call for a mental revolution among Malays; and his promotion of Hadhari, or progressive Islam, which, Abdullah says, will breed moderation and mastery of knowledge and greater integration with the larger world. (Abdullah was set to release a book in early September detailing this concept, but the launch has been indefinitely postponed to "fix mistakes", according to an UMNO official.)

Indeed, some of the Malay community's hangups are attributable to how it tends to identify with Islam. In Malaysia's multi-ethnic fabric, where the Malay is born into the faith, his Muslim identity is particularly race-based. Non-Malays, whether they're Indian, Chinese or Western, are assumed to be non-Muslim. This has created a barrier and sealed off the mind.

With the United States' "war against terror", read also as a war against Islamic extremism, the Malays' aversion to these "outsiders" has swelled. "Because of fear, [the Malays] revert to old habits, look for quick fixes and blame others," Abdullah said at the assembly.

And while Malaysia may be a model of inspiration to the larger Islamic world - Muslims from elsewhere have praised and come to study the "success" of Malaysia's Muslims - Abdullah knows his community to be taking on a different shape.

He is concerned with their willingness to grasp only the basic skills of the globalized economy. "They need to be a race that can communicate and interact through a global lingua franca such as English to facilitate trade and allow us to disseminate and acquire knowledge effectively," Abdullah stressed at the assembly. (Diminishing English-language proficiency has been a hot topic in the local press of late.)

Abdullah also urged Malays recently not to retreat into Islam; not to focus more on the afterlife, with its promises of virgins and gardens and rivers flowing underneath, than their responsibilities to this one.

But will his voice of reason be heard through the babel of rage-filled entitlement simmering within the UMNO party and trickling down through the rakyat? And how likely are the Malays to help themselves without a less self-righteous leadership prompting them?

Part of UMNO's strategy all along has been to use Islam as a political tool, flexing its Islamic "credentials" to garner support. It is the Malay, not the party, that has suffered, as Malaysia finds itself ever more visibly a wounded society, long fated by distrust and pent-up resentment among the nation's three main ethnic groups.

Abdullah knows it's high time to change this. It's the UMNO machine he's up against, but that machine is in no mood to change course. Several of Abdullah's hand-picked cabinet members lost at the polls; and the election was said to be marred by the worst case of vote-buying in recent memory - this at a point when party members say fighting corruption is at the top of their agenda.

The assembly has made that clear Abdullah's dream of a mental revolution and a progressive Islamic community will likely never take hold here, unless it first backtracks to rescue the party merrily lagging behind.

Ioannis Gatsiounis is a New York native who became a freelance foreign correspondent for various US dailies after moving to Indonesia in 2000. He has since co-hosted a weekly political/cultural radio call-in show in New York and resettled in Malaysia.

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