When Ahmad Ismail, a division chief of Malaysia's ruling United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), labelled Malaysia's ethnic Chinese minority "squatters" and warned them not to become "like the Jews in America", it shook Malaysian society to the core. It is a sign that Malaysian politics is shifting radically towards a dangerous nationalistic path. With a few words, Ahmad Ismail managed to insult the Chinese and other nationalities. In Southeast Asia, his words will be treated with the same seriousness as they have been in Malaysia.
The uproar that has erupted following his remarks shows that Malaysia's multicultural society is still very fragile. Even Malaysian armed forces chief General Abdul Aziz Zainal reminded the government of the danger of racial tensions and urged stern actions against those who cause such trouble.
After the bloody anti-Chinese riots in May 1969, the Chinese and other ethnic minorities have encountered all kinds of discriminatory measures. But they have fought on and thrived. Now the country has become an economic powerhouse in the region, and these minorities are proud for having worked hard against all odds. They have spoken out about the huge contributions they have made to nation-building.
The Chinese in Malaysia have survived. They now have to stand up and encourage their politicians to fight against such racist slurs and discrimination. The Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) should consider pulling out of the National Front to protest UMNO. The MCA has been working on the inside for too long without having much of an effect. Ahmad's incendiary remarks were like a dagger piercing into the heart of every Malaysian, regardless of nationality.
Although Ahmad refused to apologise, his party has done so on his behalf. The UMNO Supreme Council also slapped a three-year suspension on him. This decision was a divisive one, according to Malaysiankini.com because Ahmad is quite a popular figure at the grass-roots level. Many see him as the champion of the Malay cause. If this trend continues, it will further weaken Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi's grip on power. Many division chiefs in UMNO have called on Badawi to resign ahead of 2010. He has said he will not step down.
This incident will help former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim attract more people in the days to come. Anwar's coalition front, the Pakatan Rakyat, must work harder to unseat the National Front. Anwar said that by next Tuesday he would able to form a federal government, even though ruling coalition lawmakers are currently visiting Taiwan. He would need at least 30 MPs from the National Front to defect to make this happen.
Anything can happen in Malaysian politics these days with literally everything up for grabs. After all, Anwar is still facing a sodomy charge, the second such accusation made against him in a decade. The government prosecutor wants to transfer the case to a higher court but Anwar's lawyers have objected. It remains to be seen how the case will proceed and what its impact will be on Anwar's political ambitions.
In retrospect, the outcome of the March 8 general election and Anwar's landslide victory of Anwar in Permatang Pauh recently changed the landscape of Malay politics. Many possibilities are on the drawing board. But the best option is to have a government that will treat every nationality equally. Unfair policies from the past, especially the 30-year-old New Economic Policy, must be relinquished to pave the way for new policies that benefit all Malaysians. Malaysia has reached the point where it can form a truly multicultural society. Only the politicians, especially those belonging to UMNO, can thwart this. Racial slurs and other condescending schemes could raise tensions and force everyone to look inside - temporarily. But at the end of the day, modern Malaysia will emerge and prosper only when all nationalities become one.