Malaysian Protest Theater

Peaceful protesters marched with candles in downtown Kuala Lumpur to exercise their right to march peacefully. The Malaysian government sent in riot police and water cannons to exercise its right to intimidate peaceful protesters.

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HINDRAF, the Hindu Rights Action Force, a political and cultural organization serving the sizable Indian community here, was one of the march’s participants. In November, HINDRAF had organized a rally that drew at least 10,000 (the number is disputed) Indians protesting the government’s Malay-first policies in education and government hiring, the destruction of temples, and the increasing anti-Indian chauvinism among the Malay. The protesters were met with batons, tear gas, and water cannons. Five of HINDRAF’s leaders were detained as terrorists under the Internal Security Act (with alleged links to the RSS and the LTTE). Some fifty more protesters were arrested. A few were released, while others will stand trial for various incitement and disorderly conduct charges.

Tonight’s candlelight procession was simply to remind the government that people have the right to assemble and to express their concerns legally and peacefully in public. The silent march occurred without incident and was effectively over, with only small groups of protesters lingering to talk after the streets had been reopened, when the riot police arrived. People who had left the area returned; photographers made their way back to the scene, and everyone knew what was coming, as in Chekhov’s famous dictum about not introducing a gun in a play unless you intend to fire it.

In the end, though, all of this was for show. There was almost no one left to disperse when the cannon came up. The real action came from the unarmed police in yellow vests who charged after the stragglers in an angry show of personal force. This was really the point—Malaysian riot police running down Indian protesters, breaking up the crowd, restoring order to an otherwise quiet night in the monsoon drizzle.

More photos below.All images by Preston Merchant

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“If there is a gun hanging on the wall in the first act, it must fire in the last.”

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23 thoughts on “Malaysian Protest Theater

  1. I would love to know how the Malaysian press and tv media are reporting this…and also how the average ethnic Malay perceives the demands of the Indians.

    It’s so sad that their ancestors’ own country couldn’t support them so they had to go to a place like Malaysia, only to have their descendants treated like this.

    Real bad situation…neither can they go back to India (nor would they want to), nor can they emigrate elsewhere, nor can they change the situation in Malalysia.

  2. I would love to know how the Malaysian press and tv media are reporting this…and also how the average ethnic Malay perceives the demands of the Indians.

    Me too!

    It’s so sad that their ancestors’ own country couldn’t support them so they had to go to a place like Malaysia, only to have their descendants treated like this. How many Indians were forced to leave their country b/c of colonialism that crippled India economically.

    I just admire the protesters so much and I wonder if Malay or Chinese Malaysians have been joining in in protesting the inequality.

  3. India should stop Indians from traveling to Malaysia and also stop bollywood from making films their, very important. I am sure it is dangerous being Desi while in Malaysia. It is quite surprising that even the Indian right wing hasn’t come out in support of Malaysian Hindus.

  4. HINDRAF’s leaders were detained as terrorists under the Internal Security Act (with alleged links to the RSS and the LTTE

    This kinda surprises me .. is the RSS officially considered to be terrorist organization in Malaysia?

    It is quite surprising that even the Indian right wing hasn’t come out in support of Malaysian Hindus.

    Huh? If you are not trolling try google news w hindraf and BJP.

  5. Anecdotally, I have heard from Chinese Malay friends that even Chinese (who have been settled in Malaysia for a really long time) feel some sort of discrimination…. Of course there is some institutionalized bias as part of the NEP (New Economic Policy) that provides the Bumiputras (term for indegenous Malay – kind of ironic that this came from sanskrit) a better deal compared to the Chinese or the Indians.

    But the Malay govt is sure a funny one — “A church and Christian newspaper in Malaysia are suing the government after it decreed that the word “Allah” can only be used by Muslims.” http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/asia-pacific/7163391.stm.

    The govt backtracked in a couple of days but still …. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/asia-pacific/7164872.stm. “Father Andrew Lawrence told the BBC he was delighted, saying prayers had been answered.” I wonder though whom he prayed to!!

  6. It’s a bit rich that the Malaysian Government of all institutions considers RSS the “extremist”, considering Malays have no say whatsoever in choosing their own religious beliefs…

    (not that the RSS should be considered a good organization or anything, but if that isn’t the pot calling the kettle black…)

  7. In answer to a couple of people who have expressed curiosity about this: I would say that the vast majority of ethnic Malays in Malaysia would not be willing to give up their special rights. Even relatively progressive Malays who are critical of the government in other respects believe they should hold on to their privileges. Of course there are exceptions, as in any situation, but this is my experience as a Malaysian and as someone who has spent a lot of time talking to people about this issue and thinking about it. The idea that Malays are the “native” population of the country and therefore deserve unique constitutional privileges is very, very deeply entrenched in Malaysian society — not only do most Malays cling to this notion, but even many Chinese and Indians don’t question it.

  8. P.S. V.V. and Preston: Restoran Sin Seng Nam (it’s in the fourth picture from the bottom) serves pretty decent Hainanese chicken rice. Give it a try if you’re in the neighbourhood again!

  9. Recommended reading… by an Indian who lived there a long time and left because of the racism.

    There was a huge reaction by Malaysian politicians to her speaking out about the truth, mainly because of a tabloid’s distortion of her words. She has stopped blogging as a result.

  10. Even relatively progressive Malays who are critical of the government in other respects believe they should hold on to their privileges. Of course there are exceptions, as in any situation, but this is my experience as a Malaysian and as someone who has spent a lot of time talking to people about this issue and thinking about it. The idea that Malays are the “native” population of the country and therefore deserve unique constitutional privileges is very, very deeply entrenched in Malaysian society — not only do most Malays cling to this notion, but even many Chinese and Indians don’t question it.

    It’s because these ‘policies’ are laid over ideas of revisionist history and ethnic chauvanism.

  11. What drives the Malay economy beyond the oil/gas sector? They pay decent salaries in the IT sector to recruit foreigners. Nothing causes reform like an effective economic boycott.

  12. V.V. Varaiya (#11):

    What drives the Malay economy beyond the oil/gas sector?

    An interesting question. According to some studies, Malaysia will become a net importer of oil by 2010. Yet the economy continues to depend very heavily on oil.

    An economic boycott, in just a few years’ time, could therefore be very effective indeed. The challenge is to convince the international community that this issue is worth it. If Malaysia continues to convince the rest of the world that what’s going on is nothing more than “affirmative action,” nothing will change. As I’ve said here before, it’s nothing like affirmative action. Chinese and Indians in Malaysia never enslaved the Malays, or tried to wipe them out. Yet they’re compensating the Malay community — for what? The ruling Malay elite already had substantial privileges under the British — unlike U.S. affirmative action, this is a system that has maintained existing privilege. It’s the opposite of affirmative action.

    I favour the word apartheid to describe Malaysian racial politics — and I think the only way we’ll convince the rest of the world to sit up and pay attention is by using that word.

  13. I favour the word apartheid to describe Malaysian racial politics — and I think the only way we’ll convince the rest of the world to sit up and pay attention is by using that word.

    Do you think Malaysia is very different from Sri Lanka in terms of world engagement? The world is content to let Sri Lanka burn and leave its economy in a shambles, why should Malaysia be very different? Unless it ends up having some ripple effect through SE Asia.

  14. There seems to be an impression amongst the readers here that this latest protest was organised by Hindraf; it was in fact organised by a multiracial anti-ISA group. It is a pity that the pics here do not portray a wider cast of participants. There are many chinese malaysians who feel as (politically) disenfranchised as the Indians. Malay-muslim malaysians in the opposition do feel shortchanged by the ‘UMNOputras’, their pejorative term for the ruling malaymuslim and Indian-muslim elites.

    The Malaysian mainstream media, like its Singapore counterparts, is heavily government controlled and censored.Almost all the media coverage after the November rallies – Bersih, Hindraf- were 99% slanted to the official viewpoint. Many malaysians rely on the internet blogs – Malaysiakini (check out their videos on youtube) and Malaysia today – for better and more critical news coverage. There was even a flash mob last weekend at the KLCC to dump msm newspapers into rubbishbins, to give you an idea of how much some malaysians trust their msm. See this blog by a malay-indian lawyer activist : http://harismibrahim.wordpress.com/hartal-boycott-the-lying-newspapers/ Since the Hindraf rally, the international media has been highlighting malaysian issues with a greater awareness of the problems there. That is for the good as Malaysia is sensitive to international opinion as it has deliberately set out to portray itself as a leading, progressive and moderate muslim nation, even one with high civilisational aspirations a la Islam Hadhdari.

    I would agree with brownelf that what goes on in Malaysia deserves the apartheid tag. As a Singaporean I worry about Malaysia as chaos there would have an immediate impact on my natioan state – we were a single country once afterall! The very restive southern Thailand provinces would also be affected as the muslim terrorists there – sorry to be so blunt but what else do you call those who would behead novice monks, torch schools and kill over 2000 people in the last couple of years?- gain sustenance, sanctuary and support from their malay-muslim cohorts over the border. The east malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak play hosts to all sorts of illegal migrants and miscreants from the screwed up southern Philippino muslim insurgency.

  15. “The world is content to let Sri Lanka burn and leave its economy in a shambles, why should Malaysia be very different? Unless it ends up having some ripple effect through SE Asia.”

    Don’t you mean “India is content to let Sri Lanka burn and leave its economy in a shambles”? Afterall, India did arm, train and fund the LTTE and politicians from its southern state of Tamil Nadu continue to voice support for the banned organisation and smuggling of arms and ammunition continues to occur. This is a country that now wants a seat in the Security Council at the UN. BTW, Sri Lanka’s economy whilst not the best it could be, is hardly in “shambles”, infact it has been growing at the rate of 6-7% per year, the country entered the group of middle-income countries 2 years ago (to compare, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal are still low-income economies), and its people have the highest per capita incomes in South Asia. But of course when you have a war that’s what usually makes the front pages.

  16. What drives the Malay economy beyond the oil/gas sector? They pay decent salaries in the IT sector to recruit foreigners. Nothing causes reform like an effective economic boycott.

    Agricultural products — It was the mainstay of their economy once upon a time but its percentage of the economy has waned a lot. One thing Malaysia has been sensitive about for a long time is how India treats Palm Oil imports from Malaysia — we are its biggest customer by far. So India does have some influence.

    But realistically, given our Dhimmi govt, any talk of an economic boycott is fanciful . In fact the Malaysian leaders have praised the Gov’t of India on its stance so far. If we are talking of things India can do but won’t I prefer the idea the GOI sending a boats over to test out some of that fancy hardware we keep hearing about

  17. DizzyDesi:

    If we are talking of things India can do but won’t I prefer the idea the GOI sending a boats over to test out some of that fancy hardware we keep hearing about.

    You can’t be serious? I should probably just assume you are speaking tongue-in-cheek and move on, but I have trouble moving on from such dangerous ideas even when they’re supposedly jokes — actually, especially when they’re supposedly jokes, because there’s nothing really funny about “preferring” the idea of one country bombing another. Not to mention the undelicious irony of the wish: you want India to bomb Malaysia to protect ethnic Indians there? You mean like the US bombed Iraq to protect Iraqis? We all know what a success that’s been.

    Let’s not bandy these threats about flippantly. If nothing else, it distracts from the types of action that can and should be taken. No other country — let alone the UN — has put any significant diplomatic pressure on Malaysia to end its racial politics and give all its citizens equal rights.

  18. Indians in Malaysia should seek to publicise their plight in international fora and media. It is extremely unwise to rely on India or Tamil Nadu politicians to take Malaysia to task. That strengthens the hand of malay supremacists who feel even more justified in their ‘balek india/cina’(back to india/china) taunts. The irony being of course that many, many malays are recent immigrants themselves from the indonesian archipelago!

  19. I am surprised that the last two posts with the foul language were allowed. Let’s discuss this topic calmly and civilly.

    • Thanks, Sameer. Those comments were made a long time after the rest of the thread and we missed them, but you’re right, and they were deleted.