By Dr Kua Kia Soong, SUARAM adviser, 18 December 2012


The launch of “Violence against an Ethnic Minority in Malaysia: Kampung Medan 2001” by S. Nagarajan & K. Arumugam is a wake-up call for Malaysians to get wise to the Malaysian state’s attempts to portray racist/fascist pogroms against ethnic minorities in Malaysia as so-called “racial riots” that came about “naturally” because of social conditions and dissatisfaction. This is the first book written to put the record straight on the racial violence against ethnic Indian Malaysians at Kampung Medan in 2001. For this racial violence to happen more than thirty years after “May 13” is a scandal and an indictment of Malaysia’s modern day institutions which are still steeped in racism and racial discrimination.


My 2007 title, “May 13: Declassified Documents on the Malaysian Riots of 1969” challenged the official version that the violence (in which the victims were mainly ethnic Chinese) was the result of “riots” between “Malays” and “Chinese” who had been provoked by irresponsible opposition politicians. The official version of the Kampung Medan violence in 2001 was that the “riots” had been sparked by incidents which ignited “naturally” in a neglected urban ghetto.


The facts on May 13 point to an orchestrated pogrom in which a complicit state allowed the violence to drag on until July 1969, before the security forces demonstrated their full capacity to restore order. As documented in Nagarajan & Arumugam’s new book, the Kampung Medan violence, which started on March 8, 2001, was allowed to continue over a number of days in a relatively small enclave of Petaling Jaya – with the last tragic incident occurring on March 23.


This delay in taking action reveals a serious credibility problem surrounding our law enforcement and security forces. How is it that these forces failed in their duty to apprehend the thugs who unleashed the racial violence and also failed to investigate those who had organized the violence? Eye witness accounts show that in some of the racial attacks there, the police just stood by without stopping and apprehending the thugs. This was the same observation noted during the “May 13” pogrom, namely, the security forces did not play the professional role expected of them.


Just as in 1969, these incidents were not “racial clashes” between ordinary Malays and non-Malays. In this record of Kampung Medan, it is clear that the people within this community were of diverse ethnicity and that between them there was the sort of camaraderie evident in Kampung Baru in May 1969.


The culprits who were responsible for the violence were fascist thugs from outside these communities who had been brought there by “hidden hands”. It is the duty and responsibility of the police and security forces to apprehend the thugs and to unmask the hidden hands and reveal their agenda. After all, our Malaysian Police Force pride themselves on being one of the best in this part of the world, having been trained by the British colonial power to handle the Emergency during the fifties. Note the speed with which they execute ISA operations and their alacrity in breaking up civil demonstrations of thousands!


Racism against Ethnic Indians

The purposeful stereotyping of the Chinese and Indian Malaysians as the “immigrants who should know their place” as distinct from those defined as “bumiputeras” (“princes of the soil”) by the state and the Malay far-right is intended to justify “Malay dominance”. Thus the “May 13 Incident” has been frequently used as a deterrent to any challenge to the status quo, whether during a general election or simply a challenge to an unjust UMNO policy. In recent years, a pattern has emerged in which ethnic Indians, who are a minority community in this country (of less than 10% of the total population) finding themselves the majority in official statistics on deaths in police custody and victims of police shootings. These shocking facts reflect the racist portrayal of the marginalized Indian community in the state institutions. Through the years, we have also witnessed many cases of racial slurs against ethnic Indians in the mainstream media and school textbooks.


Even though biologically, there is no such basis for a category known as “race”, the social construction of race is ever present in this country. Racism and racialization came about during the period when the different communities were under the dominance of British colonialism. In the circumstances of that time, it suited the dominant group to legitimise dominance by a divide and rule strategy that viewed minorities as “non-indigenous” who required assimilation.


This legacy of racism, which has been further institutionalised since independence, is not only evident in school textbooks but also in media discourse and everyday conversation. My writings on press coverage of ethnic affairs since the Eighties (eg. “Media Watch: The Use and Abuse of the Malaysian Press”, SCAH 1990) have shown that ethnic minority groups tend to be reproduced in the Malay-language press in stereotypical, blatantly racist terms. Thus, minorities are associated with problems and conflict and then portrayed as a threat to the dominant Malay population. Topics tend to focus on “aliens”, “them versus us”, crime and cultural differences are interpreted negatively. The message is clear: “Immigrants must adapt or else…”, “Indians must behave…”Today, this blatant racism has become second-nature to the Malay-language press and media watching is no longer an art in Malaysia!


‘1Malaysia’ Forces UMNO to Outsource Racism to Far-Right

State complicity is evident not only in the negligent role of the security forces but also in its tolerance of the far-right and their racist taunts. Fascism has a knack for appearing in capitalist crises. At the time when the racial violence happened at Kampung Medan in 2001, the so-called “Malay Action Front” provocatively waved the keris and pledged to defend “Malay ethnic supremacy”. Such racist provocation and UMNO’s manipulation of Malay sentiments serve to ensure UMNO’s monopoly of political power and their ability to reap the fruits of Malay-centrism. In the process, such racist propaganda serves to divert the attention of the Malay poor from their real problems and the ruling elite responsible for them.


Since the 2008 political tsunami and UMNO’s attempts to win back Non-Malay support through such ploys as the “1Malaysia” slogan, it appears that UMNO Youth’s traditional role of racial breast-beating has been outsourced to the far-right groups. UMNO soon learnt that the spectacle of “Kerishamudin” playing the Malay warrior at the 2006 UMNO general assembly had cost them too many non-Malay votes in the 2008 general election.


The Umnoputras, in their pursuit of political and economic power, are not interested in solving the social problems that have resulted from the neo-liberal and discriminatory policies which they have put in place. The far-right is there to ensure that the Malay working class and middle class are wooed by the “Malay-centrist” ideology in an effort to prevent them from joining the growing movement against the present unjust system. As has happened in the history of capitalism, fascists only offer racism and violence as a solution to people’s desperation.


Outlaw Racism, Racial Discrimination & Hate Crimes

“Hate crimes” are criminal acts committed as intimidation, threats, property damage, assault, murder or such other criminal offence. The negative impact of hate crimes on the greater community cannot be emphasized enough. In order to nip this tendency in the bud, “Incitement to racial hatred” needs to be made a criminal offence. Under the British Criminal Justice & Public Order Act 1994 for example, publication of materials that incite racial hatred is an arrestable offence. These include deliberately provoking hatred against a racial group; distributing racist material to the public; making inflammatory public speeches; creating racist websites on the internet; inciting inflammatory rumours about an individual or ethnic group, in order to spread racial     discontent.


The UK Public Order Act 1986 defines racial hatred as “hatred against a group of persons defined by reference to colour, race, nationality or ethnic origins”. Section 21 of the Act makes “incitement to racial hatred” an offence to publish or distribute material which is threatening or abusive or insulting if intended to stir up racial hatred…” In Malaysia, the proposed Equality Act and Equality & Human Rights Commission (see below) should likewise specifically deal with hate crimes and incitement to racial hatred.


Never Too Late for Truth & Justice

Although this is more than ten years after the Kampung Medan incident, it is never too late for the truth to be spoken and justice to be despatched to the victims of organized racial violence. There is simply no cut-off point in the struggle for truth and justice. The British government is currently being forced to carry out a judicial review of the Batang Kali massacre that happened in 1948. When my book on “May 13” was published in 2007, I called for the formation of a Truth & Reconciliation Commission so that the nation can know the truth about the pogrom of 1969 when hundreds of ethnic Chinese Malaysians were killed. Forty three years have passed, and we still do not know the identity of the victims and the “hidden hands” who orchestrated that “May 13 Incident”.


But all these efforts will be in vain if the rest of the Malaysian society does not learn the lessons of this episode. We have to redress the human rights issues that have still not been resolved in this country and reform the institutions to ensure that “Kampung Medan” and “May 13” never ever happen again. Such steps include:

  • Forming and swiftly deploying a Special Multi-Ethnic Peace-Keeping Force to keep order if  such incidents occur in future;
  • Establishing, with urgency, a neutral Commission of Inquiry into any such incidents and charging the culprits responsible for murder.
  • Implementing the Independent Police Complaints & Misconduct Committee;
  • Ensuring that recruitment into the police and armed forces and career advancement are based on merit;
  • Enacting an Equality Act to promote equality and non-discrimination irrespective of race, creed, religion, gender or disability with provision for an Equality & Human Rights Commission;
  • Institutionalising equality and human rights education at all decision-making levels, including state and non-state actors/ institutions;
  • Ratifying the Convention on the Eradication of Racial Discrimination (CERD).


No Platform for Racists & Fascists

Clearly, far right racial supremacists who rail about the dominance of their “race” would be reined in by an Equality & Human Rights Commission and dealt with under an Equality Act. Any government that has credibility must implement a policy of “Zero Tolerance for Racists” and “No Platform for Fascists”. Freedom of expression does not extend to the right to violence, incitement of racial or religious hatred. Indeed, it is the freedom of expression for the majority of humanity that fascists threaten. Fascism must not be allowed to infect the democratic space built by our fore fathers. The publication of this book is another positive contribution to the peoples’ history, the struggle against racism and fascism in Malaysia and a further advancement of the ever growing civil society movement in this country.

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