Saturday, March 15, 2008

Now See What Happens When You Play Around With The Keris?

Written by Farish A. Noor
Thursday, 13 March 2008

As the broken remnants of the Barisan Nasional recuperate and recover what is left of their shattered pride, it would be prudent to take a step back and look at some of the factors that have certainly contributed to the dismal showing the BN component parties and the UMNO party in particular.

It is clear to many that this election was, in some ways, a singularly unique event in the same way that the 2004 elections were special. 2004’s election results could be read as a collective sigh of relief on the part of the Malaysian electorate after twenty years of rule under the Mahathir government, which witnessed a host of controversial incidents ranging from the BMF scandal of the early 1980s all the way up to Ops Lalang in 1987. The enormous mandate given to the Badawi government was a sign that the public was thirsting for change and that they were no longer willing to live with the modes of governance and politics that we have all grown sadly accustomed to for lack of a choice…

This time round, the electorate has once again spoken to signal their utter disillusionment after it became painfully evident that none of the reform policies foregrounded by the Badawi team were ever going to come true. Instead this had been an administration long on gimmicks and novelties, but short on substance and delivery. Was it necessary to send a Malaysian astronaut to space on a Russian craft, to make the vain boast that a Malaysian citizen had been there and done that? If this was meant to assuage the anger and frustration of Malaysians who lived in estates and poorly-run low-cost urban housing, it certainly had the opposite effect of driving home the point that this administration was out of touch with reality and totally disconnected with the needs and wants of the people.

But vain boasts notwithstanding, the Badawi government suffered its long-overdue shock due to the vain boasts of some of its leaders and spokesmen. Here is it worth noting the effect that UMNO’s own overheated pyrotechnics had on the sentiments and sensibilities of a significant section of the Malaysian public; namely the non-Malays and non-Muslims of the country. In particular we are referring to the repeated assertion on the part of some hot-headed UMNO leaders who continued to harp on about the notion of Malay dominance in a racially and religiously diverse and plural society.

The abandonment of the MCA, Gerakan and MIC by the Malaysian electorate would suggest that the non-Malay voters have grown fed up with the toothless apologia of the non-Malay leaders and representatives of the BN when faced with the antics of UMNO demagogues and soap-box orators. In particular we will recall the incidents when the leader of UMNO’s Youth Wing Hishamuddin Onn, brandished the keris in public, on stage, and pontificated at some length about Malay pride and the place of the Malays in Malaysia.

The use of the keris as a symbol of racial unity and identity was and is in itself problematic, considering that the keris in Malaysia today is such a politically loaded symbol that is pregnant with meaning and historical connotations. Hishamuddin’s brandishing of the keris did not take place in a historical vacuum, even if the politician had no sense of history (which is unlikely to be the case.)

As we all know, the keris has been transformed into a marker for a particular sort of right-wing ethno-nationalist ideology that serves the agenda of Malay racial and cultural supremacists since 1969 and all the way up to 1987 and beyond. Need we remind the leaders of UMNO that some of them were also present at the Malay nationalists’ rally in Kampung Baru in 1987, when once again the keris was identified with Malay pride as well as the threat of violence? UMNO leaders like Najib Razak were present when their supporters chanted and carried banners with slogans like ‘This keris will drink Chinese blood’.

It is against that specific historical context – that was fully engineered by UMNO, mind you – that Hishamuddin’s raising of the keris on several occasions aroused both the fear and anger of many non-Malays and Malays as well. Was this not an act of provocation, where once again UMNO was brandishing its muscle in defiance of the other communities in the country?

Compounding the problem was the MCA, Gerakan and MIC’s relative impotence and quietism when Hisham gave us this theatrical display of misplaced ethnic pride and muscular nationalism. Despite the plaintive appeals of the leaders of MCA, Gerakan and MIC to desist from such soapbox pyrotechnics, neither Hisham, nor UMNO Youth, nor the Prime Minister himself altered course: UMNO Youth was allowed a free hand to make such outrageous ethnic-communitarian demands at a time when MCA, Gerakan and MIC wished to assert their identity as equal partners of the BN. It seemed almost as if by raising the keris in the way that he did, Hisham was indicating that UMNO Youth was more important than the other non-Malay component parties, and this repeated act of defiance drove in the nails in the coffins of the MCA, Gerakan and MIC respectively.

Crucially the one person who could have said and done something to stop the erosion of the MCA, Gerakan and MIC’s credibility was Prime Minister Badawi; who could simply have pulled the reins on the hot-heats and chest-thumpers of UMNO Youth. Yet even Badawi stood paralysed, allowing them to raise the ante further. This apparent paralysis on the part of Prime Minister Badawi rendered null and void his now-vacuous claim that he was the ‘Prime Minister of all Malaysians’. If he was indeed such a universal leader-figure, then why did this ‘Prime Minister of all Malaysians’ do nothing and say nothing when the younger leaders of his own party were raising the spectre of racial supremacy before his very eyes?

Thus it can perhaps be said that the election results of 2008 are an indicator of the extent to which MCA, Gerakan and MIC have been seen as the running dogs of UMNO in a BN coalition that has grown more and more unbalanced in the eyes of so many. Playing around with kerises is something you do in old movies about silat warriors, but not in the context of modern-day Malaysian politics where respect for cultural diversity and the equal pride and status of all communities should be paramount. The hot-heads in UMNO Youth may have been playing to the Malay gallery when they pulled the stunt of drawing the keris in public, but the catastrophic damage they did to the image and standing of their component BN partners was beyond calculation. In the end, however, it is not the keris, but rather the clumsy hand that wields it that is to be blamed. UMNO’s two-faced management of race-relations, which was flawed from the outset, has undone itself and the BN. To quote the popular refrain: “Padan Muka”.

***Dr. Farish Ahmad-Noor is a Senior Fellow at the Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technical University (NTU), Singapore where he is Director of Research for the Research Cluster on Transnational Religion in Southeast Asia. He is also guest affiliated Professor at both Universitas Muhammadiyah Surakarta (UMS) and Sunan Kalijaga Islamic University, Jogjakarta. He is the author of 'Writings on the War on Terror' (2006), 'From Majapahit to Putrajaya' (2005) and 'Islam Embedded: The Historical Development of PAS' (2004). He collects antiques for a hobby; travels dangerously to find himself and is taken for walks when he's been a good boy. He lives for the day when he will quit smoking for good.

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