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In Kuala Lumpur, tens of thousands of Muslims have protested on the streets to save their ethnic rights. Malay privilege is under threat from the government, causing massive discontent across the multiracial country. The peaceful protest took place on 8 December 2018. This was the first rally since Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad came to power in May 2018. For Malays, the plan to strip Malay ethnic privileges was constructed by the government who planned to ratify a UN treaty against racial discrimination. Malays fear this will end their privileges under a decades-old affirmative action policy. However, this was not Mohamad’s intention, therefore, the plan was abandoned. Protesters went along with the “thanksgiving rally” as they believed that standing up to the authorities works towards a better future for Malaysia.
The protest took place between Jamek Mosque and the National Mosque and the group of protesters was over 1km long. Two main Malay opposition parties came in support of the rally and members joined hands with protesters. Even if it seems strange that Malaysians are protesting a UN treaty against racial discrimination, this fear comes from the significant gap in wealth between the Malays and the Chinese as well as Indian minorities. Therefore, the ethnic Malays do not want to see their privileges possibly taken away under the UN treaty which would create an equal view of all.
Malaysia has been successful as a multicultural and multiracial country for decades, as the last deadly racial riots took place in 1969. The following year, Malaysia introduced a program that gave preferential jobs, education and housing to Malays. This was to counteract the wealth gap between the ethnic Malays and the ethnic Chinese. The former make up approximately 32 million people, whereas the rest of the country is made up of Chinese and Indian minorities. Although the initiative to improve the living standards of Malays did have an effect, many of them are still living with very few resources or opportunities.
The protest took place less than two weeks after more than 80 people were arrested in a riot at an Indian temple outside of Kuala Lumpur. According to authorities, violence was a result of a land dispute, not a racial protest. However, the government cautioned that attendees of Saturday’s protest should not make provocative statements as this could lead to conflict. Even though it allowed the protest as a demonstration of free speech, it did warn protesters of the chaos that it may cause. One of the attendees was former Prime Minister Najib Razak, who was accused of multiple accounts of corruption.
According to the police, at least 55,000 attendees took to the streets. Many of them wore white t-shirts with headbands that read “reject ICERD.” This refers to the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. Ratifying ICERD was meant to be a positive step for Malaysia under the new leadership. In fact, Mohamad planned to sign six human rights conventions, promising that his nation would promote UN principles in its international engagements. He said that “It is within this context that the new government of Malaysia has pledged to ratify all remaining core UN instruments related to the protection of human rights…but it will not be easy for us because Malaysia is multi-ethnic, multi-religious, multicultural and multilingual.”
The rally was planned by Malay-Muslim organizations including Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS) and United Malays National Organization (UMNO). According to UMNO President Zahid Hamidi and PAS President Abdul Hadi Awang, the large numbers hailing from both parties show unity and is a positive sign for Malaysia. Mr. Zahid stated, “Us gathering here as one people is symbolic. The current Pakatan Harapan government should not play a fool with these people. If they do, we will be united and gather again like we have done today.”
The rally saw tens of thousands of Malay Muslims wearing white, demanding the protection of their privileges. Large numbers of police gathered around major roads, closed off for the event. This comes at a time of growing racial tensions in the country. Approximately 55,000 people headed to the historic square in downtown Kuala Lumpur, chanting “God is great” and waving signs saying, “Long live the Malays.”
Many Malays worry that the new government will provide minorities with too much representation. This would be an optimal time for Mohamad to help the Malay majority improve their way of life. It is very important that the Malay majority feel recognized as a vital part of Malaysia’s rich tradition. Less insecurity means progress for the country and is necessary due to the large amount of Malay Muslims currently unsatisfied with the government. Although it is likely that many protesters did not truly understand the treaty, it has sent out a strong message to the authorities that Malay privileges must remain.
After years of corruption, it is extremely important for the new leadership to bring people together to strengthen communities and cooperation. This cooperation will not only strengthen the economy but also bring positive changes for Malay citizens. However, insecurity will only cause more division and poorer Malays need to feel content. They need to be sure that their government is looking out for their best interests. The ethnic Malays do not want to be lost in a country where their Chinese counterparts have a higher level of success. It is up to the authorities to ensure that all Malaysian people live well.