Divide and rule: the racist roots of Malaysia's Redshirt movement

With an election looming and the 1MDB scandal still hanging over Najib Razak's head, the Redshirt movement has proved a useful pawn in silencing dissent

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January 3, 2017

With an election looming and the 1MDB scandal still hanging over Najib Razak’s head, the Redshirt movement has proved a useful pawn in silencing dissent

Redshirt leader Jamal Yunos speaks outside the office of Malaysiakini at a November 2016 protest demanding the independent news portal’s closure
Activism: Redshirt leader Jamal Yunos speaks outside the office of Malaysiakini at a November 2016 protest demanding the independent news portal’s closure. Photo: EPA

On 19 November, before they were scoured from the streets of Kuala Lumpur by water cannons wielded by armoured riot police, a mob of red-draped men charged toward the capital’s Chinatown. Ostensibly organised as a pro-government response to Bersih 5, the latest anti-corruption demonstration led by the Coalition for Free and Fair Elections (Bersih), the counter-protest quickly descended into a nationalist rally, with slurs chanted against Malaysia’s ethnic Chinese minority.

Led by United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) division chief Jamal Yunos, the so-called Redshirt movement describes itself as a defender of “Malay dignity” in the face of what it claims are largely Chinese-driven protests to overthrow a democratically elected government. Dominated by the nativist UMNO party, Malaysia’s ruling Barisan Nasional coalition government has been wracked by accusations of corruption, incompetence and increasingly totalitarian crackdowns on their critics, as movements such as Bersih struggle for even the most meagre electoral reforms. Promising to meet protest with protest, the Redshirts’ response to the November Bersih 5 demonstrations was punctuated by pledges of violent reprisal against those marching on the wrong side of the police barrier. And it is in this threat, experts say, that the guiding hand behind the Redshirt resurgence, after a year of relative quiet, is laid bare.

Ross Tapsell, a lecturer and researcher at Australian National University’s College of Asia and the Pacific, said the Redshirt movement had been cynically created to drive a wedge between Malaysian voters.

“The Redshirts and their backers are trying to polarise Malaysian politics further, mostly on ethnic and religious grounds, by claiming the Bersih supporters, or ‘Yellowshirts’, are predominantly opposition voters of Chinese heritage, and the Redshirts are the ‘pro-Malay’ group,” he said.

Rather than allow Bersih’s demands for clean elections to resonate with the public, Tapsell said, the Redshirt movement had redrawn the battle lines into something more closely resembling a tribal brawl – with predictable consequences. “Bersih’s goals and the ethnic background of their supporters are much more diverse than the Redshirts give them credit for, but the effect has been to make these protests [about] free and fair elections to be more of a street ‘battle’ between coloured shirts of political parties – think Thailand,” he said.

According to Gerhard Hoffstaedter, a lecturer in anthropology at the University of Queensland and the author of Modern Muslim Identities: Negotiating Religion and Ethnicity in Malaysia, it is a tactic that has been used to stifle real reform for more than half a century.

“By collapsing important human rights issues and the demand for free elections into the racial politics that have dominated Malaysian politics since independence, the Redshirts aim to discredit universal claims to freedoms and mire their demand in a zero-sum game,” he said. “That game rests on pitting ethnic groups against each other and has proven a potent electoral tool.”

Despite making up almost one third of Malaysia’s population, the nation’s ethnic Chinese community has increasingly been cast as outsiders in the Muslim Malay-dominated country. Accused of forming a cabal controlling the Malaysian economy, the community has been the target of rising resentment from elements of a majority desperate for a scapegoat. In July 2015, the resentment exploded into fully fledged violence as a mob of 200 Malays set upon a handful of ethnic Chinese after rumours spread that a Chinese trader had sold a young Malay man a counterfeit phone. In reality, the Malay man had stolen it.    

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak addresses delegates at a UMNO event
Standing firm: Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak addresses delegates at a UMNO event. Photo: Joshua Paul/AP

For some, the discrimination has become more than they can bear. In 2015 alone the number of Malaysians seeking protection visas in Australia rose to more than 2,000 – more than double the amount of the previous year. An annual report by Australia’s Migration Review Tribunal citing testimony from the applicants revealed a litany of persecution faced by Malaysia’s ethnic Chinese community who, like all non-Malay citizens, have been denied the same opportunities as their neighbours by a constitution that explicitly grants greater rights and freedoms to those with Malay heritage.

An ethnic Chinese-Malaysian woman whose family business was allegedly closed down after repeated threats and blackmail attempts from the local Malay-dominated government, described how her family had been reduced to second-class citizens in their own country.   

“We are living like a dog,” she told the tribunal. “In the past, the Malaysian government kept watch on all the Chinese; if the Chinese children want to enter public school, it would be a very difficult thing, almost impossible… the government does not care about us.”

By painting the protesters as little more than scheming Chinese dissidents backed by foreign powers, the Redshirts have tapped into a sense of widespread insecurity that has echoes of the fear and uncertainty that drove Britain from the EU and propelled US President-elect Donald Trump into the White House. According to Hoffstaedter, by positioning Malaysia’s vast Muslim majority as somehow under threat, the Redshirts – and the ruling coalition – could then paint themselves not as bigots defending the status quo but fierce defenders of the nation’s heritage and institutions.

“The rhetoric they engage in involves portraying Malays and Muslims to be losing out or not winning any longer, and… the continued dominance of Malayness/Islam can only be enshrined and protected by UMNO,” he said.

Khoo Ying Hooi, a senior lecturer in international relations at the University of Malaya, said that racial prejudice had often been used to shut down dissent.

“Whenever we have a political crisis, the issue [of race] is very often politicised,” she said.

By playing to the public’s darkest prejudices, Khoo added, the Redshirts sent a clear threat to those who would risk the fury of the mob to win reforms.

“Religion is a sensitive issue in Malaysia,” she said. “Whatever is being played out along that line, it also sends a little warning to the opposition political parties or the civil society movement in general, because nobody wants to create a platform for any kind of controversies that surround racial issues or anything to do with religion.”

Despite public denouncements by high-ranking UMNO cabinet ministers, the presence of several UMNO youth officials within the ranks of the Redshirts and, more damningly, Jamal Yunos’ own admission that many of the movement’s followers come from within the political party have raised questions as to just how spontaneous the allegedly grassroots response to Bersih has been.

Helen Ting Mu Hung, a senior fellow at the National University of Malaysia’s Institute of Malaysian and International Studies, described the Redshirts as little more than a cluster of UMNO members rallying around Yunos to hamper Bersih ground support.

“It was a political manoeuvre implicitly endorsed by UMNO top leadership, despite their public dissociation from it, as could be seen in the warm welcome received by Jamal at the recently concluded UMNO General Assembly,” she said. “This does not mean, however, that all UMNO leaders in the party are supportive of the Redshirt movement’s tactics.”

A banner supporting Malaysia’s ruling party is held aloft at a Redshirt rally
Red sea: a banner supporting Malaysia’s ruling party is held aloft at a Redshirt rally. Photo: Lai Seng Sin/AP

Ting cited an allegation that an earlier counter-demonstration in 2015 had been bolstered by some 10,000 Federal Land Development Authority-sponsored settlers – drawn overwhelmingly from the rural poor – who had been bussed in to boost the ranks of the protesters, despite being entirely ignorant of the rally’s intent. She added that there had been several media reports following the demonstrations revealing the lengths UMNO had gone to to mobilise the ostensibly spontaneous movement.

Ting argued that the Redshirts’ threats to riot served more as a smokescreen to shift attention away from Prime Minister Najib Razak’s involvement in the ongoing 1MDB scandal – where he stands accused of siphoning more than $1 billion from the state development fund for his own political use – than as proof of any real groundswell of support.

“The fundamental objective of this movement is clearly to whip up popular support for the prime minister in view of the 1MDB scandal and to counter the popular pressure against him as indicated by the huge turnout during the Bersih demonstrations,” she said. “In order to mobilise support, it has blatantly used very racist rhetoric – especially during the demonstration [in 2015].”

As similar movements driven by nativist thugs in the West have shown, it is a dangerous game.

“This ties into global populist politics in the way leaders proclaim, agitate and appease the most right-wing political ideas,” Hoffstaedter said. “The fringe of Islamist and Malay nationalist ideology has been absorbed by the government to further their own credentials and support among their own ‘silent majority’.”

The game of pandering to Malay nationalist fears has deep roots in Malaysia, with past governments passing sweeping affirmative action legislation explicitly placing the needs of the Bumiputera – literally “sons of the soil”, referring to members of the Malay race – over those from different backgrounds. According to Hoffstaedter, the ensuing segregation has done little to create a harmonious society.

“The cost has been immense, and the main beneficiaries continue to be the elite,” he said. “The education system has bifurcated [split], and many Malays and non-Malays grow up in ethnic and religious silos, which is detrimental for social cohesion. The government has put its weight behind the exclusionary politics of Malay superiority over their national alliance.”

Since the November rallies, there has been little evidence in the media of the Redshirts’ much-vaunted counter-revolution, with both sides licking their wounds until the next march. Khoo suggested that the drop-off in activity revealed the hollow reality of the movement.

“That actually strengthens the idea that the whole counter-movement is created just to rebut whatever Bersih 5 demands, and also to create fear on the day… I don’t think there’s an issue of sustainability – they might come up again when there’s another [round] of pro-democracy protests. I don’t think they are an organised movement that are actually into sustaining themselves.”

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