KUALA LUMPUR - Malaysia's government regularly cautions its constituents that open and honest dialogue of the "sensitive" subject of race is strictly off limits.
Then comes along the week-long United Malays National Organization (UMNO) annual assembly, at which Muslim Malay party leaders warn the country's minority Chinese and Indians that questioning the special status of Islam and Malays in society will be met with violent doom.
Fists tremble. Daggers are brandished. Party delegates thunder, "Long live the Malays." The very predictability of the chest-thumping is what UMNO members use to rationalize it: "Although some sides were a bit extreme (this year)," said UMNO vice-president Muhyiddin Yassin, "it is quite normal to voice feelings during the assembly."
Yet it would be a mistake to confuse this year's assembly with previous party congresses. The Islamic and racist zeal was unmistakably more incessant and explicit, and the proceedings were considerably less tempered with calls for national unity. Remarks by Hasnoor Hussein, an UMNO delegate from Malacca, were typical: "UMNO is willing to risk lives and bathe in blood to defend the race and religion. Don't play with fire. If the (other races) mess with our rights, we will mess with theirs."
What troubles many Malaysians about UMNO's lack of restraint is that it comes at a time when the country appears more racially polarized than it's been in decades. Malaysia's mix of ethnic Malays, Indians and Chinese has long been resentful of each other and wilfully segregate themselves. Those resentments exploded into full-blown race riots in 1969, when ethnic Malays attacked and killed scores of ethnic Chinese.
These days, some 90% of Chinese students attend private Mandarin-language schools. Meanwhile, most Malays attend public schools and most Indians Tamil-language institutions of learning. Two years ago the government initiated a public service program to improve race relations by choosing 18-year-olds to participate in a military style camp. That scheme has been dogged by reports of race-related infighting, however.
In the face of a creeping Islamization, non-Malays and social activists have recently pressured Malaysia's UMNO leadership to grant equal rights to all of the country's citizens regardless of race or religion - as is guaranteed under the federal constitution.
In particular, they have also become more vocal in questioning a controversial affirmative action program intended to help Muslim Malays catch up economically with the ethnic Chinese, who comprise 60% and 25% of the population respectively.
Started in 1971, the so-called New Economic Policy (NEP) was originally intended to last 20 years but has since been extended indefinitely. That's because, according to the government, its target of 30% Malay ownership of the country's total corporate equity still has not been achieved. According to official statistics, that percentage now hovers around 18%. Yet a study conducted by an independent academic last month contested that figure by claiming that ethnic Malay total equity ownership could already be as high as 45%.
The push for more democracy in authoritarian Malaysia leaves its ethnic Chinese and Indian minority groups particularly vulnerable - a fact reflected in the racial bashing at this year's UMNO assembly. At the same time, UMNO's preoccupation with racial politics raises growing doubts about its ability to lead the country forward faced with the challenge of China's economic emergence. The party leadership has openly acknowledged the need for Malaysia to change course if it is to remain competitive with its fast-rising neighbors.
Economic growth slowed from 7.2% in 2004 to 5.2% last year, while foreign investment dropped 15% to $3.9 billion. Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi has promoted his concept of Islam Hadhari, or Civilizational Islam, a modernist interpretation of the faith that stresses moderation and technological and economic competitiveness. In that direction, his party has also introduced plans to transform Malaysia into a regional information technology, agricultural and biotech hub.
"We need an economic transformation," Abdullah said in his opening address at the UMNO assembly. Yet tight curbs on personal freedoms, implemented to curb racial tensions, have hindered the open inquiry and innovative spirit necessary to achieve Abdullah's vision. The next phase of economic development will require coincident social transformation, reforms the current race-obsessed political leadership is reluctant to implement.
Oddly, UMNO was once a progressive party, championing what seemed a viable vision to improve equity among the races. Even into the 1990s, under the iron-fisted leadership of Mahathir Mohamad, UMNO looked primed to lead Malaysia toward developed country status. The shimmering steel and glass that spangle Kuala Lumpur's skyline are remnants of that now fading vision.
But the plan went awry as UMNO became politically entrenched in power. Meanwhile, Malaysia's social development and technical know-how has not kept pace with its infrastructural achievements. A common concession in Malaysia, even among its own leadership, is that the country has first world infrastructure but a Third World mentality. Now, that dubious distinction is becoming increasingly obvious to outsiders.
The country's leadership must take much of the blame. UMNO has clung to old solutions, such as the NEP, to fix new problems. Put another way, UMNO, which has ruled Malaysia for four-plus decades through a coalition of other race-based parties, has become bitter, cynical and defensive - a party that is emphasizing preservation at the expense of progress.
Even younger UMNO members, once portrayed as idealistic, urbane and liberal, have quickly come to resemble the party's conservative old guard. And now they often represent the front edge of the party's increasing racist angst. For instance, Abdullah's Oxford-educated son-in-law, Khairy Jamaluddin, who is coincidentally the deputy chief of UMNO's youth wing, warned in September that Chinese political groups would try to take advantage of any split inside UMNO.
When pressured to apologize, according to media reports, the 31-year-old said, "What is there to apologize for? ... I am only defending my race." At the annual assembly, meanwhile, UMNO youth chief Hishammudin Hussein urged the government to reject proposals for an inter-faith commission intended to foster better understanding among Malaysia's various religious groups.
He brandished a Malay dagger, known locally as a keris, when speaking. Some delegates, it seemed, urged him to go further. "Datuk Hisham has unsheathed his keris, waved his keris, kissed his keris. We want to ask Datuk Hisham, when is he going to use it?" said UMNO Perlis delegate Hashim Suboh.
Non-Malays are seeking to exploit the fiery tone of the UMNO assembly to their own political advantage. Liow Tiong Lai, youth chief of the Barisan Nasional component of the Malaysian Chinese Association, said the day that the assembly wrapped up, "All of us are Malaysians in this multiracial country and hatred must not exist. Instead, we must find strength in diversity. We must inculcate love and unity among the races in order to overcome obstacles together."
Malays and UMNO party members will question the sincerity of such remarks, and not without reason. Following UMNO's example, all of Malaysia's major political parties are explicitly race-based, and all have been known to play the race card to shore up their support bases. But only UMNO has the weight of an assembly that has incited anger, mistrust and ridicule of other races.
This year's assembly could mark a dangerous turning point for a country that not long ago was often applauded internationally as a model moderate Islamic nation for its seeming religious tolerance and clear economic achievements. Nowadays, it's altogether unclear if a racially charged UMNO can even manage to maintain short-term social and political stability.
*Ioannis Gatsiounis, a New York native, is a Malaysia-based writer.