Changing colour of minority politics
Writer: Wong Chin Huat
Published: Fri, 30 Nov 2012
IF YOU follow Malaysians’ obsession for numbers, you would say that 1125 must have a certain embedded meaning about minority politics.
November 25 that is.
Five years ago, some 30,000 ethnic Indians protested against their chronic marginalisation under the banner of Hindu Rights Action Force (Hindraf).
For the 50 years before that, Indians, who were always less than 10% of the population, had been a reliable voting bank for the ruling coalition.
Over the weekend, two rallies, attended predominantly by ethnic Chinese, took place in Klang Valley.
This was not surprising for the rally at Padang Timur, Petaling Jaya, which reportedly attracted some 8,000.
It was one protesting against the marginalisation of Chinese education and the danger posed by the government’s latest policy document, the draft Education Blueprint.
Led by Dong Zong and joined by some 700 Chinese NGOs, the protest was triggered by the fear that Mandarin as the medium language in Chinese schools might be sidelined in the Blueprint’s zeal to advance the learning of the national language and English.
In contrast, the afternoon rally – which was the last leg of a 300-km march from Kuantan to Kuala Lumpur – attracted some 20,000-30,000 participants despite its claim that there was no formal organisational structure.
The crowd had merely followed one man and his band of 27 walkers, said the organisers.
After the rally was declared illegal upon their arrival at the barricaded edge of Dataran Merdeka, the man said he only needed a space of three square feet to rest after his long walk.
Instead of negotiating with the police for some time before dispersal, as how rally organisers usually do, he asked his followers to take individual responsibility to decide whether or not to stay with him.
And within 15 minutes, most of the participants made their way home. Some 200 others stayed back and slept on the blocked road till the next morning for parliamentarians to turn up and listen to their grouses.
The police would probably be puzzled by how things turned out.
Their fear has always been that discontented citizens may occupy Dataran Merdeka and turn it into a Tahrir Square. It was an unusual if not bizarre rally, at least on three counts.
Firstly, while the rally was supported by opposition parties, the participants were largely ordinary citizens – with many mothers and children – and not party members.
Secondly, while it was predominantly Chinese, the goal was nothing communal. It was to stop the radioactive Lynas rare earth plant in Kuantan and environmentally detrimental projects elsewhere.
It even tried to connect itself with the Malay anti-colonialist movements of the 19th century. A 20-feet banner calling to revive the spirit of Pahang anti-colonial hero Mat Kilau (“Kembalikan semangat Mat Kilau”) was featured prominently in the march.
Condemning toxic colonisation by foreign businesses assisted by local politicians, with slogans like, “Malaysia is not rubbish bin”, the rally was a call for a new strand of nationalism, green nationalism.
Thirdly, while the 14-day Green Walk was well-coordinated, the organisational structure was rather fluid and temporary.
While the colour is definitive, it is nowhere near a colour revolution. It was between a miniature of Gandhi’s Salt March and a weekend carnival.
Wong Tack, the man who initiated the walk, led only a Kuantan-based loose group called Himpunan Hijau (Green Gathering).
A national green coalition, somewhat like the election reform coalition Bersih 2.0, wanted by some activists has not come into being.
The snowballing crowd from every part of the nation was largely individuals mobilised along the 300-km journey, coordinated through and made viral by Facebook, mobile phones and tablets.
But all this perhaps signify the great changes in five years since the Hindraf rally and in 43 years since the May 13 riot.
The ethnic minorities had largely stayed out of street rallies since 1969 before Hindraf changed this and became one of the contributing factors to the 2008 elections.
After the Bersih 2.0 rally last July, which saw incredible shows of inter-ethnic solidarity before police violence, demonstrations have become a “national culture”, with 20 over rallies – ranging from a few hundred participants to a few hundred thousands – since then. And participation of the minorities, especially the Chinese, was also prominent.
This however has not led to the an escalation of ethnic tension. The predominantly Chinese crowd marching on Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman last Sunday was joyful and not alarming or tense in any way.
To put things in a clearer historical context, the Chinese community has moved markedly from communal concerns.
In the 1980s, Chinese education was the main course in Chinese socio-political activism, while environmental protection – the only prominent one was incidentally against the first rare earth plant in Papan, Perak – a side dish.
Last Sunday, the Green March crowd was not only larger than the Dong Zong crowd, it was also significantly younger.
What this shows is ethnic concerns are being overtaking by non-ethnic related environmental causes.
While some may see it as a failure that the Green movement has failed to win the ethnic Malays over in large numbers, from another angle, the political emancipation of the ethnic Chinese has taken a non-threatening form and is paving the way for a more inclusive strand of civil nationalism.
When Wong Tack gave his speech before the barricades, he was accompanied by a Buddhist monk and a kopiah-wearing Muslim elder.
No coincidence – Ishak Surin is the Gombak division chief of the Islamist opposition PAS who has been in the front line defending Chinatown from land acquisition for the MRT project.
In fact, the Green Marchers – both men and women – stayed at the old PAS headquarters in Taman Melewar on Saturday night before marching towards Dataran Merdeka the next morning.
The green-green collaboration, if you like, is slowly turning skin colour into an ideological colour.
That is something the Umno assembly this week can think about before declaring that they have changed enough.