Racial Extremism in Urban Malaysia

By   Prangtip Daorueng


For visitors to Kuala Lumpur, the city appears to be a robust multiracial, multicultural and multilingual community. Here Indian and Chinese Malaysians mingle with the majority Malays. But it is not what it seems.

On 13 May 1969, the city suffered a racial riot that killed hundreds, many of the victims were non-Malay minorities. It happened after members of predominantly Chinese opposition party Democratic Action Party celebrated a rare election victory in the streets of Kuala Lumpur. Youth groups under the Malay-based ruling party United Malays National Organization responded. Violence ensued.

The riot was followed by a two-year emergency rule and a New Economic Policy (NEP), an affirmative action that gave special social and economic rights to the mostly poor ethnic Malays, who are also referred to as “Bumiputera” (sons of soil), to reduce economic gap in the bid to forge national unity.

The “Bloody May” however created fear and racial distrust. The NEP policy triggered resentment among non-Bumiputera citizens as they were deprived of economic opportunities while rich Malays who mostly benefited from the policy continue to enjoy preferential treatment. Racial discourse and race-based parties dominate today’s politics.

Government campaigns on national unity often conflict with its own action – its supporters often seek to provoke racial tension whenever the government is in trouble. But while the Malays in the rural areas continue to support the government, many in Kuala Lumpur back the opposition.

In the last general election in 2013, nine of the 11 parliamentary seats in Kuala Lumpur went to the opposition. As the 2018 general election approaches, it would be interesting to see if the Malay majority in Kuala Lumpur will again vote for the multiracial opposition, and say no to racial politics.

Masjid Negara (National Mosque) in the middle of Kuala Lumpur is an icon of Islam in Malaysia. It has also been a major political gathering spot since the beginning of the 1998 political reform (Reformasi) movement. January 2018.


A man organizes his belongings in front of the National Mosque where common people
come to pray. January 2018.


Most native Malays in Kuala Lumpur are middle-income citizens who embrace modernity. Many of them are civil servants and office workers who travel by public transportation at KL Sentral Station. January 2018.


Ethnic diversity is prominent in the capital city. At the main public transportation hub Sentral Station locals of different ethnic backgrounds mingle in harmony. January2018.


A security guard at the shopping mall looks on as shoppers stroll by. January 2013.


A multi-ethnic crowd cross the street in front of China Town where Cantonese and Hakkas first settled down in the beginning of the 20th Century, showing how Chinese and Malay culture coexist in the city. January 2018.


An early shopper for Chinese New Year in Petaling Street. January 2018.


A Chinese worker and his afternoon rest in China town. January 2018.


Typical Chinese shop, China Town. January 2018.


A copy of The Straits Times newspaper dated back to 1969 shows a front- page report on the 13rd May 1969 racial riot which killed hundreds of Chinese in the city and kick started racial distrust and a policy that widened racial gap even more.


The effect of the May 13rd incident has lingered in the mind of the older generation passed on to the younger generation such as this blogger.


Two Women, Chinese and Indian, wait for the train at the old KL station. They are among the non-Bhumiputera who are affected by the New Economic Policy (NEP) which was created after the riot decades ago. January 2018.


The election in 2013 began with high hope for victory among opposition supporters. The opposition won 11 parliamentary seats in Kuala Lumpur which showed tremendous Malay support in the capital city. This old lady expressed her support to an opposition candidate during the campaign. May 2013.


Malay supporter of government party United Malays National Organization (UMNO) camped out on the street during the 2013 election campaign. May 2013.


Government and Opposition campaigners confronted each other from different sides of the street. May 2013.


The 2013 general election strengthened opposition political base in both federal and state government. Since then, Malay extremist groups began to stir up conflict by targeting opposition, civil society groups, and the Chinese. A controversial incident occurred when 800 Malay extremists in red shirts block the entrance of Chinatown and threatened to storm to “reclaim Malay rights” in as reported in Malay Mail newspaper in 2015.


There is no clear solution for racial extremism in Malaysia. As the 2018 general election comes close, politicians including Prime Minister Najib Razak have started their campaign and appeared in the media more often. It would be interesting to see if the Malay majority in Kuala Lumpur will again vote for the multiracial opposition, and say no to racial politics.

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