A common misconception people have about Malaysia is the implication a multi-racial society has on its identity.
Though the country has a variety of food, festivals and religious buildings, but beneath the surface, the country is polarised by racial, religious and socio economic conditions. In fact, the reason why race-based parties have done so well is because the communities do not see anything else substantive in common with their other fellow citizens. Apart from the similarities in the appearance of the Identity Card and Passport, the different communities are so far apart that they might as well have come from different countries. (And some may remark hat the last statement is perhaps stating the obvious.)
Interestingly, this divide has an increasingly geographic bias. The rural Malay communities, be it from the historical towns like Pasir Salak, or settlers from a Felda scheme, have been the defacto “power broker” within the context of national politics. Their undivided and united support has seen the ruling Barisan Nasional win every single election since independence as the rural belt makes up the bulk of seats in Peninsular Malaysia.
For a long time they have been largely been left out of the national conversation. Their well being and continued support was the responsibility of a host of Government departments in the Prime Ministers Department, such as JASA, KEMAS, Seranta (Felda) and Government linked companies such as Felcra, Felda, Risda, Mardi and the like. So long as those departments and entities did not collectively mess up at the same time, and that too on an unprecedented scale, rural Malay support for the Government was assured. In fact, with PAS seeking ‘peace overtures’ with UMNO, the traditional political rivalry has been turned upside down and the rural folk are no longer identifiable by UMNO villages and PAS outposts.
However, beneath this coalescing between rival political factions lies the emergence of a deeper more sinister divide.
For only the third time in history, the first being the Opposition to the Malay Union in 1946, the second being the racial riots of 1969 , this group made their voices known through Himpunan Solidariti Rakyat, or colloquially known as the “Red Shirts Rally” , which has held in September 2015.
From the embers of this rally, a new movement was born, called the “Baju Merah”, “Red Shirts” or “Anti Bersih”, led by the mercurial Dato Seri Jamal Yunos, the UMNO Division leader for Sungai Besar. Similar to the Sturmabteilung, the Brown shirts who served as the initial paramilitary wing of the Nazi party, the members of the red shirts are almost rural Malay men, and the members view themselves as ultra nationalists entrusted to defend the wider race, religion and community from the incessant demands of the Non-Malay dominated Opposition or their associates. Their recent confrontation with the Bersih 5.0 convoy has catapulted Dato Seri Jamal’s motley crew into a legitimate political paramilitary movement or militia, which by itself gives him tremendous amounts of legitimacy and political mileage.
The Opposition leaning latte sipping public should not be deluded into thinking that all the negative publicity behind the Red Shirts has in any way lessened their appeal. In contrast, all this publicity only serves to entice disenfranchised Malay youths, who may be enticed to become members, the local UMNO division chieftains who crave their muscle power or the wider rural community, who seem more and more eager to engage their “enemies” in a less than civil fashion.