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COMMENT In response to the massive Bersih 4 rally last month, Umno – let’s stop pretending that it is not behind it – is planning a counter-demonstration of its own tomorrow, Sept 16, which is Malaysia Day.

Many people have expressed concern that the so-called “red shirt” demonstration might provoke racial violence, especially given the incendiary remarks of some of its leaders, the inflammatory posters that have appeared across town and the provocative choice of venue (in the heart of what’s left of Kuala Lumpur’s Chinatown).

Understandably, there have been calls to ban the red shirt rally.

While the red shirts have, of course, the same rights as Bersih supporters to demonstrate, they do not have licence to threaten others. They can rally to support a morally bankrupt regime if they want, but they are not free to launch a campaign of racial intimidation.

Oddly, while the federal territories minister and the police are insisting that the red shirt will not be permitted to assemble as planned, the prime minister, the deputy prime minister (who is also home minister), and the Umno Youth chief all endorsed the Sept 16 demonstration. No surprise, therefore, that the police have now relented.

A turning point?

However, the whole disgraceful red shirt affair has highlighted another far more encouraging dynamic that might well mark a significant turning point in Malaysia’s evolution as a nation state.

I am referring, of course, to the chorus of criticism against the red shirt coming especially from within the Malay community.

In just the last few days, many Malay/Muslim-led civil society groups have spoken out forcefully and decisively against the red shirts, disassociating themselves from their racist agenda and challenging the assertion that the red shirts speak for all Malays.

A coalition of 20 NGOs including ProRakyat, Otai Reformasi 1998, National Interlok Action Team (Niat) and Jingga13 have petitioned His Majesty the Yang di-Pertuan Agong to intervene to stop the Sept 16 rally.

ProRakyat’s president Khairul Anuar Othman, has even vowed that should the rally take place, his members will turn out in force to protect their fellow citizens of ethnic Chinese descent from red shirt intimidation.

Another group of prominent Malay NGO’s, including G25, have issued a statement denouncing the red shirt rally.

Referring to red shirt propaganda about redeeming Malay honour, G25 pointedly remarked that honour and dignity are not redeemed by blaming others but by upholding the principles of truth and justice, holding accountable those who have been entrusted to govern, remaining true to the moral teachings of Islam and exposing the hypocrisy of those who use religion to cling to power.

Influential opinion-makers like Marina Mahathir, former minister Zaid Ibrahim ( photo ), Saifuddin Abdullah, Prof Mohamad Tajuddin Rasdi and banker Nazir Razak (the prime minister’s brother) have also weighed in against the red shirts.

Nazir declared that he won’t be wearing red on 1Sept 16; instead he will be celebrating the racial, religious and cultural diversity that defines Malaysia.

Former Umno leaders like Dr Mahathir Mohamad and Rafidah Aziz have panned the Sept 16 rally as well.

Rafidah, to her credit, went further, positing the view – radical by Malaysian standards – that we should all identify ourselves as Malaysian first rather than by our individual ethnicity. She went on to deliver a passionate plea for an end to the Malay first mentality, a stinging rebuke to the leaders of her own party who have thrived by exploiting racial issues.

Even the royals have stepped in, with one ruler reiterating that there is no room for racism in his state.

The Penang mufti, meanwhile, has reiterated that bigotry and fanaticism towards a particular ethnic group has no place in Islam.

Clearly, such unprecedented and unambiguous rejection of the politics of division sends a strong signal to Umno that it can no longer avoid its responsibility for good and clean government by hiding behind race and religion.

A crude attempt to divert attention

All the red shirts have done, therefore, is reinforce the image of Umno as nothing but a morally bankrupt and racist party with no greater purpose than to stay in power at all costs. It has no principle, no virtue, no noble cause. Its leaders may talk about championing Malay interests or defending Islam, but it’s all a sham and they know it.

After all, what is the Sept 16 rally all about? What do the red shirts stand for?

Are they fighting for justice? Are they taking a stand against corruption? Are they pressing for fiscal accountability? Are they demanding good governance? Are they calling for respect for our constitution and for the democratic rights of all Malaysians? Are they pleading for national unity and tolerance?

From what we know, the answer to all of the above is a resounding no. The rally is simply a crude attempt to divert attention from a beleaguered and unpopular leader by stoking racial and religious tension.

Umno is mired in the mother of all scandals and it blames the Chinese. Umno has lost the respect of the overwhelming majority of Malaysians and it blames the DAP. Umno has brought disgrace to the nation and it blames the Jews and Christians.

Red is now the colour of a morally bankrupt regime, of shame, racism, intolerance and all that is wrong with Malaysia, and right-thinking Malaysians, irrespective of their ethnicity, want nothing to do with it.

A more hopeful political paradigm

Hopefully, the clear rejection of racial and religious politics presages a shift to a new political paradigm, where political parties are judged solely by their performance rather than by racial or religious considerations.

In many ways, this shift to a new values-based political system is already well under way.

Just look at the ongoing metamorphosis in the Islamic-oriented PAS, which has now belatedly come out against the red shirts as well. PAS leader Hadi Awang’s ill-advised drive to force hudud upon the nation not only splintered his party but triggered an outcry that galvanised moderate Muslims like G25 into action.

The PAS breakaway faction, Parti Amanah Negara, is currently redefining itself in terms of a broader national agenda that speaks to all Malaysians, irrespective of race or religion.

Consider as well the evolution of parties like the DAP and PKR, which are already far more inclusive, far more multiracial than BN. Emerging political leaders like Nurul Izzah Anwar, Zaril Khir Johari ( photo ) and Hannah Yeoh appeal to a wider cross-section of Malaysians than most race-based BN politicians.

With a political platform espousing good governance, fiscal responsibility, racial and religious tolerance and democratic reform, they are rapidly earning the trust and support of Malaysians, irrespective of their race or religion.

Clearly, something unique and exciting is taking place in Malaysia. After years of institutionalised racism centred on the BN formula, racial and religious politics are being upended. Racism and intolerance, in whatever form, might at last be losing the aura of respectability and acceptability that was given it. We are not there yet but there’s light at the end of the tunnel.

That would be something worth celebrating this Malaysia Day.

DENNIS IGNATIUS was a career foreign service officer who served in London, Beijing, Washington, Santiago, Buenos Aires and Ottawa. He retired in 2008 as high commissioner to Canada.

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