Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia – Thousands of ethnic Malay nationalists are expected to take to the streets to protest against a mass rally last month calling on embattled Prime Minister Najib Razak to resign, but critics fear the gathering could turn ugly, souring community relations in the ethnically diverse nation.
Concern centres on the organisers’ claim that they also want to “restore Malay dignity”. Supporters have been pictured wearing red shirts emblazoned with knife-wielding martial arts warriors and slogans championing the rights of ethnic Malays.
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About 30,000 people are expected to attend Wednesday’s rally, although the organisers have said there could be as many as 300,000.
The protest will coincide with Malaysia Day, a public holiday that marks the formation of modern Malaysia. Malays, who are Muslims, make up more than half the population, while about 23 percent are ethnic Chinese. Smaller groups of ethnic Indians and indigenous people also live here.
“It is all about numbers and muscle,” said Sophie Lemiere, a political anthropologist and Malaysian politics analyst at the European University Institute, who has investigated the links between the country’s political parties and pressure groups.
“Some of the UMNO [United Malays National Organisation] leaders – I’m thinking about Najib – are in quite a vulnerable position now. They need them. But it shows the government is weak; that it has to rely on external agents to build its strength.”
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The UMNO has dominated Malaysian politics since the country’s independence, governing in coalition with parties representing minority groups.
But Najib’s government has come under mounting pressure in recent months: first, over billions of dollars in debt owed by state fund 1MDB, and since July, over allegations that $700m was paid into bank accounts in the prime minister’s name.
Public anger prompted at least 100,000 people to join the Bersih 4 rally at the end of August, despite a ban on the yellow shirts activists wear and the event being declared illegal.
Najib has denied any wrongdoing, but the political uncertainty comes at a difficult time.
A slowdown in China – a key export market – and weak oil prices are both hurting Malaysia’s economy, and the cost of living is rising. The Malaysian ringgit is now trading at levels not seen since the Asian financial crisis nearly two decades ago. This week, the government unveiled a number of measures to boost the economy.
“At the core of [the discontent] is socioeconomic inequality,” said Ibrahim Suffian, founder of the Merdeka Center, which tracks public opinion.
“Despite all the [government’s] efforts, Malays still lag behind. There is a certain amount of political correctness, but it’s largely superficial and the Malay opposition who could articulate a different point of view, they themselves are not strong. The dominant view continues to focus on ethnic differences and the idea that the other guys are out to get you.”
Rise of the red shirts
The “red shirt” rally is being organised by the Malaysian National Silat Federation (Pesaka), which is chaired by Mohd Ali Rustam, a senior member of Najib’s party and a former chief minister of Malacca state. Its secretary-general is also a UMNO senator.
But most of the talking has been done by a local politician, Jamal Md Yunos, who heads a UMNO group in the state of Selangor. He sought to portray the yellow-shirted Bersih 4 demonstrators as a Chinese conspiracy that is an insult to the country’s “Malay leaders”.
Comments last week that non-Malays should leave the city to avoid “provocation” triggered outrage on social media.
Neither Pesaka nor Jamal responded to Al Jazeera’s requests for comment.
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The protesters are expected to gather in a field close to Kuala Lumpur’s historic heart. It’s not clear whether they will march to the area from Chinatown as originally planned, but most businesses in the area reportedly have decided to close on Wednesday.
Police chief Khalid Abu Bakar has promised a heavy presence to ensure public safety, and roads will be closed. Influential groups have expressed concern about the rally’s motivations.
“We do not redeem our honour and dignity by blaming other races while helping an embattled political elite,” a group of former senior civil servants, known as the G25, said in a statement. “One redeems one’s honour and dignity by upholding principles of truth and justice, holding accountable those onto whose shoulders trust and responsibility have been placed.”
‘Hostility and violence’
On Tuesday, Hasmy Agam, the chairman of Malaysia’s Human Rights Commission, said the commission was “seriously concerned with the expressions of racist ideas [that] could likely stir up racial or religious hatred, and may constitute incitement to discrimination, hostility, and violence”.
While the prime minister has not backed the red shirts, he has acknowledged that some UMNO leaders and members are likely to participate. The party’s coalition partners have expressed concern about the event going ahead, but have been unable to stop it.
For most Malaysians, Malaysia Day is a time to celebrate their country’s unique culture and heritage.
Azrul Mohd Khalib – from a group known as Malaysians for Malaysia that champions Malaysia’s diversity – is organising a “birthday picnic”, as part of a series of events to mark the occasion.
“We are inviting all Malaysians to join us in celebrating our country’s 52nd birthday,” he told Al Jazeera. “We want to show what Malaysia is really about. All those who are talking Malay dominance really are, and should be treated as, a fringe group and not representative of Malaysian politics – let alone the Malaysian people.”