Recent violence surrounding the Seafield Hindu temple in Selangor, Malaysia, near the national capital, has put race relations in the multi-ethnic nation on a new edge.

How various actors ultimately respond, including the long-ruling, now opposition race-based United Malays National Organization (UMNO), will be a closely watched measure of stability in the weeks ahead.

The Seafield incident began in the early morning of November 26, when rioters damaged or destroyed 20 vehicles and vandalized buildings belonging to a property company that has been given rights to the land where the Hindu temple sits.

In the melee, rioters beat and critically injured firefighter Muhammad Adib Mohd Kassim, 24, after they dragged him out of a nearby fire engine. Adib, an ethnic Malay Muslim, was to be married within a month of the incident, leading to sympathetic media coverage. At least a dozen were injured in the riot.

The land developer is One City Development Bhd, a firm registered in Malaysia that is ultimately owned by Ayala Corporation of the Philippines.

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Rioters at the Seafield temple in Selangor, Malaysia. Photo: Facebook

District police initially said the root cause of the violence was a conflict between temple factions. State police later said the “attackers” were Malay men, while 83 persons have since been detained.

Prosecutors have charged four men, aged 24 to 38 years, all ethnic Malays, in court on accusations of rioting while armed with axes and machetes.

The riot is the latest in a string of racially charged incidents involving land rights and the demolition of Hindu temples. Indeed, it was on a wave of Hindu resentment over temple demolitions in 2007 that the current Minister for National Unity, Waythamoorthy, first came into the public eye.

Waythamoorthy, also known as Waytha Moorthy Ponnusamy, is widely considered the leader of the Hindu Rights Action Force, or HINDRAF, a group of lawyers who mobilized thousands in 2007 in Kuala Lumpur to decry perceived injustices against minority Indians.

These include the assertion that Indians have been left behind economically while ethnic Malays were pulled ahead through the government’s New Economic Policy affirmative action programs.

Waythamoorthy even lodged a case in the United Kingdom, demanding compensation for British “negligence” during pre-independence negotiations with Malayan leaders which he says resulted in the present day impoverishment of Indians in Malaysia.

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Waythamoorthy beeing sworn into government in June this year. Photo: Facebook

About two months after being appointed minister, Waythamoorthy launched the Malaysian Advancement Party, a new political party whose goal is to “protect, promote and advance the interest of the Indian community.” Indians currently account for around 7% of the country’s population; minority Chinese account for around 26%.

It is notable that days before the Seafield incident a branch of UMNO in Selangor made a police report against Waythamoorthy for a speech he made 10 years ago in which he allegedly falsely claimed that thousands of Hindu places of worship had been destroyed. UMNO claimed his speech could create race-based disharmony.

The Seafield affair has again revealed the delicate state of race relations in Malaysia, a nation in which minority ethnic groups believe their contributions to society have been and continue to be systematically overlooked in the name of preserving social harmony.

The Seafield temple is located on a site which is said to have been a place of devotion for Indian plantation workers since 1891. It is unclear how many people frequented the site, or even what was located there – it may have been no more than an idol under a tree.

An account from 1908 (link) says “Altogether there are 293,923 rubber trees and they are thriving well [in the area]. By the end of 1908 it is expected that 2,000 acres will have been planted.” The book also says the estate was comprised of 2,848 acres.

Later the estate was converted to oil palm and beginning in 1974 was developed into the now bustling urban areas known as Subang Jaya and Sunway.

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The Seafield temple area after the riot. Photo: Twitter

In March 2014, the developer agreed with temple representatives to relocate the structure, with agreed timelines and terms of compensation. That was the outcome of a case filed in court by the developer eight years earlier.

However, those who represented the temple in the agreement could not fulfill the requirements. The lack of fulfillment is due to a “stay faction” which has insisted upon staying put. They were the ones who were attacked by interlopers in the recent melee.

The state and federal governments, led by Waythamoorthy, have assured the occupants that there will be no demotion “until a solution is reached.”

The government position, informed by police-work, is that the developer’s agents hired thugs – who happen to be ethnically Malay – to enable a more rapid handover of the site. Asia Times could not corroborate the allegation; the developer has denied any involvement.

Either to avoid or ease government intervention, four wealthy businessmen, three Chinese and one Indian, have pledged 500,000 ringgit each to a fund to “buy back the land” from the developer and “save the temple.”

To date, however, no Malay-Muslim or Christian of any ethnic group of similar stature has publicly pledged any money to the fund.

Malaysia's Prime Minister Najib Razak (C) speaks to supporters during the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) 71st anniversary celebration in Bukit Jalil stadium on May 11, 2017. More than 85,000 people crammed into Malaysia's Bukit Jalil stadium on May 11 to hear the embattled prime minister vow another electoral victory ahead of a widely expected snap election this year. / AFP PHOTO / MOHD RASFAN
Then Prime Minister Najib Razak (C) speaks to UMNO supporters at its 71st anniversary celebration in Bukit Jalil stadium, May 11, 2017. Photo: AFP/Mohd Rasfan

UMNO often conducts its race-baiting via “sub-contractors.” The most colorful of them is Ridhuan Tee, a columnist at the UMNO-controlled Utusan newspaper and a professor at a public university.

On Ismaweb, an “Islamic” website which is widely believed to be publicly funded, he published on November 26 (the date of the 2 a.m. Seafield incident), a long and trenchant article in Malay mocking the idea of equality enshrined in the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, or ICERD.

In the race-baiting article, he touched provocatively on Malaysia’s Hindu temples, Waythamoorthy and Hindu majority India:

“Every illegal, polluting (‘haram’) temple which has been demolished has been replaced with a larger temple and the number of Hindu temples now way exceeds the number of Muslim places of worship.”

“[Waythamoorthy] who is a renowned Islamophobe, consorts with the Prime Minister of India [Modi] who discriminates against Muslims by obstructing them from eating beef and by destroying their mosques and replacing them with Hindu temples.”

Ridhuan’s fusillade may represent the seeds of incendiary rhetoric to come at a December 8 rally organized by Malay-Muslim NGOs and supported by UMNO and PAS, Malaysia’s oldest “Islamic” political party which governs the East Coast states of Kelantan and Terengganu.

Those still ensconced in the Seafield temple will be watching and listening especially closely.