As in many multiethnic and multicultural societies, Malaysia’s social and cultural fabric has been stretched and even torn on some occasions. These tensions and rips invariably manifest themselves precisely when there tends to be a paucity of courageous and pragmatic leadership. Such a dearth in credible leadership not only sets the stage for demagoguery from extremists, but at times seems directly complicit in stoking the intimidation and targeting of minority groups.

The most recent instance of this in Malaysia is evident in the rhetoric being fueled by entities such as the Malaysian Muslim Students Coalition (GAMIS), which is reported to have issued a warning that the persistence of a Chinese-Malaysian educationalist group, Dong Zong, could trigger Malay-Muslim hostility and usher in a repeat of ethnic riots akin to those that inflicted Malaysian society in 1969.

As has been widely reported, this most recent heightening of ethnic tensions stems from the government’s expressed intent earlier in 2019 to make the teaching of khat (an Arabic-based Jawi script) a requirement in all schools, including employing Chinese and Tamil vernacular. While the government led by Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad has since softened somewhat on the specifics of the mandate, the controversy has persisted.

In a plea to the government on Tuesday, Saifullah Baiduri, president of the Malaysian Muslim Students Coalition, all but suggested that if not stopped, Dong Zong would be culpable for sparking ethnic conflict: “As long as this organization is still in power, the authorities seem to be allowing the black history of May 13, 1969, to recur.” Saifullah was referring to deadly race riots that rocked Kuala Lumpur after a general election.

As a consequence of its opposition to the unilateral imposition of khat on Chinese-vernacular schools, Dong Zong has over the past six months become the flashpoint of this policy controversy. In a typically predictable manner, not only has the opposition Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) been outspoken against Dong Zong, the government leadership – exemplified most vividly by Mahathir, but also by his apparent successor, Anwar Ibrahim – seems to have reverted to a time-tested narrative and rhetoric of isolating Dong Zong, and deflecting culpability.

Indeed, regardless of any inherent objective merits associated with the policy, apart from deflecting culpability for a rather poorly managed controversial policy all around, the government has resorted yet again to a time-tested response to such situations. When minority grievances are articulated, the establishment response typically tends to be that minorities need not only to respect the privileges and special status of the majority, they should also refrain from objecting to or questioning the merits of particular policies lest they undermine national unity or harmony.

Indeed, the tenor of the aforementioned response from the political establishment to Dong Zong’s intention to hold a closed-door assembly to deliberate its opposition to the proposed education policy is perhaps most tellingly reflected in statements such as this from Mahathir: “If you start making attacks against other races or going against the constitution, the end result will be chaos, instability….” It seems highly irresponsible to characterize Dong Zong’s opposition to a controversial language policy as “attacks against other races.” But such statements do not exemplify a responsible approach to managing a socially and culturally divisive policy.

One would be hard-pressed to find leaders in the political establishment owning up to what can only be described as a poorly managed approach to rolling out, regardless of its merits, a proposed policy that should have been understood to be culturally sensitive, if not controversial. Beyond that, Mahathir and others within the establishment have yet again fallen back on a familiar tactic of curtailing, if not shutting down, many minority voices through a process that is not only deeply undemocratic, and dismissive of minority concerns as expressed through civil society, it is arguably couched as a veiled threat to minorities.

In contrast, during a Malay Dignity Rally this past October, conspicuous by its absence was any such high-profile forewarning or gentle public reminder from the government about the optics and rhetoric of an ethnically charged rally that might arguably be insensitive to ethnic minorities in the country, or how it might even be provocative, to proceed with such an ethnically exclusive and chauvinistic event. That such a gathering was even necessary is questionable in a country where the affirmation of Malay supremacy is entrenched in written doctrine and dogma, and indisputably deeply pervasive in daily reality.

The Malay Dignity Rally was predictably exploited to “to remind those belittling the social contract that they only gained citizenship in the country as a result of the Malays’ kindness and courtesy,” as suggested by Zainal Kling, chief executive of the Malay Dignity Congress secretariat. Such historically distorted, simplistic, and revisionist pronouncements of the “social contract” are of course quite convenient and, as observers of Malaysian society know all too well, constitute a main staple of the politics of ethnic intimidation and manipulation that was perfected during the long reign of governments led by the United Malays National Organization (UMNO).

One wonders where the political establishment’s regard for minority sensitivities was during this Malay Dignity Rally. Yet a closed-door assembly by a civic organization to consider its position on the imposition of khat in schools seemed to trigger intense objections and not-so-veiled references to provoking Malay sensitivities that would be ominous to national unity.

Credible leadership requires an appreciation of how to shoulder challenges responsibly for the greater good. The Malaysian political establishment’s handling of this particular controversy has once again exposed an acute inability reasonably and responsibly to accommodate and respect the rights of the various parties in this policy matter.

To advance the cause of building a vibrant and healthy multicultural, multiethnic, and civically mature society requires more than just consistently relegating and dismissing the voices of minorities through the rhetoric of intimidation and coercion.

Unfortunately, the Malaysian political establishment has yet again missed a golden opportunity to seize the moment and model an alternative approach – one that enables civic discourse to transcend beyond the kind that is coarse, vulgar, and regressive.