KUALA LUMPUR - The "red shirt" rally in downtown Kuala Lumpur not so much intensified already fractious race relations in Malaysia as brought to light the insecurities felt by the many Malaysians who identify themselves ethnically, whether they be the majority Malays or minority Chinese and Indians.
Indeed, it was these insecurities that allowed the embattled Prime Minister Najib Razak - embroiled in a financial scandal concerning huge sums of money that flowed into his personal bank accounts - to play the race card, by consorting with the red shirt rally organisers, to gain a lifeline out of his troubles.
The tens of thousands of Malays at Sept 16's United Citizens' Gathering - mostly wearing Malay Dignity Gathering red T-shirts instead - had gathered in Kuala Lumpur to galvanise Malays against a supposed plot by the Chinese to usurp Malay political power.
The narrative of the red shirt rally organisers goes that the opposition Democratic Action Party (DAP) - a largely Chinese outfit - was using a rally last month in the capital, organised by electoral reforms group Bersih, to force the resignation of Datuk Seri Najib.
The proof, they say, was in the majority Chinese turnout at the Bersih rally, never mind that any realistic replacement of the Premier before a general election would have to be made by Umno, the largest party in Parliament. It is part of the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition that also includes Chinese-based party Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) and Indian-based Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC).
In speeches by rally leaders, the banners displayed and racial slurs uttered by participants, such as "Chinese pigs", the red shirts' message was that Malay supremacy should not be challenged.
"There are those that ridicule Islam as Malaysia's religion. We don't want Malays to be under people's feet but we want Malays to remain as masters of this land," said Mr Jamaludin Yusuf, president of welfare group Pekida, which is better known for its links to often violent individuals acting in the interest of Malay rights.
Weighing in with his own race-loaded comments was Mr Najib who, at an event two days after the red shirt rally, said: "The Malays have rights too… and we can rise up when our leaders are insulted, condemned and embarrassed."
Governed by race-based parties that have been plying ethnocentric policies for decades, Malaysia simply cannot avoid the question of race, which must necessarily be read with the subtext "Ketuanan Melayu (Malay dominance or sovereignty)".
Many Malays see themselves as the original community and "owners" of Malaysia, and only grudgingly admit indigenous tribes as co-claimants. But there is a clear economic gap between them and the Chinese who arrived under British rule beginning in the 19th century, a situation that has improved but persists until now, despite growing Malay political power.
Indeed, the argument for greater Malay political control was based on the idea that it was only through such an instrument that the economic imbalance could be corrected, leading to an increasing number of pro-Malay policies and agencies in government that are justified as part of the inalienable rights of Malays, making political discussion of these policies practically taboo.
At the centre of the racial discourse here is the politically sensitive issue of "rights". The defence of Malay rights has gone on for nearly half a century, and yet "Malay rights" is still an amorphous idea, just like the ethnic-based rights of other groups.
To be fair, many Malaysians do not identify themselves along the various pillars of "rights" that some feel are inalienable to their race. But for those who do, they bristle when questioned, let alone challenged, on them.
For the Malays who identify themselves strongly as such, economic and religious privileges are sacred, despite none of these being enshrined constitutionally, as often claimed, most recently by key red shirt figure and Umno divisional chief Jamal Yunus, who said "my racism follows the Constitution".
But the Federal Constitution does not mention "Malay rights", and instead merely safeguards the special position of the Malays and indigenous peoples - the much-used term "Bumiputera (Princes of the Land)" to describe them is also not mentioned in the Constitution - while also taking into account the "legitimate interests" of other communities. This special treatment includes quotas for public sector jobs, scholarships, tertiary enrolment (introduced in a 1971 amendment) and business licences.
Many pro-Malay privileges were introduced only after the racial riots of May 13, 1969, an episode which still haunts the country today. Tun Abdul Razak Hussein - Mr Najib's father - implemented the National Economic Policy (NEP) in 1971 to correct economic imbalances by redistributing national wealth via pro-Bumiputera regulations such as setting aside 30 per cent equity for public-listed firms as well as private ones operating in "strategic" sectors.
But even though it was to have ended in 1990, these policies - which in practice often leave out non-Malay Bumiputeras - have not only continued but expanded to other areas of life, such as discounts and quotas for housing, preferential treatment for lucrative government procurement deals and, according to the US State Department, other "opaque" preferences and practices within the administration.
The government has argued that these affirmative actions must continue because Bumiputeras are still not adequately empowered as the targeted 30 per cent equity in business has not been achieved. So pervasive is this protectionism that pro-Malay elements now refer to them as "rights" even when there are no laws or binding agreements outlining them as such.
Just as irrepressible is the growth of privileges associated to Islam, including state funding for the religion and even the restriction of other religious practices, leading many to argue that the "legitimate interests" of other communities have been invaded.
But other communities also hold fast to "rights", not least that of vernacular education, a hot-button topic for the Chinese. MCA leaders, unable to restrain their Umno colleagues in the ruling coalition from endorsing the red shirt rally, took to lodging police reports against participants who called for the abolishment of Chinese schools.
Advocates insist on a universal right to "mother tongue" education in Mandarin despite most of the community not being able to claim the dialect as part of their ancestry, having adopted it only in recent decades. But as eminent law professor Shad Saleem Faruqi pointed out, there is no constitutional protection for vernacular education.
When caught out on the lack of constitutional basis, "rights" defenders tend to then cite an unwritten "social contract" between Malaysia's founding fathers. But this is a difficult and often divisive concept, with each corner seemingly in possession of a different draft of the contract.
The good news, perhaps, is that contracts can be renegotiated for mutual benefit. The bad news is that nobody seems ready to do so.
A survey by independent polling company Merdeka Centre in 2012 found that just over a third of Malaysians believed that there was "sincere and friendly ethnic unity", down from 54 per cent five years prior to it. Respondents also admitted to trusting other races less than before.
According to Merdeka Centre, such mistrust is most likely due to the intensified discourse in the media on race and religious politics as well as the impact of incidents that have taken place since 2008 which included arson attacks on places of worship, public debate over school textbooks and controversial statements by public personalities.
But perhaps the issue might be forced, once pockets start to hurt.
Corporate captains tend to steer clear of controversy but Tan Sri Tony Fernandes, boss of budget airline AirAsia, cautioned an economic forum last week that Malaysia's positive business climate would unravel if the racial divide widens.
In response, International Trade and Investment Minister Mustapa Mohamed, who is also an Umno state chief, acknowledged that the corporate world was concerned over whether race relations can be "resolved once and for all" and called for stakeholders to "go back to the drawing board".
There is no clearer drawing board than the Constitution. Pressing the reset button won't be a simple task, but the alternative - negotiating increasingly bitter racial grudges - is becoming a negative, rather than simply a zero sum, game.
This article was first published on September 30, 2015.
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