« Divide and rule: the racist roots of Malaysia’s Redshirt movement » by Paul Millar, 03/01/2017, Southeast Asia Globe
With an election looming and the 1MDB scandal still hanging over Najib Razak’s head, the Redshirt movement has proved a useful pawn in silencing dissent.
Ross Tapsell, a lecturer and researcher at Australian National University’s College of Asia and the Pacific, said the Redshirt movement had been cynically created to drive a wedge between Malaysian voters.
“The Redshirts and their backers are trying to polarise Malaysian politics further, mostly on ethnic and religious grounds, by claiming the Bersih supporters, or ‘Yellowshirts’, are predominantly opposition voters of Chinese heritage, and the Redshirts are the ‘pro-Malay’ group,” he said.
Rather than allow Bersih’s demands for clean elections to resonate with the public, Tapsell said, the Redshirt movement had redrawn the battle lines into something more closely resembling a tribal brawl – with predictable consequences. “Bersih’s goals and the ethnic background of their supporters are much more diverse than the Redshirts give them credit for, but the effect has been to make these protests [about] free and fair elections to be more of a street ‘battle’ between coloured shirts of political parties – think Thailand,” he said.
According to Gerhard Hoffstaedter, a lecturer in anthropology at the University of Queensland and the author of Modern Muslim Identities: Negotiating Religion and Ethnicity in Malaysia, it is a tactic that has been used to stifle real reform for more than half a century.
“By collapsing important human rights issues and the demand for free elections into the racial politics that have dominated Malaysian politics since independence, the Redshirts aim to discredit universal claims to freedoms and mire their demand in a zero-sum game,” he said. “That game rests on pitting ethnic groups against each other and has proven a potent electoral tool.”
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