The links between the underworld and politics in Malaysia have never been clearer.
A few years ago when I gave my first conference talk on Pekida, the intricate network of gangs and NGOs in Malaysian politics, I was very grateful to the organisers at ISEAS in Singapore for successfully gathering a mixed audience of 40 people.
For me, 40 people listening to an unknown French junior academic was like having a full house at a show featuring the prime minister dancing the French Cancan.
I was also lucky enough to have sparked the curiosity of dignitaries of the Malaysian Embassy who had the (dis-)courtesy of leaving before the end of the talk; to rush to the buffet or to avoid the subsequent discussion.
In that same vein, the reaction of some colleagues was very passionate, ranging from intellectual curiosity to harsh suspicion. I remember a Malaysian scholar, based in Singapore, asking how I could prove what I was saying? Can you show us “police reports?” he asked. Do you have “official proof?”
He also asked how could he, a Malaysian, believe me, “a French girl?” The debate quickly moved away from the usual scientific discussion on methodology or ethics. In the eye of that professor my university credentials had suddenly vanished, pushed down by his prejudices about my looks, my gender and my origin: a classic characteristic of empty argument that often emerges when emotions exhaust rational thought.
The fact is that the relationship between politicians and the underworld has always existed. Collusion between politicians and the underworld or connivance militancy in the Malay world is old news; excellent studies on similar phenomenon in neighboring Indonesia between figures called Preman, or gangsters, and politics have also been made.
Connivance militants are groups for which political activism, whether violent of pacific, is a business, a service rendered to politicians in exchange for money or advantages. The relationship is based on a solid and exclusive system of patronage and is a way to re-distribute a country’s resources to the political elite and their supporters.
Those benefiting from the “generosity’ of states that use connivance militants are not the lay members of these organisation, but their leaders. Members of these groups are often the disenfranchised, who join hoping to get their “share of the pie”, or are seduced by an organisation’s populist and often racist rhetoric.
Pekida has always been an open secret in Malaysia, but kept away from any scientific studies. I have not made a discovery, I just say out loud and clear, as clear as an academic can be, what was lying there, in the dust.
In fact, Pekida is like a good idea that appears on the edge of sleep that you don’t write down. The next morning you know it’s there, you know it could be important, but you can’t remember it.
Rumors surrounding the UMNO linked organisations are blurred, information is contradictory. Bringing the pieces of the puzzle together is tough and requires much work.
Essentially, Pekida should be seen as a brand used by numerous organisations registered as NGOs, and under other names, running cultural cum political activities with close links to political parties. Most of them are Malay NGOs supporting UMNO. But some of these groups are indeed multi-ethnic organisations operating for whoever pays the most.
I have always kept in mind the scepticism, to say the least, of my very dear colleague from that conference in Singapore. But here are a few recent developments that hopefully shed light on his emotional, rather than intellectual, turmoil.
In August 2013, when police sting OPS Cantas, or Operasi Cantas, was organised by the Malaysian government, politicians with suspected links to ‘gangster’ groups eluded the police. At the time, the interior minister assured the public that Pekida groups were not gangsters. The crackdown on gangs looked more like a cleansing of UMNO-linked Malay gangs’ Chinese and Indian competitors.
This re-organisation of the grey zone where politics and crime meet, and where connivance militants burgeon, took place as I was on the verge of finishing my PhD dissertation, events rubber stamping my entire argument.
In early 2015, when my first articles on Pekida were published by New Mandala, and republished across several news portals and blogs from every political persuasion, hundreds of comments were posted praising my work, sometimes with exaggeration. Others accused me of defamation, often falling into personal, sexist and racist comments or threats of deportation and death.
In a news interview, a Malay NGO leader offered to date me, rather than having an intellectual debate (I have not made my mind up yet). In another interview, the President of Pekida said I was confused. According to him, UMNO had no ties to Pekida and Pekida had no links to gangsterism. Others, on the contrary, felt empowered to join the debate, adding that former prime minuster Abdullah Badawi was Ayahanda, or ‘father’, of Pekida, but not of the gangster faction.
Over the past two months, in a magical twist, some Pekida affiliated leaders have now been re-cast in Yayasan Ayahanda Semalaysia (YAS); what is described as a ‘foundation’. These leaders have slowly gained new attention in the media, portraying themselves as legitimate political voices, including president Syed Husain.
Ayahanda is in fact one of the highest titles (after Paduka) given to leaders within several Malay NGOs including Pekida. These groups are like a pyramid with several branches and lines led by an Ayahanda who counts several members under him.
The successive declarations of YAS president Syed Husain reveal very clearly and unambiguously the nature of Pekida, its relationship with UMNO, and the entire patronage system.
Only yesterday, in the wave of accusations against Prime Minister Najib Razak, Syed Husain officially expressed YAS’s reluctance to keep supporting UMNO, and its intention to unite the more than “hundred Pekida splinters and over 3,000 Ayahanda”; including those “splinters” comprising individuals who have turned to “gangsterism” and who are “too egotistical” to work with.
These declarations show that the link between patronage, Malay NGOS and UMNO is so strong that internal UMNO politics and successive crises (like in 1998) directly impact on the nebulous organisation.
Secondly, the support of the organisation to the party would seem to be important enough, or made to be believed so, that its loss could jeopardise UMNO’s constituencies.
Thirdly, the leader of YAS clearly reaffirmed the underworld link of Malay NGOs “turned to gangsterism” and the existence of leaders “too egotistical” who have created their own groups, almost totally independent of the mother organisation.
Moreover, Syed Husain gives a hint of the numbers of members that could be counted in this nebula: indeed each Ayahanda may have a dozen to hundreds of followers. The YAS president has spoken about 3,000 splinter leaders.
Finally, the fact that Syed Husain reveals this information in the press is a very transparent indicator of the level of impunity that has be gained by Ayah, or ‘Bosses’, in the last decade.
The leadership of connivance militant groups used to remain discreet. But in a context where ruling politicians are feeling threatened by growing demands for transparency, connivance militant groups have become key political actors.
In an illusory democracy like Malaysia, the primary strategy of politicians on the verge of losing power is to tighten up the public sphere and silence oppositional voices within or outside their party rankd. To do so, it is necessary to create a climate of fear that justifies the maintenance of authoritarian laws that are indeed used as a tool for political repression and the control of the masses.
This climate of fear is being instigated by images and rumors of religious, ethnic or political violence, orchestrated by connivance groups. The problem is what happens when the potential perpetrators of violence, like the disenfranchised youth who join these groups hoping for a social and economical lift, cannot be controlled anymore.
The Low Yat Plaza events in July were a smallscale show of what these youth are capable of if their despair is not addressed by proper political and social reforms. And what happens if connivance militancy continues to be an essential part of local politics.
George Orwell, in his novel 1984, imagines a country “Oceania” where propaganda is run by the Ministry of Truth and where three slogans of the ruling party read “War is Peace. Freedom is Slavery. Ignorance is Strength”.
In Politok, where politics runs amok in Malaysia, sodomy is a weapon of massive repression, corruption is synonymous with donation, patronage is a gauge of transparency, and bosses run the show.
Shall we dance?
Sophie Lemière is a political anthropologist at the European University Institute in Italy. She holds a PhD and a Masters in Political Sciences from Sciences-Po (France) and is on a comparative journey between Malaysia and Tunisia where she continues to do fieldwork. She is the editor of Misplaced Democracy: Malaysian Politics and People.