Malott (left), a frequent critic of the government since ending his three-year tenure as US ambassador in 1998, told Najib to take “a long look in the mirror” if he was serious about achieving his 1Malaysia goal.
“Despite the government's new catchphrase, racial and religious tensions are higher today than when Najib took office in 2009.
“Indeed, they are worse than at any time since 1969, when at least 200 people died in racial clashes between the majority Malay and minority Chinese communities,” said Malott in his AWSJ commentary.
He blamed the recent escalation of tensions on the government for “tolerating, and in some cases provoking, ethnic factionalism through words and actions”.
Malott cited a number of examples, including the incident where a top Najib aide, Hardev Kaur, had suggested that no crucifixes be displayed during the premier's Christmas Day open house visit at the residence of the Catholic archbishop of Kuala Lumpur.
“Ms Kaur later insisted that she 'had made it clear that it was a request and not an instruction', as if any Malaysian could say no to a request from the prime minister's office,” lamented Malott.
Other examples of insensitivities, said Malott, included Home Minister Hishammuddin Hussien defending the actions of a group of residents who paraded a cow's head to protest the relocation of a Hindu temple to their neighbourhood, and Defence Minister Zahid Hamidi questioning the “lack of patriotism” of ethnic Chinese and Indian Malaysians.
Malott also slammed Umno-owned Utusan Malaysia for stoking racial hatred by regularly attacking “Chinese Malaysian politicians, and even suggested that one of them, parliamentarian Teresa Kok, should be killed”.
As a result of the growing racism, as many as 500,000 Malaysians left the country between 2007 and 2009, more than doubling the number of Malaysian professionals who live overseas, decried Malott.
The economic price tag of racism
He also said Najib is enamoured to right-wing groups such as Perkasa, which are against economic reforms in the name of 'Malay rights'.
“But stalling reform will mean a further loss in competitiveness and slower growth. It also means that the cronyism and no-bid contracts that favour the well-connected will continue.”
Malott said that while Najib may not actually believe the rhetoric emanating from his party and his government's officers, he allows it because he needs to shore up Malay votes.
“It's politically convenient at a time when his party faces its most serious opposition challenge in recent memory - and especially when the opposition is challenging the government on ethnic policy and its economic consequences.”
The steady erosion of tolerance, warned Malott, had become an economic problem as well.
“To meet its much-vaunted goal of becoming a developed nation by 2020, Malaysia needs to grow by 8 percent per year during this decade.
“That level of growth will require major private investments from both domestic and foreign sources, upgraded human skills and significant economic reform. Worsening racial and religious tensions stand in the way.”
The former US ambassador argued that while the government might find it politically expedient to stir the racial and religious pot, such opportunism comes with an economic price tag.
“Its citizens will continue to vote with their feet and take their money and talents with them. And foreign investors, concerned about racial instability and the absence of meaningful economic reform, will continue to look elsewhere to do .”