Malaysians rallying en masse and peacefully for causes would ordinarily be tolerated despite the disruptions to civic life and commerce. But what made the recent Bersih 4 and the tit-for-tat "red shirts" rally deeply troubling was the racial composition of the participants - a predominantly Chinese turnout for the first and a pushback by the Malays that followed (which had looked ominous earlier as it was organised by the National Silat Federation). Mercifully, both proved symbolic and largely free of violence, although Malay protesters disobeyed the police twice, once in breaking through barriers in Bukit Bintang and again in being disorderly in Petaling Street (both predominantly Chinese areas).
The friction between the two groups is based less on race per se than on power relations expressed in political terms. This should have triggered greater concern than was evident among leaders of ruling party Umno, which had once conceived a "1 Malaysia" initiative to win back non-Malay voters. But its red-shirted members appeared to be in a "1 Melayu" state of mind (a drive advocated by an Umno leader two years ago), which was ironically projected on Malaysia Day - an occasion that rightly ought to have brought the different communities together. Instead, what the world saw was Chinese taking to the barricades in Kuala Lumpur, so to speak, when many of their businesses drew the shutters, while police used water cannon to keep Malays from entering Chinatown.
Many multicultural nations, including Singapore, are correct to treat race relations with a velvet glove, given the perniciousness of its grip and the tragic history of such conflicts. Both the Republic and Malaysia witnessed bloody race riots in the '60s. The Americans, whose 1787 Constitution carried provisions protecting slavery, have travelled a long and rocky road in pursuit of social justice, but still see ethnic riots like those in Ferguson and Baltimore over the past year.
Thus, extreme caution is only proper when any risk arises of strife between racial groups, as signalled by Prime Minister Najib Razak's undertaking to investigate those who stirred racial sentiments. But some in Umno had no qualms about egging on Malay protesters earlier. In the event, there were not enough influential voices to tamp down race politics, like Johor's Sultan Ibrahim Sultan Iskandar who warned against a regression to the "Stone Age" if hatred and racism are allowed to run rife.
What's clearly needed now are collaborative efforts to rebuild trust among different racial groups if Malaysia is to get back on track as a moderate and progressive nation. That would be in keeping with the aspirations of its Rukun Negara, or principles of nationhood, and the Constitution of the multiracial political alliance, Barisan Nasional.