Coloured T shirts the code for racial unrest in KL

Protesters shout slogans during a rally organised by pro-democracy group Bersih last month [Reuters]

Thousands of ethnic Malay nationalists are expected to take to the streets to protest against a mass rally last month calling on embattled Prime Minister Najib Razak to resign, but critics fear the gathering could turn ugly, souring community relations in the ethnically diverse nation. Concern centres on the organisers’ claim that they also want to “restore Malay dignity”. Supporters have been pictured wearing red shirts emblazoned with knife-wielding martial arts warriors and slogans championing the rights of ethnic Malays.

About 30,000 people are expected to attend Wednesday’s rally, although the organisers have said there could be as many as 300,000. The protest will coincide with Malaysia Day, a public holiday that marks the formation of modern Malaysia. Malays, who are Muslims, make up more than half the population, while about 23 percent are ethnic Chinese. Smaller groups of ethnic Indians and indigenous people also live here. “It is all about numbers and muscle,” said Sophie Lemiere, a political anthropologist and Malaysian politics analyst at the European University Institute, who has investigated the links between the country’s political parties and pressure groups. “Some of the UMNO [United Malays National Organisation] leaders - I’m thinking about Najib - are in quite a vulnerable position now. They need them. But it shows the government is weak; that it has to rely on external agents to build its strength.”