The train of events that put Malaysia’s most influential political figure behind bars for 12 years – although the disgraced former Prime Minister Najib Razak has been wriggling mightily at finding ways to get out – has raised profound questions about race-based politics, the political equation that has governed the country since its independence.
These questions have assumed added urgency with Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob’s recent announcement that he intends to dissolve parliament soon and call national elections. Sources claim UMNO has already begun renting shophouses across the country as constituency election operations centers.
As we are heading into GE15, both sides of the political spectrum are jockeying for position. This is being done on the Malay-centric side in the name of 'Malay unity', while on the other side, there is yet to be any clear message. Pakatan Harapan, the multi-ethnic opposition coalition led by Anwar Ibrahim’s Parti Keadilan Rakyat appears disorganized, its leaders at odds with each other, and about to squander a historic chance to move away from the rancid ethnic mix that has governed the country since independence. As a response to appease his many critics, Anwar has announced this is his last attempt to win the premiership, and if elected will only stay in office for one term.
The opposition has some chance because the Barisan Nasional, led by the United Malays National Organization, and its pilot fish squad of ethnic parties no longer is perceived as unassailable after the departure of Najib, the coalition’s biggest bagman and kingmaker.
However, UMNO President Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, who faced scores of corruption charges despite his recent acquittal in another case, has thrown a wildcard into the election. Ismail Sabri is seeking a decisive Barisan win that would generate political pressure to keep him in power, and cast away the so-called “court cluster” of allegedly corrupt politicians. Zahid is defiantly acting like an alternative prime minister, weaving great uncertainty into the UMNO side of politics.
With Malaysia one of the few countries left that is practicing ethnic apartheid by statute, there is increasing debate over whether there should be multiracial parties. Race-based politics is one of Southeast Asia’s last colonial relics. The British rulers insisted the government negotiate with representatives of all major ethnic groups to facilitate independence in the early 1950s. That's nearly 70 years ago. It is shackling the nation. The politics of today reflects images of the past, while the rest of the world is delivering new challenges.
Malaysia’s touchy racial situation has handicapped the nation for decades. Malays and ethnic tribes in East Malaysia make up 67.4 percent of the population according to official figures, with ethnic Chinese comprising 24.6 percent, Indians 7.3 percent, and others less than 1 percent. Historically, the Chinese have controlled the economic heights, which resulted in resentment that triggered bloody race riots in 1969 that impelled the government to implement the New Economic Policy, one of the world’s few official affirmative action programs for a majority race.
Most economists and social scientists hold the NEP responsible for crippling both the economy and the social milieu environment by dulling incentive and instilling an atmosphere of unearned privilege on the part of ethnic Malays.
With the Barisan and particularly UMNO crippled by scandal despite the recent surprise acquittal of UMNO President Zahid Hamidi on more than 40 charges of taking bribes, sentiment for an umbrella party constituted of all racial groups, party leaders remain negative towards such suggestions.
Nonetheless, it is clear that race-based politics is not solving the deep-seated issues facing Malaysia today, including poverty, under-employment, inflation, lifelong financial insecurity, substandard education, and social instability. Religious narratives are pushing the nation back towards reformation, while the rest of the world and particularly its Southeast Asian neighbors is passing Malaysia economically.
More people are searching for better opportunities abroad. This is a multicultural phenomenon that the World Bank identified as a problem in 2007 – 15 years ago. The government has done little to fix it. By one estimate, as many as 500,000 college-educated professionals are living overseas, with Singapore the biggest beneficiary.
The NEP is now abused and used as a cover to feed a selfish elite with few benevolent characteristics towards their own. It must be reformed from a government economic policy based on race to one based upon need. The focus on equity needs to be reframed, which would best help the Malays and other Bumiputeras who are truly in need of a safety net. Poverty is a national problem, with advancement of the individual regardless of ethnic group a national concern.
Malaysia now faces many issues that must be tackled head-on. These must be solved with new policies and strategies. How is Malaysia going to grow economically, in a sustainable manner, without selling out to foreign suitors? How is the Malaysian economy going to transform from rent-seeking to an innovation-based one? How is Malaysia going to create full employment with a second-tier foreign labor pool that is keeping wages low? How is Malaysia going to turn GLCs into assets that directly benefit the Rakyat, or common citizen?
Malaysia needs diversity so it can develop a society based on meritocracy and innovation to compete against the rest of the world. It must dismantle restrictive market regulations, so there are equal economic opportunities for all. As long as government policy-making is anchored within religion, the rest of the world will leave it behind.
The issues of inflation, poverty, cost of living, food security, and employment are rarely mentioned within the current narratives. Race, religion and the threat of dispossession govern political discourse. This needs to change if Malaysia is going to be saved from socio-economic catastrophe. It immediately requires a united opposition coalition that will be issue, rather than race based.
Fully developed multiracial politics can be achieved through two stages. The first step would be to approach GE15 as a united coalition, reformasi style. There must be passion and desperation by the opposition to restore Malaysia towards a progressive path, leaving no groups behind.
This can be done. It has been done. Politicians must realize this is what their voters really want. If they truly want to serve their constituents, they must listen to the electorate.
The second step must be amalgamation of opposition ethnic parties into a single multiracial and issue based political party. This must transpose the egos of individual leaders who fear the loss of position.
There is an urgency for this. Failure to act before GE15 would allow the current Malay-centric parties to consolidate their power once again, well into the next decade. If this becomes the case, government would be more of the same with power struggles interfering with policy focus.
A multiracial coalition/party would place a clear alternative vision of Malaysia into the public eye. Then it’s finally up to the Rakyat to decide upon what they want. One hopes that whichever group is the opposition after the coming general election will be able to scrutinize the sitting government, and restore real checks and balances into the process. Multiculturalism is a Malaysian dream. It’s now up to the politicians to deliver.
Originally published in the Asia Sentinel 30th September 2022
The chance of finding a candidate the majority of the population will support and the dominant race will favour and political parties will accept, who can rise to a high enough position to make a change without getting too dirty, who is clean enough to not be slandered and smart enough to not be sabotaged or have the public turned against them, who is brave enough to fight the system and not take the easy road and easy money, who cares enough to look beyond race, religion and status towards a better country and future, who is shrewd enough to play the ruthless political game to garner those in power for their support in their rise to the top and who is focused on the endgame and not be seduced, sidelined, bought, coerced or killed in the process long enough to survive in one piece with his principles intact in order to effect a change, is really almost impossible. But one can hope.
as long as the predominant malay muslim demographic does not buy into the idea it is dead in the water