SPEAKING FREELY The decline of Malaysian apartheid
By Sunil Kukreja
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click hereif you are interested in contributing.
It has been practically a given that no facet of Malaysian society is untouched by matters of race. The recently concluded general elections and the aftermath that has ensued has again affirmed the centrality of race in a society that continues to grapple with reconciling its own contradictions.
For decades, the racial compromise ostensibly affirmed a form of "Malaysian apartheid", where the constitutionally protected
bumiputera status of ethnic Malays increasingly became co-opted and morphed into the cornerstone for an ideology of Malay supremacy, known locally as Ketuanan Melayu. This race-based system was conveniently mirrored in the ruling coalition’s political framework for governing. Now, the political arrangement, reflected in the dominance of Barisan Nasional’s (BN) race-based political parties, may well be on its last leg - although how long that leg can remain standing is uncertain.
Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak and various politicians from his United Malay National Organization (UMNO) party have ratcheted up anti-Chinese rhetoric and essentially scapegoated the ethnic Chinese minority for the UMNO–led BN coalition’s disappointing results at the polls. This vividly reflects the degree to which UMNO has been and remains invested in the formula of perpetuating a race-based body politic. It is also a main basis for BN’s predicament with voters over the last two election cycles.
The rhetorical assault from UMNO’s machinery (championed especially by the UMNO-controlled broadsheet, Utusan Malaysia) on ethnic Chinese voters, which by any measure seems pointed and provocative, was continuous for days following the elections. The pro-UMNO newspaper’s headline the day after the election shrieked, “Apa Lagi Cina Mahu” (What more do the Chinese want?).
This was published merely hours after Najib himself stoked the racial embers by insisting that a "Chinese tsunami" was responsible for BN’s second consecutive election slip-up. While BN retained control of parliament with 133 out of 222 seats, it lost the popular vote for the first time since 1969 to the Pakatan Rakyat (PR) opposition coalition led by Anwar Ibrahim.
Najib’s salvo seemed to signal to the extremist ethno-nationalist wing within UMNO that it was time again to play up the race-blame game. It also didn’t take long for former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad to pipe in that the "ungrateful" Chinese were largely responsible for BN's poor showing. A retired judge, Mohd Noor Abdullah, aligned with UMNO went as far as to warn of a backlash against ethnic Chinese.
The communally charged rhetoric has since remained palpable, with even a group of Islamic nongovernmental organizations jumping into the fray with a call for Malays to boycott a number of Chinese firms it accuses of having backed PR's political campaign.
The fact that some moderate and centrist voices within UMNO, such as Saifuddin Abdullah, have had to react and distance themselves from this systematic process of race-baiting and intimidation suggests once again that UMNO's default tendencies remain very much rooted in the race-based ideology of Ketuanan Melayu. While moderate voices are not absent in UMNO's inner circle, they are far from dominant.
More relevant is that while a significant segment of the electorate has for two consecutive general elections shown a willingness, and even arguably, eagerness to transcend race-based politics, UMNO and by extension BN appear trapped in an increasingly stagnant ideology and institutional framework.
While there are a number of compelling factors influencing the surge in support for the Anwar-led opposition coalition, voters have undoubtedly shown an explicit desire to reject the race-baiting and racism that UMNO has methodically peddled - both during the campaign leading up to the elections in specific locales and more broadly in the days following the elections.
Failed model, dying ideology
While clearly it would be premature to write-off BN as a formidable force, there are clear signs of the decline and even demise of the BN model of a race-based multi-party coalition. Race-based parties such as UMNO, the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA), and the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC) have long been the embodiment of a communal-based coalition framework that seemed unshakeable.
By contrast, the longstanding opposition party, the Democratic Action Party (DAP), though it has the label of being Chinese dominated, has not been a race-based political entity. Nor is Anwar's Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR). Since the emergence of PKR on the political scene, two of the three parties in the opposition coalition differ in one fundamental way from the major parties in the BN: they are not communally-based in their constitution.
This represents a stark juxtaposition of the BN and PR coalitions. To be sure, the other major coalition partner in PR, Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS), is exclusive to Muslims and so happens to be exclusively Malay in its composition. Yet in a concerted - and some may argue expedient - effort to become more mainstream, the leadership of PAS has for years now been courting non-Muslims and has established a non-Muslim wing of the party.
For unrelated reasons, both PAS and DAP had for decades been in the political wilderness. BN's past ability to make inherently unequal race-based social and political stratification palatable ensured that the status quo prevailed. Until recently it would have been inconceivable to have imagined PAS and DAP - one committed to hudud law, the other to preserving a secular Malaysia - to be on the same page on any policy agenda, let alone to come together to forge a coalition.
While their three-way coalition with Anwar's PKR may be a marriage of convenience, with their differences now largely papered over by their common desire to dislodge UMNO and BN from Putrajaya, much of the historical mistrust that contaminated their relations have become less toxic. That has enabled the PR's parties to transcend the de facto race-based boundaries that underscored the ideological divide between them and put the PR on the vanguard of political and social change.
To be sure, their alliance may not be permanently cemented. But the coalition partners joint assault against UMNO's racism and propensity to reaffirm the rhetoric and policy prescriptions that flow from the ideology of Ketuanan Melayu appears to be in consonance with the sentiments of younger and even older voters who opted to cross over to PR. That said, PR's win of 51% of the popular vote at the May 5 elections is not attributable solely or even primarily to voters' discontent with UMNO's racial politics.
There were clearly other major contributing factors, including widespread frustration with rampant government corruption, nepotism, crime, and the declining quality of education, to name but a few. Yet, the emphasis given by all three major PR coalition parties during campaign rallies on the failings of UMNO's and its ultra-Malay nationalist allies' crude racism and communal politicking made it abundantly clear how PR aimed to position itself on the matter of race inequality.
When Najib singled out and admonished the Chinese for having betrayed BN, he was no doubt trying to play the tried and tested UMNO strategy of exploiting racial anxieties to solidify his position. This affirmed the sober reality that UMNO's ideological bent is still rooted in a Malaysia that is - and must be - compartmentalized by race.
To envision another possibility would bring into question the very essence of UMNO and BN's raison d'etre. But it has been clear for some time now that a growing and substantial number of Malaysians envision a nation where the value of one's citizenship is not weighted by the construct of race.
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say.Please click hereif you are interested in contributing.
Sunil Kukreja is professor of sociology and associate academic dean at the University of Puget Sound in the United States.