The Ascent Of Multi-Ethnic Politics In Malaysia
A new political order in Malaysia
NEW DELHI: In the recently held 14th Malaysian general election, the people’s mandate went in favour of the newly constituted multi-racial coalition Pakatan Harapan (Alliance of Hope) under the chairman of Mahathir Bin Mohammad - a new entrant to the coalition. The new coalition clutched the victory from the incumbent Prime Minister and his protégé Naijb Razack – the leader of the Barisan Nasional (National Front) coalition led by United Malay National Organization(UMNO) that ruled the country since its independence in 1957.
PH secured the simple majority of 113 seats out of total 222 parliamentary seats of Dewan Rakyat (People’s Assembly), leaving BN with 79, Parti Islam Se-Malaysia(PAS) with 18 seats and Warisan Sabah party based on the East Malaysian state of Sabah with 8 seats.
The unprecedented victory of PH belied the exit poll predictions of local and foreign media alike, besides surprising all strata of society given the nature of skewed electoral system and race entrenched politics of Malaysia. This is the first anti- incumbency election in the history of Malaysia propelled by various factors. It is very significant to note that when there is a surge of right wing governments around the world, Malaysia has drafted a different story with the topple of a long reign right wing government, paving a way for the emergence of multi racial political order.
Though the newly minted Prime Minister Mahathir has a mixed political legacy, he is a harbinger of long overdue political change in Malaysia. Aftermath of BN defeat, it was speculated that there would be race riots, a political coup and the declaration of emergency in the country given the past record when the predecessor of the BN coalition, Alliance Party, lost its popularity of votes to the new opposition parties despite winning majority seats. The racial riots and the declaration of emergency followed the results in the year 1969.
This time, however, the political transition was smooth and peaceful while Mahathir was sworn in as the seventh Prime Minister of Malaysia on May 10. Thus, Malaysia has entered into inclusive, non-communal and multi racial politics without any untoward incidents like before. In this emerging scenario, one pertinent question comes to our mind -- is the end of race and religion based identity politics in Malaysia being perpetrated by the BN coalition and a party like PAS?
Political Transition in Malaysia
The BN coalition led by UMNO - an amalgamation of ten ethnicity based communal parties as in 2018 - has been held on to power ever since the independence under the consociational democratic political model. The right wing race politics of the BN coalition led by politically hegemonic UMNO perpetrated Malay race politics by stoking up fear among the majority Malays that if the BN was not elected, the dominance of the ethnic minority the Chinese as like in the economy would undermine their political interests and the Islam would be under threat.
UMNO had been embarking upon the ‘Malay first policy’ which resulted in Malay hegemony in the public spheres. As result of this, the alienation of the other major ethnic minority communities like the Chinese and the Indians under its six decades of rule. The other major ethnic parties like the MCA of the Chinese and the MIC of the Indians in the BN ruling coalition could not encounter given its subservient political position in the BN coalition. They just managed the concerns of their respective communities on an ad-hoc manner to be politically relevant during the six decades of BN rule.
The successive leaders of the UMNO promoted the Malay nationalism leading to Malay racialization and thus the majoritarian politics became its hallmark. Gradually, the political rivalry among the UMNO political elites especially in the 1980s led to a political split and the formation of new political outfit like the People’s Justice Party or Parti Keadilan Rakyat( PKR) by Anwar Ibrahim who was the former deputy prime minister and the finance minister in the cabinet of Mahathir It joined hands with the existing opposition parties like Democratic Action Party (DAP) and PAS spearheading the then opposition coalition Pakatan Rakyat (People’s Alliance) despite ideological differences. Anwar led opposition coalition gradually started diminishing the political influence of the BN coalition from the 12th and 13th general elections.
Due to the fall out between Mahathir, then UMNO president and long serving Prime Minister and Najib over the corruption allegations, Mahathir left the UMNO in the year 2015 and formed a new political outfit Malaysian United Indigenous Party or Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia, informally known as BERSATU to take on Najib in the recently held 14th general election by aligning with the opposition coalition being led by his political opponent Anwar. In the absence of Anwar as he has been jailed for the politically motivated corruption and sodomy charges by Mahathir. They decided to come together on the plank of corruption in order to remove the tainted Najib for his 1MDB scandal , which has led to damage of the reputation of Malaysia internationally.
The newly constituted the opposition coalition called PH comprises the PKR, DAP, BERSATU and the breakaway Amanah (National Trust Party) from PAS. Though the PH appears to be a marriage of convenience to capture political power given its composition of reformists, nationalists , Islamists and ethnic minorities, it is less racial, and more liberal and inclusive. Above all, it works for political change or political equation.
Given the nature of race and religious politics of UMNO led BN combined with the usual practice of gerrymandering, the victory of opposition has been elusive, in contrast, the success of the opposition coalition PH in the recently held election can be attributed for the various factors such as, firstly, fed up with the race politics by the majority Malays especially the rural ones because it has favoured the Malay political elites, not the common Malays who mobilized guts to vote for the opposition coalition, otherwise they were the fixed deposits for the BN coalition.
Secondly, the different versions of the BERSIH rallies by the multi-racial youth for fair and free election, the Indian spring initiated by the Indian civil society group like HINDRAF, disenchantment of ethnic minorities in general with the ruling establishment, thirdly, abuse of power, systemic corruption, the rise of cost of living, looming crisis of unemployment and the imposition of Goods and service tax.
Additionally, the East Malaysian states like Sabah and Sarawk used to be a safe vote banks for the BN coalition in the previous elections, due to the undermining of their genuine interests, there is a surge of discontent and emerging new political narratives among the people in favour of politics for change. So, the process for change had begun a decade ago, which culminated in the success of the PH coalition in the recently held 14th general election. The capture of the power by PH has led to level playing field in the political landscape of Malaysia which was never before.
Mixed Legacy of Mahathir Mohammad
Mahathir bin Mohammad is fondly called by his friends and the critics alike Tun Dr. M or Che Det" is a political icon of the country who has become the oldest Prime Minister of the world now at the age of nearly 93 . He must be credited for ending the ruling Barisan Nationals’ six-decade grip on power. He was a great nation builder and popularly known as the father of modern Malaysia.
During his stint as Prime Minister from 1981 till 2003 under the BN coalition, he made various drastic economic policy measures to make the Malaysian economy stronger and modern in nature. He was an architect of various economic structural changes like National Development policy and National vision policy to spur national development. He devised a long term vision known as Wawasan 2020 or Vision 2020 as well as advocated for the creation of Bangsa Malaysia (Malaysian race) for achieving the status of the developed nation. No second thoughts, whatever Malaysia is known or famous for today is because of his bold socio-economic reforms.
On the flip side, he wrote a controversial book titled ‘Malay Dilemma” wherein he advocated for the Malay rights, so he is a strong Malay nationalist, undemocratic, authoritarian and self styled political leader. During his 22 years of long reign, he muzzled the independence of judiciary and the freedom of media. He stifled the voice of dissent through his Operation Lalang by jailing, witch-hunting of political opponents, and alienation of ethnic minority of communities because of his virulent Malay nationalism and pro-Malay policies through political manoeuvres to create a Malay capitalist class in order to compete with the dominant Chinese business elites in the Malaysian economy.
Although he advocated for moderate and modern Islam, he declared Malaysia as an Islamic state in 2001 even though the constitution is silent whether Malaysia is a secular or Islamic state. Islamizationn of Malaysia was in full swing under his reign. He ushered in new Malay identity during his long stint of rule. Though he was known for his achievements, he is equally the cause for the mess or rot of the Malaysian economy and society. Given this split personality nature of Mahathir, there is a trust deficit among the non-Malays in general though they needed him for political change. He vowed to undo his mistakes in order to leave behind a right legacy. Even though he is a transitional or interim Prime Minister paving way for Anwar to succeed, he has got amble time and chance again to set his record straight. Even the prime Minister in waiting Anwar Ibrahim who was an advocate of Malay nationalism and had belonged to UMNO before the founding of the multi-racial party PKR.
Issues and Challenges
The emerged new political order has to do many things on the various fronts of Malaysia. In the case of economy, though the Malaysian economy is burgeoning in the recent years, it has been trapped under the tag of middle income country for quite long time due to the existence of ‘crony capitalism’ and the nature of ‘ersatz capitalism’, hampering the advancement of Malaysian economy to emerge as a developed country.
Secondly, the removal of all draconian laws like the sedition act, printing and press act and a slew of other draconian measures which has curtailed the basic civil liberties of the Malaysian citizens and the freedom of media is need of the hour to become a mature democracy. The systemic corruption could be tackled through reforms in governance by putting in place more transparency measures. The reversal of affirmative action policy for the majority Malays is necessary for democratization of Malaysian society.
The implementation of skewed affirmative policy for several decades has facilitated the brain drain and widening of inter-racial social inequalities. The inclusion of minority rights in the constitution of Malaysia is an imperative tool for the political and economic integration of the ethnic minorities. The anxieties and the concerns of the conservative Malays and the ethnic minorities should be addressed through the rights based approaches, not by any piece meal measures.
Changing the status quo of society is not an easy task, but with help of political will and the vision and foresight of leadership at the helm of affairs can make it feasible. The nation building of Malaysia should be on the template of ‘unity in diversity; not on the basis of one nation, one race and one religion given its multi racial and composite culture of Malaysia.
The newly found opposition alliance PH’s manifesto is ambiguous like before about the political strategic issues like ethnic affirmative action policy and Islamization. It is still unclear whether the new political order would take up gradually in order to bring in ethnic balance and the abolition of dominance of one race. Without the discontinuation of ethnicity based policies, the new PH would be nothing but BN 2.0. Let us wait and watch how they are going to deliver. Till then, let us keep our fingers crossed.