The Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition is perceived to be more multiracial and practising less racial politics than the Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition it unseated. The two largest component parties in PH, Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) and the Democratic Action Party (DAP) are as multiracial as political parties get in Malaysia. Even Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (PPBM), labelled the “new UMNO”, is marginally more multiracial than the party it splintered from, by virtue of it allowing non-Bumiputeras to become associate members. Although the definition of a Bumiputera includes other non-ethnic Malay natives, in the political sense it has almost always exclusively referred to the Malays.

Does this, however, mean that race-based politics is losing its relevance in Malaysia? As the curtains closed on 2018, the answer is a resounding no.

Firstly, it is false to conclude that PH’s victory makes race-based politics irrelevant. An analysis of the on-the-ground sentiment in the lead up to Malaysia’s 14th General Election (GE14) suggests that there were many factors that could have swayed the votes, with nothing to suggest that it is a wholesale rejection of race-based politics. In no order of priority, these are former Prime Minister Najib Razak and his wife’s opulence, the 1MDB fiasco, rising costs of living associated with the Goods and Services Tax (GST), and PH’s promises for the moon, stars and everything in between.

Besides, would the nationalist-Malay and the conservative-Malay vote have swung without the assurances provided by the Tun Mahathir- led PPBM and Parti Amanah Negara (PAN)? Moving forward, neither has the attractiveness of the Malay vote to be obtained through race-based politics decreased. For one, the Federal constituencies, delineated prior to GE14 allegedly along racial lines, will remain so for at least another eight years by virtue of Article 113(2) of the Federal Constitution. As it stands in terms of numbers, these Malay-majority seats make up 60.3 percent of all Federal constituencies (134/222).

Besides, according to Merdeka Centre, the Malay vote was almost equally split among the three main contending blocs in GE14, with UMNO-BN bagging the lion’s share at 35-40 percent, PAS at 30-33 percent and PH with 25-30 percent. With the factors above more likely than not being one-off considerations,the battleground for the Malay votes in the next general elections could be more hotly contested than ever before.

Secondly, with GE14 continuing the trend of the repudiation of non-Malay voters towards UMNO-BN, coupled with BN’s complete breakdown of its consociational model, there is no political restraint on UMNO from moving closer to the right. Even push back by the more moderate, reform-leaning faction within UMNO has proved ineffective. This is due to UMNO’s hierarchical power structure, with the coveted votes to determine the party’s leadership, and to an extension the party’s direction, rmly consolidated within the hands of the Divisional Heads. And as the results of UMNO’s 2018 General Assembly has shown, appetite for reform remains weak.

With the conservative faction now dominating UMNO, and with nothing else to lose, the party is able to play the “3R” card of race, religion and royalty to the hilt. It now seeks to conveniently present the narrative of the 3Rs being under attack as a diversionary tactic to distract ordinary Malays from the various corruption charges its leadership faces. By presenting itself as the last bastion of defence against this imaginary “onslaught”, UMNO attempts to consolidate its support base by tying the fate of its leadership to the continuance of the 3Rs.

The convenient bogeyman, or the “Other”, in this narrative is the DAP — the second largest component party in PH, and more importantly a majority, though not exclusively, Chinese political party. By playing on deep-seated suspicions and paranoia festered over decades, an image is presented that the Chinese are out to dominate Malaysian politics at the expense of the Malays.

Thirdly, when discussing racial politics in Malaysia, strong consideration has to be given to the role of political Islam. While supposedly separate identities, the Malay race and religion in Malaysia is essentially fused by virtue of Article 160 of the Federal Constitution. Article 160 of the Federal Constitution sets out that a Malay is “a person who professes the religion of Islam, habitually speaks the Malay language, and conforms to Malay custom”. This essentially means that to be Malay is to be Muslim, and to be Muslim is to be Malay. So intrinsically tied are these two identities that when a person converts to Islam in Malaysia, it is also known as masuk Melayu. Hence the role of political Islam is made all the more pertinent given the potential for UMNO and PAS to collaborate, whether officially or unofficially.

The potency of Islam as a political force is due to how religion is viewed upon as infallible by its believers, coupled with the deference given to the ulama in Malaysia. This leaves open the risk for politicians with purported religious backgrounds to hijack the religious agenda for narrow political aims. Case in point is the joint UMNO-PAS rally to reject the proposed ratification of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD). In the lead up to the first mass mobilisation of people in post-509 Malaysia, the organisers of the rally had alleged, among other things, that the ratification of ICERD would lead to the abolishment of the 3Rs.

A surprise to no one, facts such as ICERD being able to be ratified as little more than window dressing, with no discernible effect on either the position of the monarchs nor the status of Islam, were conveniently ignored. For example, 20 of the 23 UN member states with a monarchy, and 55 of the 57 members of the Organisation of Islamic Countries (OIC) have ratified ICERD with no such implications. Neither did it matter to the 55,000 strong-crowd who had gathered in the sweltering heat, dressed in white, the traditional colour of the ummah. This is not  without meaning,as for one, it ditches the red-green (both colours being the official colours of UMNO and PAS) combination opted during the Seri Setia by-election held months before.

Second, it is symbolic of the “setting aside” of political differences (ignoring the fact that the protest was political in its entirety) in the name of uniting the ummah under threat from the Other. It is to be noted that the Malay psyche is highly influenced by the traditional peribahasa(proverb) “bersatu kita teguh, bercerai kita roboh. Which is loosely translated to “together we are strong, divided we fall”. The goal of uniting the Malays has been a long-standing feature in Malay politics.

Of particular concern is if Malaysian politics backslides from the regressive race-based model to one based on religion. This would harden the already divisive fissures in Malaysian politics, as any questioning of purportedly “Islamic issues” will be swiftly rebuked and any space for discourse would be severely restricted on grounds of “sensitivities”.

Fourthly, dampening hopes that the PH victory would usher in a new era of race-free politics was how its coalition leaders, but a few, capitulated on the ratification of ICERD. Some would argue, whether rightfully or not, that PH could not expend precious political capital on a “non-essential”. Regardless, a dangerous precedent has been set, that if a proposal is perceived to affect the 3Rs, then veiled threats of violence can prove to be a successful counter-strategy.

Further casting doubt on Malaysia moving past race-based politics is the fact that PPBM is accepting, whether as official members or “friendly independents”, defecting UMNO members. Questions remain of how the internal dynamics of PH, currently in favour of the multiracial PKR and DAP, will change if PPBM were to strengthen in terms of numbers. Would the coalition, founded for the sole purpose to unseat BN, be able to muster sufficient political will to resolutely move past the allure of race-based politics?

To be sure, convincing arguments could be made that reforms on traditionally sensitive areas should be made slowly. This is purportedly to not “rock the boat”, with memories of the May 13th racial riots just starting to fade in the nation’s consciousness. However, in the bigger scheme of things, not wanting to “spook the Malays” would mean further lost opportunities to have genuine conversations on the state of racial relations, and its direction in “New Malaysia”.

Instead, I would argue that a wider, societal change in how Malaysians view politics, and to an extension race-based politics, will not come easy. Fierce push back on this area, considering its traditional “champions” and vested interests should only be expected. Moreover, as a colleague pointed out, while Rome was not built in a day, it would never have been built at all if someone did not start laying a few bricks.

However, without the political will to create and sustain these spaces for discourse on traditionally sensitive areas, is there any “newness” to Malaysia beyond rhetoric? If the answer is in the negative, then perhaps hopes for PH to usher in a new era of race-free politics is misplaced after all.

Harris Zainul is a Researcher in Economics, Trade and Regional Integration, ISIS Malaysia

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