By K Kesavapany
THE attention given to the Permatang Pauh by-election held on Aug 26 stretched far beyond the borders of the small constituency. Not only were Malaysians transfixed by the contest, foreign journalists too waited for every titbit of information coming out of rural Penang.
Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim, the country's former deputy prime minister, returned to Parliament after an absence of 10 years. He was deposed in 1998 and jailed for abuse of power. Now the leader of a formidable coalition of opposition parties, he is trying his best to topple the government.
The challenge the government faces, however, is much more than a contest between individual Malay leaders. In losing control over four more states apart from Kelantan in the general election of March 8, as well as its two-third majority in Parliament, the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) suffered a blow from which it cannot recover easily, if at all.
Its component parties lost badly. Some of them - such as Parti Gerakan Rakyat, the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC) and the People's Progressive Party - were practically wiped out. This upsets the basic rationale of the BN, for its race-based parties claims to represent all the races of Malaysia. The Indian community, for example, is no longer properly represented within the ruling coalition.
The BN's dominant United Malays National Organisation (Umno) now looks very much like a regional party, firmly entrenched only in the south of peninsular Malaysia. The coalition is now critically dependent on support from across the South China Sea, in Sabah and Sarawak.
The challenge facing the BN is therefore systemic. Not only is the coalition in trouble, Umno has to revamp its image as the champion of Malay rights. Perhaps the federation's current configuration will have to be reconsidered. More critically, Umno has to deal with the disintegration of the concept of Ketuanan Melayu or Malay supremacy.
Umno came into being to defend Malay interests. These interests were initially articulated as 'the special position of Malays' and later 'Malay rights'. As a tactical move during the 1960s, 'Bumiputera rights' became the key term. As Umno grew in political prominence after 1969, its policy perspectives converged around the controversial concept of Ketuanan Melayu.
Fundamental weaknesses in the BN system became undeniable at the time of the 1997-98 Asian Financial Crisis. These were reflected in the Reformasi movement and in the 1998 fallout between Mr Anwar and his mentor-turned-nemesis, Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamed.
Paradoxically, Dr Mahathir, the Malay champion, had brought Mr Anwar into his government in 1982 because of the latter's religious credentials. The then prime minister was responding tactically to the rising religiosity of ethnic Malays. The Malay champion thus restyled his administration as a champion of Malay-Muslims interests. He succeeded well in this - perhaps too well for his own good.
Sixteen years down the road, when the two men fell out, it was the Malay-Muslim Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS) that harvested the immediate benefits. Ketuanan Islam - Muslim supremacy - threatened to overshadow Ketuanan Melayu.
Another crucial development of 1998 was the coming into being of what later became Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR), Mr Anwar's party. It remained small but stubborn under the leadership of his wife Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, at least until March 8. That day, the number of its MPs jumped from one to an impressive 31, making it the largest opposition party in Parliament.
What makes PKR different from both Umno and PAS is that although its top leadership consists of Malays, its second-rank leaders, its members and its supporters include people of all races. Just as interestingly, most of its Malay supporters are educated urbanites.
And so, over the last decade, what we have seen is a dramatic shift among Malays. The community now has a diversity of political perspectives and development agendas.
Among non-Malays, there was no great shift among the Chinese before March 8. Indian voters had generally been loyal to the MIC, and so when they chose to show their dissatisfaction with the system, it had a dramatic effect. On Nov 25 last year, at least 30,000 Malaysian Indians took to the streets in Kuala Lumpur to protest against what they saw as the systematic alienation of their community under the BN government.
Mr Anwar's achievement over the last two years lies in how he was able to project himself as the embodiment of a viable alternative to the BN. He was able to bridge the gap between the social democratic and multiracial Democratic Action Party, and the Islamic PAS. Following the success of the electoral strategy that the three parties forged, they quickly established the Pakatan Rakyat as an alternative to the BN.
The opposition coalition faces many problems. But to the extent that its component parties view the BN as their common enemy, there is a strong likelihood that they will remain united. Their test will come when and if Pakatan takes over the federal government.
In summary, by returning to Parliament with a convincing personal victory, Mr Anwar now properly represents a third alternative to Ketuanan Melayu and Ketuanan Islam. Although the PKR's ideology is commonly described as 'multiracialism', it would be more accurate to describe it as a form of pluralism that still requires Malay leadership.
Perhaps Ketuanan Bangsa Malaysia would be an apt term to describe this third alternative.
Compromises in the immediate future among these three approaches - Ketuanan Melayu, Ketuanan Islam and Ketuanan Bangsa Malaysia - will decide Malaysia's long-term future.
The writer is director of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. Think-Tank is a weekly column rotated among eight leading figures in Singapore's tertiary and research institutions.