Wednesday, April 17, 2019

News analysis: A ‘new Malaysia’ but same old racial, religious divide

By Faris Mokhtar in Kuala Lumpur

11 December, 2018

KUALA LUMPUR — Malaysia’s Pakatan Harapan (PH) government, which swept into power in May through a significant swing in the Malay vote, should be under no illusion that the Malay voters bought into its progressive ideology, analysts told TODAY.

If there were ever any doubt, the 50,000-strong turnout for last weekend's rally at the historic Dataran Merdeka (Independence Square) sent a loud and clear message: Malay rights and Islam’s status as the national religion must remain enshrined in the country’s Constitution.

As it becomes increasingly clear that the groundswell of support for PH during the elections had largely stemmed from voter dissatisfaction with corruption in the previous Barisan Nasional (BN) government, the opposition United Malays National Organisation (Umno) and Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS) are now ready to pounce and play the race and religion cards to win over the hearts and minds of the majority Malay population, the analysts said.

[Ok. So BN's corruption not an issue anymore?]
What this means in the longer term is that various political parties will continue to politicise race and religion, capitalising on every opening they see, they added.

Malays make up almost 70 per cent of Malaysia’s population. In the elections earlier this year, there was an 11 per cent vote swing among the Malays towards the PH coalition, Malaysia think-tank Ilham Centre found.

The anti-International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD) rally — which morphed into a celebration after Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad backed down from his government’s earlier stance — showed that Malays in Malaysia “do not feel secure” under the PH government, and Umno and PAS still have “strong machinery to mobilise the ground”, Penang Institute's political analyst Wong Chin Huat said.

Ilham Centre's executive director Hisomuddin Bakar said: “The idea that PH has massive support among the Malays just because of the vote swing is an illusion that could endanger its political strategy.”


The rally was borne out of protest to the PH government’s plans to ratify the Icerd, in line with the coalition’s election manifesto.

Ratifying Icerd would require amending special privileges accorded to Malays and bumiputeras under Article 153 of Malaysia’s Constitution.

The public outcry forced Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad to make an abrupt U-turn: Icerd will not be ratified, and the PH government will uphold the Constitution as it is.


“Sometimes, we go the wrong way, we turn around but only if necessary. We are not perfect people, although most of us are angels. But, even angels make mistakes. So, when angels make mistakes, they turn around, too.”


Shortly after forming the government, the PH coalition tried to put in place several racial reforms. For a start, a number of ministers holding key positions were not Malay.

It also sought to review the decades-old New Economic Policy, which provides affirmative action programmes for the Malays. Aid should be dispensed based on needs and not race, the PH government had said.

But the moves have caused rumblings on the ground. For instance, there was a petition protesting against the attorney-general’s appointment as he is not a Malay-Muslim.

Under the PH government, Malays increasingly feel that their interests are being sidelined, the analysts said.

Political analyst Awang Azman Awang Pawi of University Malaya said that as long as Malays form the majority race and if PH continues to be insensitive to their sentiment, protests will continue to take place.

”PH cannot think that just because it is a new government and has its new ways, it can do whatever it wants without considering ground sentiments,” he added.

Associate Professor Awang Azman noted that even though Malay voters threw their support behind PH during the polls, they were apprehensive about the coalition’s progressive racial policy.

Despite PH’s shock electoral victory, the reality is that it has weaker Malay support compared to Umno and PAS, Mr Hisomuddin said.

To win back support, several PH’s leaders have backtracked on their public statements.

For example, Mr Anwar Ibrahim, who is widely seen as the prime minister-in-waiting, had previously called for affirmative action policies to be dismantled. But he has since changed his tune, saying the Malays should not fear losing their privileges under PH’s governance.

As race-based policies are entrenched in Malaysia, the PH government has to tread carefully on race and religious issues, the analysts said.

Dr Wong pointed out that Umno and PAS are “waiting in the wind to demonise every reform”, and the PH government “must first be able to show how its reforms will benefit the Malays".

“PH’s non-Malay and liberal supporters will have to live with the fact that no major reforms can be possible if the Malays cannot be convinced that they are among the beneficiary,” he added.

Mr Jerald Joseph, Commissioner of the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia, told TODAY that the PH government needs to step up engagement efforts to assuage Malays’ concerns.

"All is not lost, but by just sitting, hopping and waiting, things won’t change. Race and religion is so entrenched," he added.


On Saturday, PAS ferried busloads of supporters from its stronghold of Kelantan to Kuala Lumpur to attend the rally.

There, leaders from both Umno and PAS gave fiery speeches, seeking to whip up pro-Malay and pro-Islam sentiments among the crowd.

PAS' president Hadi Awang, for example, declared that non-Muslims should be grateful that they are welcomed into the country.

Umno and PAS, which are seen as "defenders of Malays and Islam" respectively, have no choice but to play the race and religion cards, Assoc Prof Azman Awang said.

Mr Hisomuddin said that both parties would become irrelevant if Malays in Malaysia gravitate towards a moderate position.

This is especially so for Umno, the lynchpin party of the BN coalition. Since its fall from power, the party has been caught up with infighting and has come under investigations for corruption. The party also lacks vision and new ideas to counter PH, the analysts said.

"Playing up racial and religious sentiments, it is like their last oxygen tank to extend their political lifeline", Mr Hisomuddin observed.

For PAS, its gains in the last polls — where it wrestled back the state of Terengganu — served as motivation to expand and deepen its influence, the analysts said.

PH has its work cut out trying to shore up its weak Malay base, Assoc Prof Awang Azman said.

He cited the example of the government’s move to remove allowance for fishermen to tide through the monsoon seasons. "Although it was done to reduce (government) spending… the Malays will see it as an attempt to sideline their needs and rights."

The rally in Kuala Lumpur took place just days after a racially charged demonstration in Indonesia’s capital of Jakarta.

Tens of thousands Indonesian Muslims poured onto the streets to celebrate the second anniversary of the protests that forced Jakarta's Christian ex-governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama — popularly known as “Ahok” — to step down.

While Singapore is paying close attention to what is happening in Malaysia and Indonesia, the analysts believe that there is little danger of racial politics spilling over to its shores for now.

Assoc Prof Awang Azman said that this is due to Singapore’s tough laws against sedition, and that its political rhetoric is by and large devoid of race and religion.

Mr Hisomuddin noted that there is greater maturity in Singapore society which curbs racial and religious politics. “That is why the racial and religious undertones are not as sharp as in its neighbours,” he said.

[Malaysia's racial element in politics have been entrenched over 60 years. It cannot be changed overnight, particularly as the overthrow of the BN govt was NOT a repudiation of race-based politics, but corruption in government.

Moreover, I suspect Mahathir has been trolling Malaysians, and baiting them with his comments about Malays being too dependent on government largesse and "help", and even with all the privileges, lazy.

Look at what he did and said (from this report)
"... Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad himself gave life to the whole ICERD controversy when he spectacularly announced at the UN that the PH government would ratify all remaining UN human rights conventions, including ICERD. It took many by surprise given that all previous Malaysian administrations, including his own earlier administration, had shied away from ratifying them.
Strangely, despite acknowledging that it could be a difficult sell, he made no move to campaign for it or justify his decision to ratify it. Not once did he speak out in defence of ICERD. In fact, not only did he make no attempt to assuage concerns that ICERD might adversely affect Malay rights, he appeared to stoke apprehension by suggesting, contrary to legal opinion, that the constitution would have to be amended in order to ratify ICERD. It was as if he simply sat back and watched it simmer.
By failing to stand up for a proposal that he himself initiated, by declining several opportunities to clarify the facts about ICERD, and by leaving it to the hapless P Waytha Moorthy to defend, he contributed to the perception that ICERD was somehow a scheme by the non-Malays in his own Cabinet to erode Malay rights and privileges.
Subsequently, in what can only be described as bizarre, Mahathir went on to take full credit for stopping ICERD dead in its tracks. At a gathering at UiTM following Saturday’s demonstration, Mahathir declared that he could not accept ICERD because it would disadvantage the Malays. Of course, they cheered him on.
And now he claims that HIS party "Bersatu"is the true champion of the Malay voters.
Q: There are claims that Bersatu has yet to meet the demands of the Malays. Will Bersatu become a party that upholds Malay rights? 
A:If it’s not Bersatu, who else? You can join Umno, but the people will reject Umno as a rogue party.
Where will you go if not Bersatu? We are the only Malay party (in PH). If they want a Malay party, we have Bersatu.
Mahathir is making his move. After sabotaging PH from within, after setting up PH against the Malay voters

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