Saturday, September 28, 2019

In Malaysia, the battle against racial politics is in the rural areas

By Chang Lih Kang

27 September, 2019

After being the talk of the town for more than a year, Malaysian opposition parties United Malays National Organistion (Umno) and Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS) have finally “tied the knot”.

This does not surprise anyone, as they were “flirting” with each other since the last general election. They were working together to ensure Pakatan Harapan’s (PH) defeat in the election.

Although they did not succeed in their last attempt, the Umno-PAS political marriage has rippled the political landscape. People are concerned about the existence of this mono-ethnic, mono-religion political pact.

Many see it as a perilous development for a plural society. Some pundits anticipate a more polarised nation with more racial or religious tension, because politicians from the Umno-PAS pact are prone to only address audiences from a single race and religion.

We should not discount the possibility of some PH politicians, who wish to outdo their rivals, might resort to a hardline racial narrative too.

[Therein lies the slippery slope of racial politics - the race to the bottom to see who can be more racist.]

However, as a matter of fact, none of the component party within PH can outdo Umno in rallying right-wing Malay support, or outmatch PAS in convincing conservative Muslim voters. Competing with Umno and PAS on their turf is a losing battle.

Fortunately, PH main leadership did not fall prey to the parochialism of Umno and PAS. Instead, it has counter-argued soberly with moderation, openness and tolerance. These middle path narratives are timely with Malaysia Day on Sept 16.

Nevertheless, rebutting their narratives and distancing ideologically are insufficient to curb the influence of Umno-PAS’ parochial politics.

Their target audiences are not urbanites, but suburbanites, who are relatively poorer and less exposed to politics. The reason is simple, too much exposure to politics means they will not be easily manipulated.

Take the Tanjung Malim constituency where I am Member of Parliament as example. It comprises 56 per cent Malay voters, 25 per cent Chinese, 13 per cent Indian and 6 per cent Orang Asli.

Out of 19 Felda (Federal Land Development Authority, started in 1956 to resettle and employ the rural poor in the palm oil industry, with 650,000 settlers and five million dependents today) settlements in Perak, 10 are in Tanjung Malim.

Almost half, if not more of the Malay voters here are Felda settlers. Besides, there are more than 20 Orang Asli villages in the constituency.

Such racial composition and social economic setup is most ideal for Umno-PAS to propagate their fabricated lies.


Over the past year, the PH government revealed numerous scandals with regard to the mismanaged Felda. Everyone knows by now the recent crisis faced by Felda was inherited from the previous administration.

The Economic Affairs Ministry has also announced a RM6.2 billion restructuring of Felda. But life is no better for the settlers, some say worse.

Certainly, the government could explain to settlers that the white paper takes time to implement, and the palm oil price plunged because of the concerted campaign against us by the European Union.

However, what bothers them most is why their life is worsening after the change of government?

Besides Felda settlers, rubber tappers are also a vital part of the rural population.

This year is an annus horribilis for rubber tappers nationwide. Price of scrap rubber is currently hovering between RM1.80 and RM1.90 per kg.

Rubber tappers are living in despair. The rubber production incentive initiated by the Primary Industries Ministry is just a drop in the ocean.

Worst of all, incentives are only paid to smallholders with land registered under their names.

Most rubber tappers in the rural areas do not own land, they merely tap trees under the pawah system. Not only do they have to share their gains with smallholders, they are also not eligible to receive any incentive.

To these men and women who are struggling to make ends meet, who cares about the cause of low rubber price? Their only concern is whether the government could help them to put food on the table.


In the last general election, PH had smartly utilised low commodities price to its advantage. But if it fails to improve the living of Felda settlers and rubber tappers, this double-edged sword will cut it back.

When negative emotion fills the air, rural areas could turn into the hotbed of racial politics. Someone just need to provoke, hatred will spread like wildfire.

“Life was better when we had Malay finance minister. Everything deteriorates after Lim Guan Eng took over.

“No doubt Najib (Razak) was corrupted, but at least he took care of Malays. Our life was better then.”

These absurd and ridiculous arguments make no sense to urbanites, but some rural folk might think it is perfectly sound, because it resonates well with their experience.

The combination of deteriorating life and racial narrative indoctrinated by Umno and PAS, will contribute to a dreadful perception against the current government.

One can try to clarify that Felda is actually under a Malay minister named Mohamed Azmin Ali (Economic Affairs Minister), not Lim Guan Eng (Finance Minister). But once perception is formed, it is beyond facts.

Therefore, the suburb is the main battleground for PH to fight this perception war against Umno-PAS. PH should stop rural areas from becoming the hotbed of racial politics.

Instead of arguing about abstract ideologies, PH leaders should pay heed to the development and policy implementations in rural areas.

PH should not drag itself to compete with Umno-PAS in the quagmire of racial politics. On the contrary, PH should make good use of its position as the ruling government to improve the livelihood of rural folk.

Only by solving bread and butter issues in the suburbs, parochialism and extremism would gradually diminish.


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