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Articles, Commentaries, The Edge

The Future Direction of Malaysian Political Discourses Is Being Decided Now


By Ooi Kee Beng
In The Edge 26 June 2013

The elections are now over. However, it is not to what degree the promises made by politicians in desperate moments are kept which should concern the Malaysian public as much as the political disputes, and whether these will now revert to the race-baiting that we witnessed so frequently before March 8, 2008.

If the latter, then the trials and tribulations experienced by Malaysians over the last five years would have been in vain.

It should be remembered that after Najib Razak became prime minister on 3 April 2009, his attempts to win back urban votes for the Barisan Nasional led him not only to adopt the “One Malaysia” slogan suggested by his spin consultants, but also to a winding down of racially provocative statements from top ministers.

It certainly did help that Syed Hamid Albar, the Home Affairs Minister under Abdullah Badawi, who became infamous for provocative statements was no longer in the government; and that his successor in that position, Hishammuddin Hussein decided to be more reticent than when he was Foreign Affairs Minister and head of UMNO Youth. It also helped that Khairy Jamaluddin, after succeeding Hishammuddin as head of the party’s youth wing chose to discontinue its traditional role of being loud and uncompromising race champions.

That vacated role was however quickly snatched by Pertubuhan Pribumi Perkasa Malaysia (Perkasa), a Malay Supremacy movement that claims to have a membership of 300,000, and that was formed with the blessing of former premier, Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad.

The racial provocations that it engaged in between 2008 and the general elections of 2013 definitely hampered the process of moderation in political discourses that Najib Razak’s transformation programme so badly needed.

Be that as it may, the government’s rhetoric, despite obvious and frequent contradictions, did continue to focus on the slogan of “One Malaysia”. However, when Perkasa’s second-in-command, Zul Noordin, was picked by Najib to run for parliament; and its leader, Ibrahim Ali, though not chosen to run by UMNO, nevertheless ran alone against the opposition as an independent after the man nominated by UMNO mysteriously abstained at the last minute from registering to run.

Both these men lost, as luck would have it. Otherwise, the Malaysian parliament would now have to deal with lawmakers chosen specifically to race-bait. No doubt, they will remain active in their chosen ambition to racialise Malaysian public discourse; but they will not be doing it in the august house. That is one of the most welcomed results of the 13th general elections.

The question now, as two coalitions of equal strength face each other for another five years is, Will the One Malaysia emblem continue as the government’s rallying call, or will UMNO allow for a reversion to the race-baiting and arrogance of the late Abdullah period? Or will we see something new—and healthier—evolve out of all the campaigns and demonstrations, and the conflicts and scandals of the past few years?

Does the fact that Chinese representation in government is now at its minimum following the extremely poor showing by the two Chinese-supported BN parties, the MCA and Gerakan, remove a deterrent to race-baiting? One may imagine so, but then, even when these two parties were properly embedded within the BN government, no such reining in was evident. That was in fact one of the reasons why they have been losing so much voter support.

Whatever can impede a return to the partisan and provocative style of leadership exercised by top UMNO leaders in the late Abdullah period has to come from within UMNO itself. The One Malaysia slogan that has been around since Malaysia Day, 16 September 2010, will need to be given much more substance than has been the case so far.

Some of that needed substance may be found in the country’s Rukunegara, which was announced on Merdeka Day, 31 August 1970, or paradoxically in the concept of Bangsa Malaysia propounded by Mahathir in the early 1990s. In fact, it is noted by some that the 2013 general elections were the first that the generation that grew up with the Bangsa Malaysia concept was voting in, and with results that reflected that concept’s focus on multiracial nationhood.

It was therefore a source of great worry that the new government’s Home Affairs Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamid recently chose to publicise his unapprised view that Malaysians unhappy with the country’s political system should migrate. This is an ominous sign that race-baiting at the top level which was suppressed by Najib’s four-year long campaign can easily return to poison public debates.

That would be most unfortunate and wasteful of time, energy and opportunity, given how Malaysia’s political concerns in recent times have increasingly about issues of governance, and how the fact that major state governments are now run by the federal opposition has upped the ante where the quality of policy discussion, policymaking and policy implementation are concerned.

Keeping public discourses from falling back into crass ethnocentrism should be a major goal for Malaysians in the coming months.


About Ooi Kee Beng

Dr OOI KEE BENG is the Executive Director of Penang Institute (George Town, Penang, Malaysia). He was born and raised in Penang, and was the Deputy Director of ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute (formerly the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, ISEAS). He is the founder-editor of the Penang Monthly (published by Penang Institute), ISEAS Perspective (published by ISEAS) and ISSUES (published by Penang Institute). He is also editor of Trends in Southeast Asia, and a columnist for The Edge, Malaysia.


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