These days, it is presumed that racial politics in this country is dead. It is understandable why this conclusion is appealing but it is certainly wise to refrain from signing off racial politics as a factor in Malaysia politics.

This presumption has its basis in the outcome of the March 8 general election. Barisan Nasional lost considerable number of state and federal seats to the alliance of DAP, PAS and PKR on that historic day. With Barisan is seen as the symbol of racial politics and the three-party alliance — Pakatan Rakyat — is viewed as the antithesis, it is absolutely tempting to relate the electoral outcome to the dichotomy between racial and non-racial politics.

The competition between the two ideas does have a role in the outcome of the election but it is definitely not the sole factor.

Prior the general election, the Barisan-led government on almost daily basis continued to insult the intelligence of Malaysians through its control over the mainstream media. That insult later turned into a battle of credibility as many fought back on the internet and with other means. What happened afterwards was a very personal and public battle between the former Information Minister Zainudin Maidan and the local blogosphere.

BERSIH, meanwhile, took to the streets to demand democratic reforms. This not only attracted sympathizers of DAP, PAS and PKR but also those that truly believe in the need for better democratic system. Others just simply wanted to express their general discontent with the BN-led federal government.

Corruption, meanwhile, was perceived as rampant thanks to several cases such as the ones involving Zakaria Mat Deros, ECM-Libra and even the procurement of weapons. The 2007 Auditor-General’s report, which lists down the excesses of various ministries, made the situation even worse for the BN.

Crime also was on the list. The tragic story of Sharlinie remained unsolved unresolved while the Altantuya murder case with its links to the upper echelon of government very much unsettled ordinary voters.

There are more but while these issues are racially neutral, they do not fit into the racial-non-racial dichotomy. One can definitely be a believer in racial politics but at the same time be concerned with issues of crime, corruption and democratic reforms.

One could even fight against Barisan while believing in racial politics and in Barisan. The anti-Abdullah fraction is one group falling in this category. The former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamed went as far as encouraging UMNO members to vote against Barisan.

In short, people on both sides were angry at Barisan. All things considered, protest votes rather than believe in non-racial politics may have played a larger role in the result of the March 8 general election.

Not only the role played by racial politics is pushing votes away from Barisan may be overemphasized, the role of racial politics in attracting votes to Pakatan has also been underemphasized.

This can be proven through how PKR place itself in front of a less liberal Malay audience with regard to matter concerning the New Economic Policy. While PKR as well as Pakatan indeed promote an inclusive merit-based affirmative action dubbed the New Economic Agenda as an alternative, the argument against the NEP — the one policy with great association with the racial politics of Barisan — is not position diametrically.

On the contrary, PKR continues to persuade the average Malays to abandon the NEP or its legacy by impressing on the idea that the implementation of the NEP has been corrupted over the years by the corrupt UMNO. PKR is happy to point out that the implementation of the NEP nowadays is flawed while acknowledging the past success of the NEP which improved in the Malay lot. One will be hard-pressed to find a statement which PKR officially stated the NEP is conceptually flawed. PKR simply will not do that, much to the dismay of its sympathizers of libertarian leaning.

Furthermore, PKR does endeavor to convince the average Malays that the welfare of a lot of Malays would continue to be guaranteed under the NEA since the Malays, as it is generally believed, make up a majority of the Malaysian underclass.

The point with the position of the PKR with respect to the NEP and the Malays is that the average Malays are still concerned with the well-being of their race. PKR recognize this and with this cognizance, have frequently pointed out that the party will defend Article 153 of the Constitution of Malaysia, which safeguards the special position of the Malays in the country. If PKR is to outright reject Article 153, it would be interesting to see how the average Malays, even those supportive of PKR, would react.

While there is a hint of racial politics in the way PKR handle the NEP in front of average Malay audience, the tactics leads to a strategic end of a non-racial outcome, i.e. the end justifies the mean. After all, the creation of a right egalitarian society is dependent on convincing the average Malays the needs and benefits of an egalitarian society.

Even stronger case of racial politics in Pakatan can be observed within PAS. The existence of PAS itself is closely predicated upon racial politics. Within the Malaysia context, religion is a component of racial politics, as with language and education among others. This is especially so when Article 160 of the Constitution defines a Malay as a Muslim.

If that is an unconvincing point, then consider the existence of factions within PAS which wish to cooperate with Umno in order to secure Malay-Muslim influence in local politics. The prospect of non-Malays, non-Muslims dominating Pakatan is enough of an incentive for some in PAS to work with UMNO.

And surely, Pakatan has been the great beneficiary of racial politics as demonstrated by the support the coalition receives from Hindraf and the sympathizers of the movement. While it is possible to see Hindraf as a civil liberty movement which seeks equality, the movement undeniably positioned itself well within the scope of racial politics.

Perhaps, the greatest proof of the continuous relevance of racial politics is the oft-overlooked fact that Barisan actually won the general election in terms of popular votes and seats won.

Nevertheless, just as the success of Pakatan cannot be fully attributed to the appeal of non-racial politics, the victory of Barisan cannot be fully attributed to racial politics either. Yet, it is likely that after controlling for other factors, racial politics would still play a large factor.

Even if racial politics has lost its appeal to a many Malaysians, racial politics still appeal to considerable number — if not the majority — of Malaysians.

The only way to ascertain the end of the racial politics as a major factor of Malaysian politics is to see how large a factor racial politics will play in the next general election or even the one after. Everybody should be wary of making one grand conclusion based on one observation, however reliable the observation is.

All that brings me to one question: what is the possible implication of continuing relevance of racial politics?

The most obvious is the possibility of heeding the call of Dato’ Onn: for Barisan Nasional to abandon racial politics in one way or another.

If indeed racial politics still has great relevance in Malaysian politics, the abandonment of racial politics by Barisan would see schism in its three great parties, namely UMNO, MCA and MIC. Though purely a conjecture, the prospect of ethno-nationalists — be it Malay, Chinese, Indian or the mysterious others — breaking away from a unitary multiracial Barisan is not an outlandish possibility.

Maneuvered unwisely, the new Barisan Nasional may find itself sandwiched between Pakatan on the left and a new ethno-nationalists entity on its immediate right. Hitler lost his war by fighting on two fronts simultaneously; a new Barisan, finding itself in between a rock and a hard place, may just share the same fate.

Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved

A version of this article was published in The Malaysian Insider. Two paragaphs (the question and the reference to Dato’ Onn) were removed from the TMI version.

6 Responses to “[1808] Of the continuing relevance of racial politics and its implication to Barisan Nasional”

  1. on 15 Oct 2008 at 18:54 Hedonese

    Though I dream of a truly non-race based polity in msia, we’re still far away from it. And ur analysis is largely sound… the journey of a thousand miles start with the first step, i think we have taken a few steps in that direction post-march 8

  2. on 16 Oct 2008 at 16:44 Ahmad

    DAP and PAS need to be converted before Pakatan Rakyat could truly embrace non racial politics. Though DAP opens its membership to all races, it is clearly a Chinese (+ some Indian)based party with one or two Malays holding token party position.

    Despite PAS opening membership to non muslims as “ahli penyokong”, it is very much an religious orientated party, akin to racial based political party.

    At the end of the day, in term of racial based politics, the difference exist between BN and PR is vague, aside from one of the component party, PKR, being multiracial constitutionally.

  3. on 16 Oct 2008 at 21:06 afif

    We are way far from being one non racial nation. I wonder if Singaporeans reached there already…

  4. on 16 Oct 2008 at 23:49 azrir

    “In short, people on both sides were angry at Barisan. All things considered, protest votes rather than believe in non-racial politics may have played a larger role in the result of the March 8 general election.”

    It took you more than 6 months to realise this heh?…

  5. on 17 Oct 2008 at 23:00 Hafiz Noor Shams

    Dear Azrir,

    Not nine months. I’ve expressed the similar thought about protest vote back in March.

    I’m only trying to convince those who still believe that we live in a new reality free of racial politics.

  6. on 25 Oct 2008 at 08:52 oster

    Perhaps I am cynical, but racial politics will never die.

    Across the globe, minorities will always vote more leftist parties, seeking a large ally in the form of the state. Hence, the Democrats in the US, Labour in the UK, the Socialists in France etc. obtain a massive proportion of the minority vote.

    The majority, or largest group, will always tie their cultural identity to larger entity of the nation and will support those who appeal to their nationalistic tendencies. The whites of America, who have routinely given the majority of their votes to the Republicans for 3 decades, and the Walloons of Belgium.

    It is the compulsion of democracy itself, and to a certain extent the partisan system and the concept of national entities, that gives rise to racial politics.

    And seeing as that these things are unlikely to go away, I don’t believe we’ll ever see it go away.

    Unless humankind manages to hump the world to a hue of brown. Even then, racial politics will enter the fray, as the black Rwandans killed the…. black Rwandans.

    Culture, after all, can be racial denominator.


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