There is a deep underlying paranoia in the ruling coalition, which has been unable to adapt to a new political landscape that has seen Malaysians of all ethnic groups joining hands to demand accountability, observes Ronald Benjamin.
Since the general election in 2008, when the opposition parties made significant gains, inter-ethnic relations have been experiencing strains. This situation has been aggravated as the Barisan Nasional and Pakatan Rakyat are slogging to win decisively in the next general election.
There have been various reasons put forward by commentators – from the lack of empathy towards the indigenous community, the lack of respect for Islam and the so-called ghost of the former Singapore Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew’s ideology – for the current predicament.
The vexing question is, why is there ethnic polarisation in the country when there should be greater focus on issues that affect the common good such as the gap between the rich and the poor, a one-sided mainstream media, corruption and questions over the impartiality of the institution of justice?
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The main reason for ethnic polarisation is the framework of ethnic unity shaped by the Barisan Nasional government over the past 40 years: the BN’s continuous hegemony has been seen as the only way to maintain inter-ethnic balance and control.
The framework of ethnic unity under the Barisan seems to consist of the dominant role of Umno, which dictates the course of politics. The main focus is to increase bumiputra participation in the economy which is reflected in the NEP. The rural population is kept satisfied by continuous propaganda that states that only Umno can safeguard Malay rights. This is flavoured with rural allocations for building suraus and repairing roads and bridges.
Non-Malays have been accommodated with cabinet positions and allocations for schools and poverty eradication programmes. Poverty eradication programmes are executed through training and education within an economic foundation and system where critical resources and their access are basically in the hands of the economic elites.
Education and economic opportunities are aplenty for those who are loyal to the regime through a patronage system. The current school system reflects very much the paradoxical ethnic accommodation of the Barisan Nasional; different language mediums in schools are tolerated even though it is one of the the underlying causes of ethnic polarisation among Malaysians over the years..
All this is reinforced through a culture of conservative feudalism that demands loyalty. This basically stabilises the position of the ruling elites over the years, and the Malays in general were comfortable with loyalty that does not question excesses.
Whenever the regime was under pressure on issues of public accountability, it plays on ethnic emotions by claiming that Malays are under threat. This strategy worked well especially during the Mahathir administration.
The non-Malays realised that Umno has an overwhelming support of the Malays, and chose pragmatism by voting for BN even though there were elections where many Chinese supported the DAP.
When the defining moment of change came, reflected in opposition parties winning five states in 2008, it shook the BN elites to the core and made them realise that their long, proven framework had been shaken.
The new political landscape showed that significant numbers of urban Malaysians of all ethnic groups had moved beyond the conservative mould of ethnic accommodation towards joining forces to fight the poor management of public finance, inflation and corruption – issues that go beyond ethnic politics. This new awakening was perceived as a threat to the race-based ideology and the position of the political and business elites aligned to Umno.
Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim was seen as a credible threat to Umno because he was highlighting the glaring rich-poor divide within the Malay community. He had to be got rid of at any cost; the justice system and political and intellectual turncoats were used to the maximum to attack his character.
In a nutshell, Umno, the dominant party in the Barisan Nasional, has decided to go back to harping on ethnic solidarity for its survival using a Mahathirist political strategy. The party understands that it lacks the flexibility to evolve from its conservative and feudal ethnic framework. It is also unable to disentangle itself from a patronage system of crony capitalism under the cover of racial politics.
Therefore to understand the cause of current ethnic polarisation, it’s vital to understand that it is not merely to do with the rise of communal feeling among all ethnic groups or the refusal to look at the goodness of others.
There is also a deep underlying paranoia in the ruling coalition, which is unable to adapt to new political realities. The so-called Christian and communist bogey played up by the media aligned to the ruling elites is a reflection of this paranoia.
It is vital to analyse the ethnic-based framework and its connection with the concentrated wealth of entrenched elites to understand why there is polarisation.
Ronald Benjamin is an Aliran member based in Ipoh.