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Are we more united as a nation after the last general election?

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No, says Jeyakumar Devaraj, adding that a united nation can only be constructed out of feelings of solidarity among all the ethnic groups that share this nation.

We are more divided and along ethnic lines after the 2018 general election.

This is based on the following observations of mine:

  • The votes received by Umno-Pas in the by-elections in Camerons and in Semenyih went up compared to PRU14.
  • The WhatsApp groups that I am in show an increase in anti-Pakatan Harapan (PH) criticism among Malays compared to the time before the general elections.
  • Umno-Pas were able to mobilise significant Malay opposition to the plan to ratify the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination and the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court – although these two treaties did not threaten “Malay interests” in any significant way.

The breakdown votes in the Sungai Siput parliamentary constituency in the 2018 general election was as follows:

  • PH received only 15% of the Malay votes; while Umno received 55% and Pas received 30%.
  • More than 90% of the Chinese and roughly 80% of the Indians voted for PH.

In certain states like Selangor, the percentage of Malays voting for PH was higher, but probably not above 30% of the Malay voters.

In other words, even at the point of regime change, there was already a marked hesitation on the part of the Malays towards PH. If not for the revulsion over then Prime Minister Najib Razak’s gross misuse of power and for the fact that Pas had split the Malay vote, BN would have won the general election!

What should worry us all is that this hesitation has got even worse since May 2018. Why is this so?

Lack of Malay support for the PH

The most important factor is that Umno has stepped up its propaganda that the PH is dominated by the DAP and that Malay interests are going to be undermined by the current government. Umno has linked up with Pas to propagate this view and so far has done it quite effectively.

But PH has also made several missteps that have helped Umno-Pas build up Malay anxiety and distrust of PH.

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For one things, it has stopped or cut down on several schemes that targeted the rural Malay poor in the aftermath of the general election, including:

  • the rubber smallholder price support scheme under which more than 150,000 rubber smallholders received top-up payments directly to their bank accounts whenever the cup-lump price of rubber dipped below RM2.20 per kg (this scheme was reinstated in January 2019 but damage to PH’s image had already been done);
  • the RM300 per month scheme for around 70,000 traditional fishermen; and
  • last year’s budget allocation for paddy price support and for fertiliser subsidies for paddy farmers – these were slashed to 60% of the amount allocated in the previous year.

However there are non-Malays who argue that as many Malays came from Java and Sumatra, they are also “immigrants” like the Chinese and the Indians. These non-Malays seem not to recognise that Sumatra and Java are part of the “Nusantara Melayu” that the colonial powers divided up among themselves.

Ordinary Malays feel challenged and some even threatened by such assertions (which are not uncommon).

And videos like that of our human resources minister saying (in Tamil) that as the Raja-Raja Solan built advanced kingdoms in Kedah etc long before the Malacca sultanate, Indians too should be considered sons of the soil. These sort of assertions irritate (and frighten) some Malays.

Next, there is still significant identification of ethnicity to certain economic sectors:

  • Malays and other indigenous people make up the bulk of the smallholders sector; they generally own less than five acres of land per family, and their income is uncertain, and low (because agricultural commodity prices have been low for the past 60 years).
  • The Malays are grossly under-represented in the larger small and medium-sized (SME) businesses. In 2012, the market value of industrial premises bought by Chinese entrepreneurs was RM2.2bn while the value of industrial premises bought by Malay entrepreneurs was RM0.1bn (Source: Answer in Parliament to question 106 on 3 October 2013).
  • Malays make up 85% of the bottom 20% of households in Peninsular Malaysia despite making up only 56% of the population in the peninsula – ie they are over represented in the poorest quintile of the population.
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There are therefore quite a number of Malays who feel that government affirmative action is still required to tackle their disadvantaged economic status. So talk of doing away with quotas in education and the implementation of a system based exclusively on meritocracy is seen as being against the interest of the Malay community.

All this while, Umno is waiting hungrily to get back to power. If you give them ammunition to use to whip up Malay anxieties and turn Malays away from PH, do you really expect them not to use the ammunition that PH has so generously provided?

Way forward towards a more unified nation

Stating the problem alone is not enough. We need to talk about how the problem can be overcome.

The most important thing we need to do is to reach out to the poorer half of Malay society – find out their issues, understand the background to their problems and work with them in trying to overcome these. This will be the single most effective move that we have to take.

To do this we have got to break out of the consociational mode of working. In the consociational mode, the elites of the different ethnic groups get together, hammer out a compromise and cooperate in administering the country. This is how Malaysia has been governed from independence up till now, and we have managed to move along without too much strife.

But the emergence of competing groups of elites within each ethnic group has led to one-upmanship: each group of elites tries to portray itself as the better and more fearless representative of that ethnic group. As a result, Malaysian politics has become increasingly polarised along ethnic lines such that we now are confined within ethnic silos!

Consequently, the non-Malays have become very focused on their own issues and somewhat blind to the predicament of the Malays in the bottom 40% of households. For example, what issues have grabbed the attention of the non-Malays since the 2018 general election?

  • Recognition of the Unified Examination Certificate (UEC)
  • Matriculation places, and places in public universities
  • International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, which they feel the government should not back down on
  • The bloated government bureaucracy
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Not much attention has been given by the non-Malays, as a whole, to the issue of persistent poverty among Malay smallholders or residents of People’s Housing Project (PPR) flats-slums or the contract workers in schools and government hospitals.

A united nation can only be constructed out of feelings of solidarity among all the ethnic groups that share this nation. It cannot be built if we only see our own issues and shout shrilly about them.

We need to accept that there are differences in dress, beliefs and lifestyles. We have to work on understanding where the “other” is coming from and eventually embrace our diversity.

A message to the youth

Are today’s youth equal to the task?

These are things that will not be done by the political elite who are still organised along ethnic lines. Even in so-called multi-ethnic parties, there are factions organised along ethnic lines eg there are Indian “leaders” in the DAP and PKR who canvass “Indian issues”.

The building of solidarity has to be pioneered by civil society and especially young people. But I worry that you too are already “contaminated” by the ethnic prejudices in our society.

Can you rise to the task? Can you make friends with young people of other ethnic groups? Can you open up your minds and hearts to see things from their perspective?

Can you take time to visit PPR flats to give free tuition on a weekly basis? And use that opportunity to talk to people and learn of the issues that they are dealing with?

Do you have the conviction and drive to build a truly multi-ethnic movement that tackles the problems of the poorer half of society? For only genuine concern for the “other” can provide the glue to bring our people together.

This is the challenge you face. The answer to the question of whether we will succeed in building a more harmonious nation lies in your hands.

The above is from a paper presented at a forum at Taylor’s University on 26 June 2019.

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