By Anil Netto and Mustafa K Anuar
No sooner had the last of the six state assemblies been dissolved than Dr Mahathir Mohamad popped up to claim that the effort to promote a multi-ethnic country goes against the Federal Constitution!
This is true to form for the political dinosaurs who are raging against the dying of their darkness.
Over the years, certain politicians have played the divisive game of alienating and demonising certain sections of our society for their political ends, especially when elections are in the air.
Invariably, they will suddenly accuse the ethnic minorities of being more prone to corruption, communism and what-have-you. They will accuse the minorities of aiming to take control of the country and to dominate the majority ethnic Malays. Invariably, a politician or two will dredge up the Ghost of the May 13 bloodshed in 1969 to spook their support base into voting for them.
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The minorities are not the only ones to be targeted in such electoral rhetoric. Some Muslims too were ostracised for not supporting a particular Islamic-based party. Worse, they were warned they would miss the boat to heaven if they reject a certain party on earth.
Such claims – at a time when many developed countries have become more multi-ethnic – are so outlandish they really do not merit a rebuttal.
Divisive old politics
This divisive old politics has been going on for decades. Despite warnings this time from certain royal houses and the federal government not to indulge in such chauvinistic politics, expect little to change in the run-up to the elections. Old habits die hard.
Going by their track records, politically bankrupt politicians will probably resort to divisive campaigning and scaremongering as polling day on 12 August draws closer. This could raise the political temperature to match the scorching heatwave much of the planet is already experiencing.
Eyeing the state polls, the Kedah menteri besar had already fired salvos on several fronts.
A clearly desperate Mahathir, still licking his wounds after a humiliating thumping in the last general election, has been stitching together a race-based opposition front based on his so-called “Malay people’s proclamation”.
Even though these are just state elections, the stakes are high, as whichever side makes inroads into the other’s territory will try to build on that momentum leading up to the next general election or to even wrest power well before that.
Both sides of the political divide want to win over the majority eMalay voters, given that an overwhelming majority of the minorities will back the Pakatan Harapan-Barisan Nasional alliance.
Knowing that his “unity government” needs more Malay support, PH leader Anwar Ibrahim has reached out to the Malay-Muslim vote bank, especially university students.
But recently, Anwar raised eyebrows by inviting the Islamic development department, Jakim, usually known for creating headlines for its controversial moral policing initiatives, to play a key role in policymaking using Madani principles.
It remains to be seen who will wag whose tail: will Jakim fall in line with Anwar’s “Malaysia Madani” (Civil Malaysia) approach or will the religious department compromise or even usurp Madani?
Both sides of the political divide are resorting to their ‘tried and tested’ means of using race and religion to appeal to Malay-Muslim voters.
Unfortunately, such one-upmanship has intruded into the personal space of many in Malaysia to a worrying degree, from overzealous dress codes to restrictions on concerts, especially those featuring foreign artistes.
Critical issues sidelined
These socially divisive issues not only hog the headlines and tarnish the country’s image, they also overshadow other key challenges facing the people.
It is a pity that people have to defend the inclusive, multi-ethnic character of Malaysia’s democracy – something that is taken for granted in many developed nations – against a more exclusive ethno-religious “green wave” onslaught.
Such battle lines have sidelined the critical issues that deserve greater prominence and attention.
Take, for instance, the bread-and-butter issues that confront vulnerable groups and lower-income households. The rising cost of essential items has made it a daily struggle for many to put food on the table.
Remember the dark days of the Covid lockdowns? Many households even hoisted white flags to beg for help, especially food. Certain politicians intervened only to advise them to raise blue flags (the flag colour of a particular party) instead.
That the unity government recently felt compelled to launch a “menu rahmah” (compassionate menu) for affordable meals so that more people could afford to eat out says a lot about the depth of the economic hardships that many face. Many are struggling because their stagnant salaries cannot keep pace with higher living costs.
Yet, hardly any of the major parties ask the key question: is the share of the national income going to labour too low compared to the returns to Big Capital?
Such a critical issue is camouflaged by the obsession over racial and religious rhetoric. Meanwhile, the economically challenged are expected to tighten their belt while some among the wealthy flaunt their wealth with their flamboyant lifestyles, indulging in meals fit for a king, flashy cars and designer clothes.
As it stands, the federal and state governments find it difficult to enhance the people’s wellbeing. Public funds meant to raise the people’s living standards have dried up due to plunder, wastefulness and ill-conceived mega-projects that benefit contractors more than the people.
Emir Research recently estimated the loss arising from corruption and the lost economic multiplier effect to be around RM4.5 trillion over the last 26 years.
For all the uproar, 1MDB, enormous as it was, was just the tip of a colossal iceberg that sank Umno-BN’s unsinkable ‘Titanic’.
This RM4.5tn figure is mind-boggling. Imagine how many new hospitals, clinics, schools and other public utilities could have been built. Imagine how many scholarships could have been awarded to students from low-income families. Think about how the nation could have supported its farmers and fisherfolk and strengthened food security.
These issues have been neglected as the looming battle in the state elections is over which side’s interpretation of Islam is more acceptable and inclusive and which side can deliver greater development.
The two Ds
But it is not as simple as that. Voters should challenge the politicians about their understanding of the two Ds – development and devotion to the Almighty. We can’t allow the politicians to impose on us their interpretation of development and devotion.
After all, shouldn’t development be more holistic and uplift the quality of life for all the people while safeguarding the ecosystem and its biodiversity?
Shouldn’t devotion to the Almighty also mean that we need to care for our fellow human beings (irrespective of their ethnicity or religious background), all living creatures and the ecosystem?
Let’s look beyond dogmatic differences and superficialities and focus on the essence of our respective faiths. We will then find we have much in common, including abhorrence of the obscene accumulation and concentration of wealth in the hands of a few while the poor struggle to eke out a living.
Examine each party’s record.
Let’s not be diverted by communal issues. Instead, challenge the political parties to show us which side can better serve civil society’s People’s Agenda for more holistic development – minus the manipulation of ethnicity and religion for political ends.
Look at the parties’ stance in fighting corruption on all fronts. Examine which side has brought the nation to its knees through mega-corruption and crony capitalism. Make it clear we reject corrupt politicians on both sides. They must face justice – no two ways about it.
Look at the various parties’ record in protecting nature from ecological degradation. Deforestation, whether it is in Kelantan, Kedah, Selangor or Perak, harms the natural habitat and wipes out flora and fauna. The loss of biodiversity triggers an imbalance in the ecosystem.
When the candidates come around canvassing for votes, don’t let them take us for granted. Ask them hard questions about the worrying social and ecological impact of the logging in Kelantan and Kedah; the massive land reclamation in Penang and elsewhere; the PJD Link highway in Selangor; and the mushrooming of 40 or even 70-storey towers in established residential areas when the population in the country is barely rising. Ask them about the ecological impact of rare earth mining, whether in Kedah or Perak.
This sort of development is unsustainable.
What is real devotion that would please God? It would be expressing solidarity with the poor and coming to the aid of vulnerable communities. Surely a compassionate, merciful God would want us to help the poor, irrespective of their backgrounds.
So people of all faiths should speak out against social injustice, especially the gaping wealth and income disparities between the wealthy and the impoverished.
Compare the various party manifestos on affordable housing, public transport and social wellbeing.
What did the Perikatan Nasional coalition do in these areas to improve the quality of life? How did government debt balloon to RM1.5 trillion, especially from 2020 to 2022? Who was really responsible for this?
Even in states with meagre sources of funds, look at how state governments squandered limited funds on flashy vehicles for state executive councillors. Do you think such squandering of the public wealth is acceptable to the Almighty, no matter how ritualistically pious we might be?
How will harsh religious measures raise the people’s quality of life? Would God really be pleased to see so many people suffering economic hardship – having to put up with muddy water from their taps or lacking nutritious food on the table?
As for the unity government, what concrete plans to raise the people’s quality of life have we seen in the seven months it has been in power? True, we are only around 10% of our way through the government’s five-year term. But surely the people of Malaysia want to hear more about the government’s socioeconomic plans to uplift the low-income groups while protecting the ecosystems. If the government lacks concrete measures to uplift the working class, should we be surprised if many among the low-income group express their discontent by turning to other parties?
It is not enough to speak of a more enlightened Islam through Malaysia Madani, noble though its central pillars might be. People want to see how the savings from stemming corrupt activities will raise their quality of life through real improvements in education, housing, healthcare, public transport and food security.
What are the PH and PN plans to protect our environment, remove oppressive laws and promote nation-building?
Many of us cherish our democracy and the inclusive, multi-ethnic character of the nation. That said, we shouldn’t allow political parties to set the parameters of the discourse while sidelining the critical socioeconomic issues that matter to the people.
Remember the People’s Agenda:
- Uphold the dignity and quality of life of the people
- Promote equitable, sustainable development and address the climate crisis
- Celebrate diversity and inclusivity
- Save democracy and uphold the rule of law
- Fight corruption and cronyism
So let’s reject parties that exploit race and religion and raise divisive issues to mask poor governance, failed policies and the deep and unjust inequalities in Malaysian life. Reject parties that manipulate ethnic and religious sentiments to secure power and the trappings of power.
Let’s remind all the candidates and their parties about the critical issues they should focus on. Demand more from the candidates and the parties at the elections.
Vote for genuine change. We deserve better.
Anil Netto is president of Aliran while the group’s former honorary secretary Dr Mustafa K Anuar now serves on the Aliran executive committee