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Umno-Pas pact a test for New Malaysia

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Anil Netto looks at the implications of this pact and what it means for Malaysia’s multicultural society.

The pact to be sealed today between a race-based party and a party with an exclusive religious agenda can’t be favourable for the country in the long run.

This alliance will serve as a magnet for those with chauvinistic or bigoted views. Such people do not understand what it means to live in a multicultural society, which should celebrate diversity and see it as an asset.

The watershed general election of 2018 witnessed the crippling defeat of the old politics of ‘race’ and religion and ushered in a new Malaysia. For about six months after the general election, we felt the promise of a new Malaysia was within reach. We could smell it in the air.

The defeated forces were down – but not out. The new government blinked the first time it was tested. (Recall its U-turn over the ratification of the International Covenant on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination.) This U-turn bolstered the defeated forces – and they have since regrouped.

What we are seeing in recent months is an ethno-religious push-back by these defeated ethno-religious forces of the old order. They have now come together in a pact they hope will put them on the road to Putrajaya.

Expect them to play up ethno-religious issues at the slightest opportunity. It is the only game they know, the only tune they can sing.

This is not the first time Umno and Pas have come together. An even closer alliance in the 1970s fell apart before long. The ensuing distrust took decades to overcome. The same could happen with the present pact in the coming years.

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I am confident ordinary Malaysians can see through this alliance of convenience. In this more open and digital era, more Malaysians are now mature enough to overcome their ethnic and religious differences. They understand what it means to live and work side-by-side with one another.

Our hope lies in mature and enlightened Malaysians, especially the younger generation and new voters above 18 and Sabahans and Sarawakians – who will show us the way to live in harmony in the new Malaysia that treasures its diversity.

But the Pakatan Harapan government too must do its part. It should take a long hard look at its policy and ideological orientation. True, it has made some advances in institutional reform, especially in the selection of more credible leaders to helm some of these institutions (though the process could have been more democratic and participatory). There are a fewer arrests of critics – other than for comments against religion and royalty – quite unlike the spate of arrests under the Najib administration.

But allowing critics more space is one thing. The PH government needs to have a counter- narrative to the narrow ethno-religious ideas that would promote enchance inclusivity and unity.

As it stands, the PH government appears a bit too preoccupied with mega projects like the third national car, a new airport for Kedah and mega transport infrastructure projects and massive land reclamation in Penang. Then there is Lynas…

Is this government really pro-rakyat in its approach to affordable housing, universal public healthcare, public transport, food security, education and environmental sustainability? Or is it too neoliberal in its approach to these areas?

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These are the real-life areas it should focus on. It is in these areas that people can feel and see for themselves if the new Malaysia is different.

The PH government needs to do much more if it harbours any hope of pulling the rug from under the feet of Umno-Pas. It needs to focus on ordinary people, especially the poor and marginalised groups. It needs to provide adequate social protection for vulnerable groups and to move away from its neoliberal orientation and cosiness with Big Business.

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