By Charles Chia
Anwar Ibrahim is the icon of the Reformasi movement.
The reform movement was triggered when then Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad threw Anwar Ibrahim into prison in 1998.
In the general election the following year, although Mahathir retained the government, his Umno party did not get more than half of the ethnic Malay popular vote. Anwar was in jail, but his popularity ran high.
In the recent general election, 23 years after 1998, Pakatan Harapan, the coalition Anwar headed, won the most seats but saw their share of Malay votes dwindle to just above 10% (according to unofficial estimates).
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Why? What happened? Does this mean that the Malays do not want Anwar’s reforms?
Malays disillusioned with Umno
The outcome of the recent general election took many political pundits by surprise. Umno – targeted by all quarters – ran its worst campaign in history. It was a disastrous defeat for Umno.
It confirmed the trend of Malays abandoning Umno, which eventually brought down the Umno-Barisan Nasional government in the 2018 general election.
Malays could no longer stomach the unbridled corruption and flagrant abuse of power of the Najib Razak regime.
As it turned out, the once marginalised Malay Islamic party Pas emerged as the biggest winner with 49 MPs, an almost three-fold increase. Bersatu also benefited albeit to a much lesser degree.
The signal is unequivocal – Malay voters have lost faith in Umno. The colossal 1MDB crime shattered whatever illusion they had of Umno as the rock, champion or protector of Malay interests.
Have the Malays embraced Pas’ Islamic agenda?
Is this switch to Pas an indicator that the Malays embrace Pas’ agenda to make Malaysia an Islamic state?
In my view, this switch is incidental. The Malay person-in-the-street is uneasy about having PH as the government. Would Malay power slip out of their hands? Would they ‘become poor again in their own land’?
This is a false narrative, but one that is easy to sell, especially to first-time voters. What more if that insecurity is fanned by the ‘duty to defend Islam’!
Refuge vote in Pas and Bersatu
The majority of the Malays did not actually vote for Perikatan Nasional but ‘took refuge’ in Pas and Bersatu, while waiting for a better Malay party to emerge, for example, a reformed Umno.
Can this ‘unity government’ led by Anwar be the alternative?
Reform is not anathema to the Malays. They do not reject reform per se. The renunciation of Umno is nothing less than an act of rebellion or defiance. The seed of reform is not alien to Malay society.
More pertinent are the questions: What type of reform? Who benefits? Which leader to trust?
Skewed NEP implementation
The Malays are at a crossroads. Needless to say, they are witnessing rapid modernisation, thanks to the New Economic Policy. Yet, at the same time, they experience the stark disparity between the rich and the poor within their own community due to the skewed implementation of the NEP.
After half a century of the NEP, many rural and urban Malays still struggle to earn a meagre living, while politically well-connected Malays amass wealth under the guise of the NEP. Meanwhile, the lower bands of the middle 40% of households are slipping and sliding into the low-income group.
This social injustice fuelled the Reformasi movement in 1998. The sacking (from Umno) and jailing of Anwar was the spark that ignited the prairie fire.
Mixed results for PKR
It is bizarre that PKR, the Malay-based multi-ethnic party which thrived on the Reformasi agenda, has diminishing Malay support. Conversely, more and more ethnic minorities are now supporting PKR or PH with its multi-ethnic branding.
Just as the Malays dumped Umno, the ethnic minorities dumped Umno’s allies, the MCA and the MIC, in favour of the DAP.
Contrary to the propaganda of Umno, Bersatu and Pas, the ethnic minorities do not oppose the special position and rights of the Malays. They can relate to the wish of the Malays to elevate their socioeconomic status. What they oppose is corruption, abuse of power, wastage and leakages of the predominantly Malay government.
This heavy tilt of the ethnic minorities towards PH may have exacerbated the insecurity of the Malays. In short, the identity factor is still very much prevalent and warrants attention by the new government.
PKR and Amanah’s imperative
PH has maxed out ethnic minority support to the hilt. So lamentable is the state of affairs that, on its own, without an augmentation in Malay support, it is not able to form a government! It is imperative that PH parties PKR and Amanah garner more Malays to their side.
Would the Malays turn to the Islamic state option? Instinctively, that might appeal to some Malays, but with reasoning, many of them will realise it is nigh impossible to impose this on multi-ethnic Malaysia.
If, by a stroke of misfortune, PN was to form the government, it would represent only Malay-Muslim interests, without any elected ethnic minority MPs. Nobody, not even the Malays who voted for them, knows what would happen to the country. Both national and international communities would not be not willing to accept such a government.
The reality of Malaysia’s polity is that no one ethnic group can rule the country to the exclusion of other groups; it is even more unrealistic to turn Malaysia into an Islamic state. The sooner we come to terms with this reality, the better.
In fact, this realisation is central to Anwar’s ideology. He has steadfastly held on to this belief ever since he formed the multi-ethnic PKR. As the historic first PM coming from a multi-racial party, he can make this happen. Those who share this vision must throw their support behind him
Do Malays want reforms?
Of course, they do!
Ketuanan rakyat (supremacy of the people), popularised by Anwar, is the catchword of the day. Anwar is committed to helping the poor, regardless of race. His government is a needs-based – not a race-based – caring government.
The most needy, he said, are in fact the ethnic Indians and Orang Asli. He is addressing issues of the rising cost of living for all ethnic groups across the board.
It would be better if some form of meritocracy be introduced within the Malays. Wherever possible, incentives can be given to encourage them to work together with the more established ethnic minority companies.
There is no shortage of ideas. What is lacking is political will and leadership. With an energised ‘unity government’ headed by Anwar and backed by the reformist PH, change is already en route. We must raise the consciousness of the people.
Some may argue that, given the sensitivities of the Malay community, it will be prudent not to introduce any reforms lest we step on their toes.
I beg to disagree. As long as the special position and rights enshrined in the Constitution are not challenged, the Malay community is receptive to reforms.
In terms of structure, the present ‘unity government’ is not unlike BN, which ruled Malaysia for the last six decades and was overwhelmingly supported by the Malays. It is essentially a Malay-majority government with ethnic minority representation, reflecting the social composition of our country.
The structure of Anwar’s government may be the same but the direction is different. Its vested interest are the people at large, especially the poor of all races, rather than the politicians, their cronies and families.
Since his installation, Prime Minister Anwar has undertaken several measures favourable to reforms. We earnestly hope they will come to fruition soonest. Everyone is eagerly watching and waiting with bated breath!
The ‘unity government’ has no time to rest. They have to be accountable to the people who put them in the corridors of Putrajaya. Seeing is believing. The people want to see a new political culture of leaders dedicated to serving the people in their plans and actions.
How wonderful it would be if everyone in Malaysia, young and old alike, strove for the principles of the Rukun Negara to reign – in our country and in our hearts. And lest we forget, proclaim its preamble again and again:
Indeed, our country Malaysia aspires to achieving a greater unity for all her peoples:
- Maintaining a democratic way of life
- Creating a just society in which the wealth of the nation shall be equitably shared
- Ensuring a liberal approach to her rich and diverse cultural traditions, and
- Building a progressive society which shall be oriented to modern science and technology.
Charles Chia is a member of Monsoons Malaysia
This piece first appeared in the My Sin Chew website.