The diverse nation’s multicultural rebirth, barely just begun, is under threat
Many Malaysians regard the long-standing tenet “Malays First” as sacrosanct, untouchable – and not “racist” at all. Many others find the term despicable, even frightening. The former group sees the policy as simply enshrining certain deserved privileges for the predominantly Muslim majority. The latter group has a powerful defender in the government of Mahathir Mohamad, whose election last year came as such an enormous surprise.
Mahathir is prepared to embrace only a diluted version of “Malays First”, which his administration agrees is a divisive phrase, a potential “trigger” in a nation that has often been rattled by racial violence. Mahathir leads a coalition government with a broad range of ethnic representation. It is far less Malay-dominant than was its predecessor. People of Chinese and Indian descent hold key Cabinet portfolios. Arrayed against this display of diversity is a parliamentary opposition armed with the power to trigger the fears of the vast Malay majority.
Najib Razak, ousted in the election in the midst of corruption charges he is still battling in court, is co-leader of the opposition and seeking to recast himself as a guardian of Malay rights. More than 60 per cent of the population of 32 million belongs to the Bumiputera, the “sons of the soil” – ethnic Malays and natives of Sarawak and Sabah in Borneo. Chinese make up the next largest population group at 21 per cent, followed by Indians at 6 per cent.
More than 61 per cent of the population is Muslim, not quite 20 per cent Buddhist, 9.2 per cent Christian and 6.3 per cent Hindu. The country’s constitution shields religious freedom, but government policies have always favoured Muslims – until now, that is, when signs of change are emerging. The Malays perceive a diminishing of their “special position”.
Some observers have advised calm in the face of a possible Malay backlash. They say the opposition is grasping at straws and Najib is “playing the race card” because he has no other cards in his hand. Najib is deep in legal trouble, charged with massive corruption in the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) scandal. Prosecutors say he used his power as premier to secure huge amounts of cash for the 1MDB fund and pocketed much of it.
Observers who take a longer view of history are less optimistic about the current situation. Weak hand or not, the opposition is formidable and keen to retake power from a government whose “Malay voices”, it likes to point out, “are very small”. It recently won a by-election victory and crowed that the “old wave” was coming back to “silence” the usurpers. Nor is it assuring that Najib is legally cornered and desperate, perhaps to a dangerous extent.
Divisive politics destroys social harmony, as we in Thailand know all too well. Malaysia has only just embarked on a promising new path in the wake of Najib’s ouster. When the division cuts across a large spectrum of society, reconciliation can never be easy. Noble government objectives fall by the wayside, confidence is depleted and hope wanes.
Division in Malaysia, so ethnically and religiously diverse, could be worse than it has been for Thailand, a predominantly Buddhist nation. The situation there is potentially more explosive. Race and religion should be removed from the political equation if possible. Politicians will continue to exploit such factors, but there is no safe alternative for a country so prone to racial and religious conflict.