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M. Bakri Musa

Seeing Malaysia My Way

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Location: Morgan Hill, California, United States

Malaysian-born Bakri Musa writes frequently on issues affecting his native land. His essays have appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review, Asiaweek, International Herald Tribune, Education Quarterly, SIngapore's Straits Times, and The New Straits Times. His commentary has aired on National Public Radio's Marketplace. His regular column Seeing It My Way appears in Malaysiakini. Bakri is also a regular contributor to th eSun (Malaysia). He has previously written "The Malay Dilemma Revisited: Race Dynamics in Modern Malaysia" as well as "Malaysia in the Era of Globalization," "An Education System Worthy of Malaysia," "Seeing Malaysia My Way," and "With Love, From Malaysia." Bakri's day job (and frequently night time too!) is as a surgeon in private practice in Silicon Valley, California. He and his wife Karen live on a ranch in Morgan Hill. This website is updated twice a week on Sundays and Wednesdays at 5 PM California time.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Towards A Competitive Malaysia #83

Chapter 12: Fragmentation of Malaysian Society

Race And Elective Politics

Visitors to Malaysia see the various distinctive cultures and may conclude that the Malaysian experiment is not working. Far from it! Malaysians are proud of their individual heritage as Malays, Chinese, and Indians, but beneath those obvious differences is a common Malaysian identity. You see this manifested most obviously when Malaysians are abroad.

To be sure, this sense of shared identity is weakening. The reasons are many, but contrary to the common belief, race-based politics and political parties are not the cause. Many would argue that if only the political parties were not based on race, racial integration would be greatly enhanced.

I too wish that politicians would not blatantly pander to racial sentiments. However, I would argue the contrary; race-based political parties contribute to racial harmony. They ensure that minorities like the Indians and the smaller tribes in Sabah and Sarawak are represented in Parliament and the Government. An Indian could never hope to win a parliamentary seat let alone be a minister as there is no predominantly Indian constituency. There are Indian cabinet ministers and Members of Parliament only because the Indian parties are in the ruling coalition.

Race-based parties or not, with increasing racial integration, politicians realize that to get elected and secure political power they must reach beyond their own racial group. In the last elections, even PAS was actively courting Chinese and Indian voters. At its annual Muktamar (convention) in June 2006, PAS adopted a resolution allowing for non-Muslim members and candidates for elections, a stunning admission of this reality.

In America, Congress and state legislatures go to great length to carve constituencies that would ensure predominant Black, Hispanic, Republican or Democratic voters. Such gerrymandering often results in grotesque and geographically unwieldy constituencies. At least the Malaysian formula is more transparent, and therefore more democratic. More importantly, it works! By coming together in a coalition, the race-based parties have ensured that political power is equitably shared on an agreed-upon formula, and that no minority group is politically marginalized.

Percentage-wise, there are more Malays in Singapore than there are Indians in Malaysia. Thanks to the Malaysian model, Indians are more visible in the upper political reaches in Malaysia then Malays are in Singapore. This bleak picture is repeated elsewhere in the region. Malays are a significant minority in Thailand (in the south they are the majority), but one would not know that from looking at the political establishment in that country; likewise with the Muslims in the Philippines. Yet those leaders could not comprehend why they have strong secessionist movements within their midst! They should learn from Malaysia.

The solution to Malaysia’s race issues lies not with doing away with the present workable and successful formula of race-based political parties but to build upon it. There should be increased collaborations and consultations among the leaders so that they are seen to be working together. They should be leading their members towards thinking for the good of the nation and not, as at present, pandering to the most extremist and chauvinistic of their followers. Far too often, the surest way for an UMNO candidate to win party votes is to champion the Malay cause. The most blatant and ugliest was demonstrated when UMNO Youth leader and Education Minister Hishamuddin infamously brandished his ketchup-dripping keris (dagger) to demonstrate his resolve to be a latter-day Hang Tuah.

Leaders of the other parties in the ruling coalition are just as irresponsible. In February 2006, ten non-Muslim ministers took the unprecedented move of sending Prime Minister Abdullah an open memorandum expressing their disagreement with some aspects of Federal law that were already passed by Parliament, and thus by them. Where were they during the drafting and debating? If leaders cannot work together, there is little expectation that their followers could or would. If those ministers felt very strongly, they should have resigned. In the end they were forced to humiliate themselves publicly by withdrawing the memorandum. Little effect, as the damage had been done.

The naïve belief—if only the political parties were to transcend race they would bring Malaysians together—has not been proven by experience. During colonial times, the rallying cry of the Malaysian Communist Party (MCP) and other left-wing parties was merdeka (independence) and social equity. Race was not their defining character. Despite that, the MCP remained almost exclusively Chinese. Its leadership was concerned primarily with making Malaysia a province of Red China, as stated in some ancient Chinese texts. Only the socialist parties transcended race and had truly multiracial membership, yet they remained ignored by the voters.

The Gerakan (Action) Party, a breakaway element of the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) too began bravely by proclaiming to be multiracial. At best it had a sprinkling of non-Chinese members at the beginning; today it is exclusively Chinese.

The latest foray into the multiracial experiment is Keadilan (Justice) Party. An outgrowth of the reformasi (reformation) movement triggered by the sacking of then Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim. It had greater promise. It attracted Malaysians of all races who were fed up with the authoritarian tendencies of the Mahathir administration. More encouragingly, it galvanized the young. Keadilan made an impressive debut in 1999, winning four federal seats. Unfortunately it was downhill from thereon. In the last (2004) elections, its leader, Wan Azizah (Anwar Ibrahim’s wife), barely squeaked through the only seat the party had won.

Today Keadilan has the occasional non-Malay members who still subscribe to its multiracial reform ideals. Until Anwar was released from prison in 2004, the party would be more accurately referred to as the Free Anwar Party because of its obsession with his release from prison. Now that Anwar is free, the party is fast disintegrating, with no cause to sustain it. The process has already begun with its merger with the socialist Party Rakyat, an ignoble end to a noble experiment.

The stark reality is that race remains a major factor in the political calculus, and will remain so for a long while. Malaysia ignores this at its peril. Better that Malaysians acknowledge this fact and work on improving it instead of dreaming of some unworkable utopian arrangement. Even in mature democracies like America, race is never far from the political considerations.


Next: Path To Unity: Economics, Not Politics

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