Rethinking Malaysia’s Multiracialism

Kamal Mamat

It has been a called a seismic shock, a political tsunami and an earthquake of cataclysmic proportions, among others. In short, Malaysia’s 2008 General Election is nothing less than epochal.

The invoked forces of nature notwithstanding, the question is; can Malaysia‘s desire to improve the lives of its rakyat based on the new multiracial ethos succeed?

In Anwar Ibrahim, one could hear the opposition’s exhortation, pledging a new Malaysia that is free of cronyism, nepotism and corruption, evils associated with the present government.

It promises a multiracial Malaysia that disregards one’s colour, religion or race where matters of development are concerned. It rings well, at least with the multiracial policy that Anwar’s own Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) is known for.

Cracks in opposition alliance

However, it is less than a month after the General Election and cracks are already visible in the opposition’s alliance.

Penang new Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng’s immediate dismantling of the New Economic Policy (NEP) in Penang causes a stir and earns him a sharp rebuke from PM Abdullah Ahmad Badawi.

Next, his father Lim Kit Siang, Democratic Action Party (DAP) advisor and figurehead, directed DAP elected assemblymen in Perak to boycott the swearing-in ceremony for the new Menteri Besar; in protest of the Regent’s choice, Mohammad Nizar Jamaluddin of Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS). He later apologised and retracted his statement.

As a result, Istana Kinta in a statement faxed to Bernama said that the ceremony will be postponed, in view of the lack of strong consensus amongst DAP, PKR and PAS in forming the coalition government.

The mainstream media had a field day capitalising on these decisions, attacking Lim Kit Siang for the insult and warning the Malays on the possible systemic erosion of their rights.

Only last week the alliance, unified by its de facto leader Anwar Ibrahim, seemed formidable in their fight against the longstanding government led by BN.

One begins to wonder if this is short-lived.

Ethno-national politics

DAP’s actions revealed the herculean task that awaits Anwar’s in honouring his election’s manifesto; a tall order considering the other members of the alliance are ethnic-based parties sitting in an uneasily tenuous relationship. It reflects Malaysia’s situation as a whole, still governed along ethnic lines and with Malay-based UMNO at the helm.

DAP, in spite of its multiracial aspirations, is essentially a Chinese-based party. Similarly, PAS token non-Muslim candidate during the election could not erase its deeply-entrenched Islamic roots.

Collectively, the opposition’s victory during the recent election could not eradicate the fact that ethno-nationalist politics tenaciously exists and will govern the course of Malaysian politics in the near future.

Therein lies the problem. I suspect Malaysia has not as yet fully acquainted with the idea that it is a multicultural country. True multiculturalism prevails when equal recognition is given to all citizens of the state. For it to succeed, ethno-national politics has little place in the system of government.

Anwar Ibrahim’s ‘equality for all’ drivels are effective only if he did not follow these words with the next sentence assuring the Malays that their rights will be ‘terpelihara’ (maintained).

Likewise, the 60% considered as indigenous people (or bumiputera) could not ignore the rest who demand a system based on meritocracy and desire an end to a polity that favours only one race.

Malay superiority and meritocracy

In Belfast, the mood amongst the sizable Malaysian community here can be described as one of jubilance, most of whom happy of the anticipated changes in a new political landscape. Yet, a recent roundtable discussion on Malaysia and Meritocracy which I attended betrays the reluctance amongst a portion of the majority to end the very policy that perceptibly discriminates the minority groups.

Tellingly, one of the impressions drawn on meritocracy is that it can be achieved through the improvement of the educational infrastructure in rural area (which is invariably predominantly Malay), so that the playing field can be levelled.

If this is symptomatic, it is evidently clear then that the concept of ‘ketuanan Melayu’ (Malay superiority) clouds the true picture of meritocracy. It is a historical baggage cast in stone and it would take years before moss and mildew could superficially cover it.

Consequently, I would argue that multiracialism and meritocracy serve as mere election rhetoric, considering its implementation is arguably highly contentious.

For that I can only conclude that yes, there was a seismic shock. Massive earthquake even. Paradigm shift and post calamities clean-ups? That we have to wait and see.


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