Dr Syed Alwi

What are we to make of the recent political upset in Malaysia? Is this political upheaval a signal that Malaysians have embraced a pluralist, multi-racial democracy? And perhaps more interestingly, can this tsunami be repeated in Singapore?

These are all valid and very interesting questions which we must ask ourselves. Yet questions like these – more than others – bother us the most because they force us to re-evaluate our own political consciousness.

Indeed – according to the late Tan Siew Sin, Singapore and Malaysia are Siamese twins. Intertwined and interdependent forever. A reflection of our own image. It never was and never will be a zero-sum game in this tale of two cities.

Lying at the heart of South East Asia and surrounded by the “green” Muslim nations of Indonesia and Malaysia, our “red-dot” Chinese-dominated Singapore cannot ignore the developments up North (and West). After all – the natural resources and consumer markets of both Indonesia and Malaysia are sought after by many in a complex geopolitical chess game.

Why did Malaysians vote against the BN in favour of a loose alliance between the Islamist PAS, the Chinese dominated DAP and Anwar Ibrahim’s multi-racial PKR? For that we must look at the recent past few years.

The Islamisation of Malaysia

Non-Muslim voters were upset at the NEP for sure – but they have always been upset at the NEP. The deeper issue has been the creeping Islamisation of the country. One religious incident after another – from the body-snatching cases like that of Moorthy – to the volatile issue of Muslim apostasy as in Lina Joy – ignited passions on both sides of the religious divide.

Clearly these incidents served to drive the Non-Muslim segment of Malaysian society over the edge and gave DAP the moral high ground. Not to mention that the BN was mired in all sorts of scandals.

But then PM Abdullah Badawi can hardly be blamed for this since he inherited most of these problems from the twenty-two years of the Mahathir administration. Badawi cannot reasonably be expected to solve all these issues in a matter of four years even though Mahathir may disagree.

On the other hand, the Malaysian Malay-Muslim community felt threatened by the rise of the liberal Muslim thinkers and believed that UMNO was no longer able to champion their dearly held Islamic and Malay agenda. To them, UMNO has been hijacked by the interests of the elite and politically connected Bumiputeras. These elites are popularly called the “UMNO-puteras”. The Malaysian Malays are still a conservative lot and they will not tolerate deviance from the Islamic and Malay agenda in any form. It was the Mahathir administration that nursed the creation of a Bumiputera elite. Feeling alienated, the ordinary Malays looked towards PAS who offered them an alternative path to realize their agendas.

Anwar – the Mother of all comebacks

Now comes the final trick. Enter Anwar Ibrahim who managed to pull off the mother-of-all-comebacks ! The charismatic Anwar was able to forge an alliance between the DAP and PAS. And that was the miracle that did the job. A miracle that no one could have foreseen. PAS and DAP together ? Impossible ! Mana boleh ? Are Non-Muslims to be treated as dhimmis in a PAS Islamic state ? DAP and PAS ? Oil and water ?

It is not easy for PAS to give up its much-touted aim to build an Islamic state in Malaysia. It is not easy for PAS to drop its support for the NEP. These are very dearly held beliefs among many Malays in Malaysia. Indeed several Malay NGO’s have already voiced their displeasure over this issue. Perhaps PAS has learned from its recent flop at the 2004 polls. Maybe. But more likely, it was the Anwar factor that helped the more liberal segments of PAS to push through these changes without which, no alliance with the DAP would be possible. Indeed at DAP rallies, PAS was encouraged and supported. PAS was the “panadol” to the UMNO “headache” !

Are these welcome developments for Singapore ? It all depends on Anwar. For how long can Anwar Ibrahim hold this alliance together ? At a fundamental level, the ideological differences between PAS and the DAP are just too great. Their aspirations and world-views are just too divergent. It only takes another religious incident such as Lina Joy or Moorthy to split this union asunder. PAS and the DAP must learn to work together in a power-sharing arrangement and this is by no means an easy task.

Anwar has a very difficult job ahead of him. If Anwar succeeds – he will go down in history as the man who united the Malays and the Chinese in Malaysia under the banner of a multi-party democracy. A giant and bold step. The stakes are very high indeed…with various implications throughout the ASEAN region.

Differences between Singapore and Malaysia

The situation in Singapore is very different from Malaysia. Muslims make up only 15% of Singapore’s population whereas in Malaysia, they make up about 60% of the population. There are no Islamic parties here in Singapore and no NEP nor Malay Special Rights (despite Article 152 of the Constitution).

The politics in Malaysia are inherently racial and necessarily so. Malaysia is a Muslim country and the Muslim community there is a formidable political force. The DAP in Malaysia must come to grips with this reality of an Islamic dominance. Instead of the Ketuanan Melayu of UMNO, the DAP must now face the Ketuanan Islam of PAS. The DAP cannot be seen to be prejudiced against Islam. Whether the DAP can deal with such demands – remains to be seen.

Likewise, PAS has to tone down its Islamic rhetoric. It cannot act to champion the Islamic cause at the expense of its Non-Muslim voters. Once again this calls for a great balancing act on Anwar’s part. Certainly not an easy task.

In Singapore, the politics is not racial nor religious but is dominated by economic issues instead. Income divide, GST hikes and the like. Singaporeans do not have to face racial and religious politics in their raw forms. Singapore is decidedly secular !

Indeed even if every single Singaporean Muslim voted for an Islamic opposition to the PAP – they still would not be able to garner enough votes to put their candidate in parliament ! Especially in view of the GRC system and the racial quotas of HDB estates.

The question remains however, as to whether Singaporeans can put up a similar tsunami against the PAP in the next or future elections. For that – I shall leave it to Singaporeans to decide. Singaporeans must live with whatever choice they make. One thing is for sure though – Singapore is not Malaysia.

TOC thanks Dr Alwi for contributing this article as a guest writer.


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