KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA — Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim last week warned against being tied down to ‘obsolete’ race-based politics and stressed the urgent need to address problems surrounding elitism and growing inequality in the country.
In his opening keynote speech at the Malaysian Student Leaders’ Summit (MSLS) on Saturday (8 August), Anwar said that the concept of unity should go beyond the simple need to reject certain values or regimes.
“You can’t say, ‘Let us all be united. Malays must unite. Otherwise, we’ll be threatened by the non-Malays.’ Or the Chinese, or the Indians, or the Dayaks … For what purpose [is this unity]? To defend your rights, justice, compassion? Yes … But it must transcend tribes. It must transcend provincialism. It must transcend race because the ultimate objective is to affect change,” he said.
Citing examples of uniting against a common enemy, Anwar referenced the unity demonstrated by Malaysia’s forefathers and foremothers of all races against British colonialism and imperialism and — more recently — the majority of Malaysians uniting against Barisan Nasional, effectively toppling the coalition’s 61-year rule in the 2018 general election.
Young Malaysians’ understanding of unity presently, however, should go beyond uniting against something, said the Parti Keadilan Rakyat president.
Instead, unity today should take root in “our capacity to learn and understand the need to enhance our own understanding about society, and our society is still afflicted by poverty, poor health facilities and gross inequality”.
“We need to move confidently as a new force in this country,” he said.
Referencing Pakatan Harapan’s landmark victory in 2018, he said that “the euphoria [afterwards] was such that people expect us to affect change, to honour our commitment, to be the beacon of hope, and to deal with issues such as poverty, inequality, and institutional reform”.
“I must concede that to a certain extent we were successful. But as always, there were flaws … We did renege on our commitment. We tended to sometimes be rather conflicting in our views in terms of whether to continue to reject ‘the race card’ and religious bigotry, or to continue to suggest that Malaysia must remain trapped by the thinking of the old regime — that race should be a factor,” said Anwar.
“We have to pay a heavy price because of this complicity and contradiction,” he added.
Pakatan Harapan’s governance came to an abrupt stop when events following the “Sheraton Move” earlier this year saw former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad’s then-right-hand man Muhyiddin Yassin taking the mantle of Prime Minister, following a power vacuum left by the former’s resignation from the post.
Even with the 1Malaysia Development Berhad exposé, the fact that corruption still persists in Malaysia is a reflection of “the fragility of the system”, said Anwar.
Such fragility can be seen in “the failure of the enforcement agencies, political leadership, the media and the issue of judicial independence”.
Systemic change is thus urgent in tackling such a flawed system.
“We cannot continue to have [our] politics, economy and culture run by elites who pretend to represent the majority but actually end up enriching themselves and their cronies,” said Anwar, in criticising “condescending attitude” of elite leadership.
He also condemned the Perikatan Nasional administration for allegedly continuing to engage in corrupt practices, stating that “a backdoor arrangement based on remunerations or perks or positions” should not be condoned in a democracy.
Even convening a Parliament session appeared to be a challenge for them — something that should not take place in a democracy, he added.
Ministers, Anwar added, should not be holding their positions in government for too long.
“You see, the last [Barisan Nasional] regime, in my experience, the ministers have been there for the last two or three decades … They are unwilling to impact change,” he said.
Their reluctance to instate change, Anwar posited, reflects “their own opportunism”.
Citing statistics without taking into account other factors “a failure of governance”: Anwar Ibrahim
Anwar, who formerly held the portfolio of Finance Minister, critiqued the “failure to ensure that what was approved is not lost” in our attempt in distributing opportunities to Malaysians in the rural heartlands and among the urban poor of all races.
Issues of poverty, inequality and the lack of opportunities do not affect only a single race or religion, he said.
“Why are people angry? Because they’re unemployed. There’s a projection of at least a million unemployed before the end of the year. Right now, it’s about 860,000. Who is speaking on their behalf?”
“We have major impressive pronouncements but what could be done, what needs to be done … People are happy, of course, getting RM400, or RM500, or RM1000. But the amount being squandered by leaders are billions. And this needs to stop,” Anwar urged.
He cited a 2016 World Bank survey, which revealed that 27 per cent of Kuala Lumpur households earn less than Bank Negara’s estimate of a living wage.
“Is that not our concern? Is that affecting Malays? Yes. [Other] Bumiputeras? Yes. Some urban Chinese? Yes. [Those dwelling in] Indian estates? Yes,” said Anwar.
Sheer economic growth demonstrated by statistics, he added, does not address fundamental inequalities in society – in fact, inequalities appear to grow and “become more pronounced than in the past”.
It is a mark of failure in governance, he opined, when only statistics are being looked at.
Citing the Khazanah Research Institute’s findings, Anwar highlighted that “Malaysians feel a sense of disconnect with official poverty statistics”.
“They feel that their incomes are barely enough to make ends meet, and yet by official counts, we have almost no poverty in the country,” he added.
Justice not only about having mere equality of opportunity but about fairness in distributing such opportunities: Anwar Ibrahim
Responding to a question on what his views are regarding race-based education systems and quota, Anwar noted that through a “limited arrangement” under the Federal Constitution, the “special privileges” allocated to Malays and other Bumiputeras intend “to give them a fair chance to compete” with other races, post-independence.
While Malaysia’s Federal Constitution does not explicitly include the word “Bumiputera”, Article 153 provides for the role of the Yang Di-Pertuan Agong — the Head of State — as the protector of the “special position” of Malays and the native people of Sabah and Sarawak.
The constitutional provision relates to what is popularly known as “quotas” or affirmative action for Malays and East Malaysian native people in terms of applying and obtaining scholarships and education, positions in the civil service, and permits or licences for trade or business activities, to name a few.
Article 153, however, does not mention the terms “rights” or “special privileges”. The Article also contains certain restrictions as a means to safeguard the rights of Malaysians who do not fall under the “Bumiputera” category.
Quoting American political philosopher John Rawls, Anwar, however, argued that justice is not only about having mere equality of opportunity but about fairness in distributing such opportunities.
“You say equality of opportunity, yet you put this guy from a rich family background from Bangsar in the best schools in Kuala Lumpur,” he said, highlighting that giving such an opportunity to a socioeconomically privileged student will not be equitable for a student from a rural area with the same capabilities.
Replying to a question on his thoughts on Dr Mahathir’s recent announcement on forming a new party following the latter’s removal from the Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (Bersatu) party, Anwar said: “I understand that there are problems, because people do appeal to race still, but I think after 60 years of independence, we have to mature as a society.”
Bersatu is currently led by Muhyiddin. The party is now part of the Malay-centric Perikatan Nasional alliance with Umno and Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS).
Responding to a question from a viewer on whether he thinks a political party that is not race-based can see the light of day in Malaysia, Anwar encouraged the youth to look at principles and policies instead of skin colour.
He also reiterated PKR’s commitment to upholding multiracialism and expressed his hope for the younger generation to think beyond racial lines.