Friday, June 20, 2008

The colour of politics

The colour of politics
21 June, 2008

It's still a grey area when it comes to race-based politics in Malaysia

Nazry Bahrawi, TODAYonline

IF MALAYSIA is ever going to adopt politics separate from prevailing race issues, most analysts agree it is far from a simplistic black or white. It is more likely we are all staring at a grey area.

At one end, there are arguments against jumping to conclusions — that the historic March 8 election, which saw ruling coalition Barisan Nasional (BN) lose its long-heldtwo-thirds parliamentary majority for the first time since independence, as an end to race-based politics.

In May, for example, some 200 ethnic Malay non-governmental organisations (NGOs) formed the Council for Malay Solidarity to protect ethnic supremacy which they felt was under threat.

Taking a leaf from that chapter, retired Professor Cheah Boon Kheng formerly from the Universiti Sains Malaysia cast doubt over the immediate growth of non-communal politics. He referred to 1951 when Mr Onn Jaafar, a founder-president of the United MalaysNational Organisation (Umno), left it to form the multi-racial Independence of Malaya Party but failed to secure the support of Malaysia's different ethnic groups at the polls.

More recently, political analyst Karim Raslan told a captive audience at a talk on Wednesday at the fifth Asean Leadership Forum: "I don't think we are post-race".

A chance encounter with a Malaysian Malay businessman at that very same function lends some credence to Mr Karim's reading. He whispered his vehement disagreement over a recent decision taken by the Cabinet to accord more government scholarships to non-Malays.

Still, how do we reconcile the findings of a post-March 8 survey conducted by Kuala Lumpur-based Merdeka Centre which found that two in three Malaysians polled wanted the ethnic component parties of BN to merge into one multi-racial model?

Mr Karim offers his perspective: "What has happened is a growing understanding among those of different races in the lower, working and middle classes that their interests are actually closer to one another."

In the run-up to the March 8 election, high inflation emerged as a primary theme, suggesting that class was a stronger identity marker than ethnicity, at least in this general election.

One can almost forget that this was once the nation where political rhetoric during campaigning periods were structured along racial lines as Malays, Chinese and Indians grapple with issues such as the neglect of Chinese schools, demolition of Indian temples or the creation of an Islamic state.

So, at the other end of the spectrum, it is also flawed to assume that the attitude towards race politics has not changed.

The true scenario probably lies somewhere in between.

To put it simply, there is ambivalence across the Causeway. Malaysians want race to figure lesser in their endeavours, but they are also bogged by a historical baggage that prevents them from ignoring its presence.

The real litmus test hinges on opposition Parti Keadilan Rakyat's next move.

While de facto leader Anwar Ibrahim, Malaysia's former Deputy Prime Minister, has led the charge to abolish the pro-Malay New Economic Policy (NEP), Mr Karim observed that the Malay-majority opposition party has not questioned the privileged position of the Malays as enshrined in the Constitution.

"That means they (Keadilan) are very much wedded to the primacy of the Malays," he said. And so he concludes: "Keadilan, even at their most liberal, when you scratch them, is their rhetoric not similar to moderates within Umno?"

Or, is it?

Until Mr Anwar and his colleagues decide to criticise the Constitution for its pro-Malay stance, even the abolishment of NEP-styled policies would at best be a superficial victory for multi-racialism in Malaysia.

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