The news that Mahathir had quit his political party is surprising but not totally unexpected. The old man of Malaysian politics had shown the world again that he is no push over and when cornered, will do anything to put himself on top again. This includes, to no certain extent, destroying the moderate persona that he had adopted during the last few years of his tenure as the longest serving Prime Minister of Malaysia.
His recent speeches and blog articles stating that a particular communal group in Malaysia is losing political power in Malaysia is a most disingenuous argument indeed. By rallying groups of people towards what he perceived to be a newer dilemma facing the nation, he has tapped into an issue that is sure to raise the political, and some say, racially temperature in the country. However, is this argument still valid today as it was twenty years ago?
There are more Malay lawmakers in the parliament today after the 12th General Election than there were after the BN landslide victory during 11th General Election. The addition in the number was made by the ranks of lawmakers from PKR and PAS. Even the DAP stalwarts know of the political realities of the land and has since accommodated this mindset, albeit after initial missteps, into the states that they are managing. Bahasa Malaysia is the national language and no one is challenging that. Islam is the official religion and again, there is no argument on that.
While issues like special rights and privileges will always provoke knee-jerk reactions regardless of whoever raised them, I believe that the Malaysia of today, post 12th General Election, is politically more matured and is able to see through the smoke and mirrors of political maneuverings.
Can Mahathir’s rhetoric gain traction in society? Depending on how the political winds flow, Mahathir’s argument can gain momentum if the Badawi Administration works very hard on it. That’s right. If the Badawi government works very hard on these issues, Mahathir’s movement can gain ground. The Badawi government shouldn’t over-react. By taking a middle ground with a more inclusive and moderate approach, they can win over the majority of supporters. They might take some steam out of Pakatan Rakyat’s increasing move towards the center of Malaysian politics. However, if they over-react and start to take hard line approaches, then the following issues will be sensationalized for all its political mileage:-
- Position of Bahasa Malaysia: The teaching of Science and Mathematics in English was one of the last few initiatives that was pushed through by Mahathir before he stepped down. Practically, this is a good move for society because of obvious pragmatic reasons. Even culturally myopic societies like the French, Chinese and Japanese are equipping themselves with the knowledge of English to be enable their people to tap into the global world of knowledge and commerce which is conducted exclusively in English. There is movement right now, as signaled by the grumblings in parliament, to reverse that decision to safe guard the position of Bahasa Malaysia as the national language. This is counterproductive and we will be building future generations of Malaysians who will be left out of an increasingly integrated global web of knowledge and commerce because they lack proficient English language skills.
- Position of Islam as the national religion: The recent ruling by the Penang syariah court to allow a convert to “leave” Islam was seen by many moderates as a progressive step to give the religion a moderate face, vis-à-vis the other religions practiced in this land. This double-edged decision by the court, while favoured by the non-Muslim groups, can be used to create a perception of the decline of the religion’s supremacy. This issue can be politicized and the movement of PAS to the center will be hampered by this if it is not seen as championing the Islamic cause by being silent on this ruling. However, this may also hurt UMNO if they do nothing. And if UMNO politicians decide to suddenly rally around this and makes it to be a clarion call to gain supporters, UMNO and its relationships with other BN component parties will be damaged.
- Position of special rights: Najib has made statements recently to the effect that people should question these rights to their own detriment. No one would rightly want the powers of the Malay rulers will be stripped or the special position will be revoked. Politicians making statements about the erosion of the special rights doesn’t have to prove that it is being eroded. They just have to point to the expected storm of protest from other politicians, actions groups and blogs to prove their point by declaring that they can’t openly talk about their rights without invoking massive protest and condemnation.
All in all, one shouldn’t confuse the lack of support for UMNO as a lack of support for the Malay community. This issue has been raised over and over again by commentators and analysts. During the election night results, TV3 invited a panelist who had the audacity to proclaim that the opposition was anti-Malay. How did he arrive at the logic? He claimed that if one equates Malay to UMNO, then being anti-UMNO means being anti-Malay.
It has been shown that there is another path. Multi-racial politics as spearheaded by Anwar Ibrahim through his Pakatan Rakyat coalition. What is happening right now is a war of ideas on how best to move forward. UMNO and BN, while successful in the past have shown that they lack the capability to govern in light of growing global competitive landscape where information flows freely, where free markets select the winners and where being inclusive makes one stronger.
“The general consensus is that affirmative action should be given to the poor and the marginalised regardless of race or religion. Notions of social dominance and racial superiority find no resonance among the people except for those diehards still bigoted over ancient and archaic forms of political ideolog“- Anwar Ibrahim in his recent speech outlining his New Economic Agenda.
Being a progressive, I personally welcome this new development and I excitedly look forward to a new Malaysia with a new progressive mindset that promises all a better future.