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Commentary: Malaysia’s national consensus on race and politics risks unravelling

With a charter signed between UMNO and PAS, the longstanding Merdeka consensus just took a backseat, says James Chin.

Commentary: Malaysia’s national consensus on race and politics risks unravelling

United Malays National Organization (UMNO) President Ahmad Zahid Hamidi (L) and Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) President Hadi Awang hold hands during Ummah Unity Gathering in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, September 14, 2019. (Photo: REUTERS/Lim Huey Teng)

KUALA LUMPUR: When Malaya became Merdeka (independent), the political consensus was that all the three major ethnic groups (Malays, Chinese, Indians) will have their own political space.

The elite from each community will then come together at the top and bargain on behalf of their ethnic group. Thus, you had a multiracial government based on elite consensus.

Each group understood that you cannot have everything, that you must compromise and temper the more ethnically chauvinist ambitions within your own group.

This political consensus worked until May 1969 when racial riots broke out in downtown Kuala Lumpur and the entire country was placed under emergency rule.

When parliamentary rule was restored in 1971, the 1957 political consensus was preserved but the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) and Malays were recognised as first among equals.

Ketuanan Melayu (Malay supremacy) was the order of the day but the Malaysian Chinese Association (or MCA representing the Chinese) and Malaysian Indian Congress (or MIC, representing Indians) knew that they had a place, albeit a smaller space, under the Malaysian sun.


The MCA and MIC were driven by self-interest as well as a fear that lesser political power was preferable to no power at all. 

They genuinely believed that once Malaysia became rich and developed, the Malay elite would come around and accept non-Malays as full and equal citizens in a multi-ethnic partnership.

No matter how difficult the political situation, the UMNO elite kept the consensus together. Even when UMNO split in 1987, Malaysia underwent the Asian financial crisis of 1998 and the disastrous results of 2008 General Elections, UMNO maintained MCA and MIC ministers in the Cabinet.

Malaysia's Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad gives a news conference after a cabinet meeting in Putrajaya, Malaysia May 23, 2018. REUTERS/Stringer

When MCA decided to leave the cabinet in 2013, UMNO kept the MCA portfolios intact and told MCA they will be there when they decide to return to the fold.

This independence consensus – that major ethnic groups must be included in government - was also largely followed by opposition coalitions throughout the years.

The accepted but unspoken truth was that Malaysia cannot be politically stable if a major ethnic group was shut out from government.

READ: Commentary: Malay political unity in Malaysia is but a myth


Last week, the unthinkable happened. UMNO and its biggest foe, PAS, signed a charter to bring the two parties together.

Beyond the flowery language used, the shared goal was essentially a political pact to beat the Pakatan Harapan in the next General Election (or GE15). The assumption was that UMNO combined with PAS will have two-thirds of the rural Malay vote and thus could win up to 90 to 110 seats, very close to a simple majority.

READ: Commentary: A potent political force faces huge challenges as UMNO, PAS join hands

Although UMNO took great pains to tell the press that the charter will not sideline non-Malays, this assurance was difficult to stomach.

Everybody understood what this charter meant - if the UMNO/PAS combo wins the next General Election (or GE15), it will be an all-Malay government with selected non-Malays invited to take up insignificant posts. But these non-Malays will have zero political credibility with their communities.


People in Kuala Lumpur are asking: Why a charter and not a straightforward merger or even a formal coalition? The answer is simple.

Not all of UMNO or PAS is in support of this love fest. In fact many in the UMNO grassroots are not happy.

Members of the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) and Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) gather during the Ummah Unity Gathering in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia on Sep 14, 2019. (Photo: REUTERS/Lim Huey Teng)

They think that Zahid Hamidi, the UMNO president and Najib Razak, pushed for closer relations because they are currently in court for corruption and have nothing to lose. An electoral pact with PAS may lead to victory in GE15, and presumably a royal pardon for past misdeeds.

PAS grassroots are also not exactly thrilled. For the past six decades they have been told that UMNO is the root of all evil and UMNO is the “kafir party” (party of infidels).

In fact it was Hadi Awang, the current PAS president, who proclaimed as such. Yet Hadi is the main proponent of this charter and closer relations.

PAS itself is currently split along the Kelantan and Terengganu factions. Word in PAS circles is that one of them is really unhappy with Hadi Awang because he was supposed to have taken a more cautious stance by hinting that PAS may consider given UMNO state cabinet positions. Some PAS leaders feel it is too early to talk about state cabinet positions given that UMNO is politically weak in both states.

Meanwhile UMNO, which controls the state governments of Perlis and Pahang, is keeping quiet. The local UMNO leaders in both states are not sure giving PAS a place in the state government will go down well with the electorate.


Within the wider community, there is fear the UMNO/PAS promotion of Ketuanan Melayu Islam (Malay Islam supremacy) ideology will instill in a whole generation of Malays that non-Malays have no place in Malaysia.

This fear is not unfounded. The Malay ground is increasing unhappy with PH and PH does itself no favours by its inability to get its message out.

Parti Keadilan Rakyat supporters putting together flags ahead of Nomination Day during the 14th General Election. (Photo: Justin Ong)

READ: Commentary: Anwar’s call for need-based affirmative action is popular and appealing but profoundly flawed

When you ask people what is PH’s achievement for the past month, nobody can seem to give a coherent answer. The usual answer is “don’t know”. If this situation persists, PH may find itself a one-term government.

The prospect of a UMNO/PAS government has freaked out many minority Muslim groups and the Christian community. There is a sizeable number of Shia adherents and Muslim LGBT communities in Malaysia.

For whatever reason, PAS seems to be obsessed with this two groups. PAS has consistently attacked them with harsh words and called on the government to take a stance on “LGBT culture” in recent months. UMNO, on the other hand, has only attacked these groups half-heartedly.

PAS’ rhetoric against the Christian community has also been amplified. In the past year, Hadi Awang has publicly accused the DAP of promoting a Christian government despite the fact that the entire Christian community, of all different denominations, make less than 10 per cent of the population.

Hadi Awang’s views against the Christian community is especially worrying for Sabah and Sarawak. More than a third of the population in Sabah and more than half of Sarawak are Christians.

There is widespread fear among Christian leaders in East Malaysia that Hadi Awang truly believes in the anti-Christian bombast he is spreading, that he is not merely playing the crowd.

READ: Commentary: The East Malaysia secession grapevine, an absolute headache for Malaysia Day

The overriding fear among non-Muslims in Malaysia now is that the UMNO/PAS charter normalises hate speech towards minorities. This charter sends a powerful message to religious right-wing groups in Malaysia that it is open-season on non-Malays.

United Malays National Organization (UMNO) President Ahmad Zahid Hamidi and Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party President Hadi Awang hug during Ummah Unity Gathering in Kuala Lumpur on Sep 14, 2019. (Photo: REUTERS/Lim Huey Teng)

The charter’s message seems to be this: Malaysia is for Malays and Muslims only. If you are not one of us, there is no space for you.

Those who believe that there is a progressive wing in UMNO, epitomised by Khairy Jamaluddin and Shahril Hamdan, have reason to rethink their stance. What we may be seeing is the real face of UMNO, one that reveals itself because it is no longer in power.


My view is that UMNO made a strategic mistake in joining up with PAS. UMNO’s leaders are desperate to regain power and stay out of jail. They may think that riding this Islamic tiger (ala PAS) is the only option to dislodge PH at GE15.

While this is arguable, history has showed us that the political parties in this part of the world that enter into an electoral pact with hardline Islamic parties end up being eaten by the Islamist tiger. UMNO’s Malay nationalism is no match for PAS’s Islamic supremacy ideology if they are in bed together.

READ: Commentary: Race, religion and rhetoric ramp up in New Malaysia

If, and that is a big if, the charter holds until GE15 and the UMNO/PAS combo wins GE15, UMNO could be played out by PAS and Hadi Awang.

PAS members have a single-minded focus of transforming Malaysia to a Negara Islam (Islamic state) and UMNO will not be strong enough to resist them once they are in the federal corridors of power.

Professor James Chin is Director of the Asia Institute Tasmania at the University of Tasmania and Senior Fellow at the Jeffrey Cheah Institute on Southeast Asia.

Source: CNA/sl


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