TASMANIA: In an earlier commentary, I argued that the honeymoon period for the new Pakatan Harapan government will probably last until the end of this year. The euphoria of regime change and the return of Mahathir Mohamad and Anwar Ibrahim to government gave hope to many in Malaysia that real political change was at hand.
It looks like my assessment is spot-on given recent events. The Malaysian polity is fast becoming more critical of the Pakatan government, especially after the massive rally last Saturday (Dec 8).
The Pakatan government’s recent U-turn over the signing of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD) came as a surprise when Mahathir had told the UN General Assembly back in September that Malaysia will sign on to the ICERD, an announcement that had heralded a major policy change compared to the previous Barisan Nasional (BN) regime.
And yet the announcement was all it took for the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) and Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS) to galvanise action.
They claimed the move is anti-Malay and anti-Islam. They claimed that under the ICERD, Malays will lose their “special position” in Article 153 of the Malaysian Constitution.
Every Malaysian instinctively knew what UMNO and PAS meant.
Under the New Economic Policy (NEP) promulgated in 1971, Malays and other bumiputeras were given an extensive host of benefits (from university admissions, bank loans and overseas scholarships just to name a few) under Article 153, all in the name of affirmative action, after deadly riots over the economic gap between the Chinese and Malays threatened to tear the country apart.
For decades, the old BN coalition had claimed that this “special position” of Malays and bumiputeras and their economic backwardness required the government to design the Malaysian polity in a way that preserves the “Malay share”.
Over time, this metamorphosised into the Malay agenda.
While non-Malays in Malaysia accepted the reality of Malay political dominance and the need for affirmative action, they have been alienated after half a century of NEP, as affirmative action policies increasingly hardened to become part of a national ideology of Ketuanan Melayu (Malay supremacy) and an intractable feature of the country’s political system.
No past BN government dared to discuss the issue openly or ask the simple and reasonable question: “When will affirmative action policy end?”
Instead, due to rent-seeking behaviour and high levels of corruption among the UMNO elite, Malaysia’s affirmative action policy expanded into such a political monster that any talk of even trimming the NEP would lead one to be labelled anti-Malay or a traitor to the Malay race.
UMNO and PAS are simply fear-mongering, and playing to visceral concerns over the rights of Muslims, a key follower base for them. But 55 of 57 countries of the Organisation of Islamic Countries members have signed the ICERD.
The fact also is that ICERD allows for affirmative action policies to continue as long as these fulfil the specific purpose of helping marginalised groups.
Mahathir’s announcement that Malaysia will not sign the ICERD after the protest played right into the opposition’s hand and reinforced their racially and religiously charged narrative.
For UMNO, PAS and other right-wing Malay groups, Mahathir’s pronouncement was all they needed to show that the Malaysian government too agrees that signing ICERD would be tantamount to signing away Malay privileges.
Civil society organisations (CSO) and non-Malays were appalled. After all, signing ICERD was part of Pakatan’s election manifesto.
By ditching an election promise at the first sign of UMNO and PAS’s racially motivated political challenge, the Pakatan government has acknowledged that new Malaysia is actually old Malaysia when it comes to racial politics.
The great hope of the middle class, CSOs and non-Malay community that Pakatan will move Malaysia away from racial politics has turned out to be an empty promise.
But is this the right way to understand what is happening?
MAHATHIR HAS BEEN CONSISTENT
I would argue that what Mahathir did is entirely consistent with his beliefs. People forget that when he was in power from 1981 to 2003, ICERD was discussed and Mahathir rejected it.
Mahathir saw ICERD, then and now, as an unnecessary distraction. He never liked the idea of having to abide by international conventions that might run counter to Malaysia’s domestic policy including its Malay agenda, and this domestically driven disposition towards foreign policy in fact originated during his first term as Prime Minister.
That is the reason why Malaysia did not sign many of the international conventions during his first term – including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights; the UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment or Punishment; the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights; the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families as well as the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance.
Irrespective of what he had said in September, Mahathir has always believed that Malaysia’s society was not mature enough to commit to any of these international conventions (especially those that dealt with racial discrimination, human rights and political rights) and that these agreements might impose constraints Malaysia was not ready to deal with.
Moreover, Mahathir is also firm in his belief that the Malays must be politically dominant.
“The Malays are spiritually inclined, tolerant and easy-going,'' Dr Mahathir had written in The Malay Dilemma. ''The non-Malays, and especially the Chinese, are materialistic, aggressive and have an appetite for work.”
For equality to come about, it is necessary that these strikingly contrasting races adjust to each other, he had noted.
If there is one thing about Mahathir, it is his sense of consistency. It is all too likely that the stance he took in 1970 when the book was first published is the same one he will take in 2018, as he also did in 1981 when he became prime minister and the ban on the book was lifted.
NO CHANGES TO MALAYSIA’S POLITICAL BALANCE OF POWER
So, with ICERD in the dustbin and UMNO and PAS claiming a big victory with the massive rally in Kuala Lumpur last week, how will Malaysian politics change in the near term?
The short answer is that it has not changed the political equation. The truth is UMNO is suffering from self-implosion.
Mahathir and Bersatu are in the process of recruiting elected UMNO defectors. Half-a-dozen UMNO MPs and state assemblymen have left UMNO for Bersatu and quite a few elected UMNO MPs in Sabah have joined Parti Warisan. The BN coalition is coming apart at the seams.
My prediction is that the ongoing process will see Bersatu ending up with about 35 to 40 MPs before Mahathir steps down in 2020.
So, the ongoing romance between UMNO and PAS is really a side-show to what is really happening in UMNO. The big words used at the rally was just UMNO’s way of trying to show it still had political traction among Malays and attempting desperately to stop its elected leaders from jumping ship.
The reality is that Malaysian politics will not change just because of May 9. Race and Islam have been the foundation of Malaysian politics for the past sixty years and there is no reason to think this has changed overnight.
In fact, I would argue that the rise of political Islam in Malaysia has been strengthened with some who have more religiously conservative views now holding positions in the new Pakatan government.
The real change to Malaysian politics can only come when the electoral system is changed, state education is completely revamped, federal-state relations shift, there are changes to the administration of Islam and Islamic education, and there is a clear national consensus between Malays and non-Malays on what “Malaysia” is.
In short, the “new Malaysia” is a long, hard journey that Malaysians must be prepared to slog out amid the many speed bumps and road blocks right-wing groups will place in front of the country.
Malaysia, in short, is a nation-in-waiting.
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.