LONDON: Last week, out of the blue, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad invited all Malay parties including UMNO to join Bersatu in an effort to unite the Malays.
“If we are split, we become weak. United we stand, divided we fall,” he said. "(But) we find that there are people forming new parties ... how to win (the election)?”
The invitation was immediately dismissed by most senior leaders in UMNO. Even PAS, the Islamic Party, said they were not interested.
UMNO even gave a cutting reply - that UMNO and PAS were the “real” Malay parties in Malaysia as Bersatu got less than 30 per cent of the Malay vote in last May’s general elections.
WHY ISSUE AN INVITATION TO JOIN BERSATU NOW?
The talk in Kuala Lumpur is that Mahathir is rolling out the welcome carpet now because Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) and the Democratic Action Party (DAP) are in no position to challenge him when he takes in UMNO members with shady reputations.
Many of these UMNO leaders and Members of Parliament (MPs) are looking to get into Bersatu in order to hold on to their seats in the next general elections.
Others are extremely unhappy that Ahmad Zahid Hamidi has returned as UMNO president.
They worry that with Zahid as president, the political ghost of former Prime Minister Najib Razak, who has been slapped with a series of corruption charges, and the image of a kleptocratic organisation will haunt UMNO and lead to the loss of more seats in the next general election.
Up until last week, when Zahid was on “garden leave”, UMNO, under party Deputy President Mohamad Hasan, had won a series of by-elections and established a formidable pact with PAS.
Many UMNO members were hoping Zahid would extend his sabbatical and concentrate on his upcoming trial where he has been charged with money laundering.
A political savant, Mahathir knows all the minute details of internal UMNO bickering over Zahid. By making a public invitation, he is sending the signal that now is the best time for UMNO leaders to enter Bersatu.
It is a known fact that one former UMNO minister is waiting in the wings to join Bersatu while half a dozen UMNO MPs are waiting as well. Now is the best time for “Malay unity” – the best possible excuse any UMNO MP can use to join Bersatu.
The upcoming Bersatu congress at the end of July is also a contributing factor. If these UMNO leaders get into Bersatu now, they can be placed in strategic positions there as the party works out its strategy for the next general elections, due in three years.
THE MYTH OF MALAY UNITY
But make no mistake. The mantra of “Malay unity” simply a well-worn excuse. Everybody in the Malaysia political scene knows there is no such as thing as Malay unity, just as there is no such thing as Chinese unity or Indian unity.
At the end of the day, two things are certain. First, Mahathir’s plan for “unity”, which is a veiled plan to have Bersatu displace UMNO as the Malay community’s main political vehicle, will not happen for some time.
UMNO’s alliance with PAS will stay strong until the next general election.
These two parties think they can beat Bersatu and the Pakatan Harapan (PH) will go down in history as a one-term government. Mahathir’s plan is to simply increase Bersatu’s headcount in parliament so that it has the clout vis-à-vis PKR and DAP.
Second, the younger, largely urban, Malays are confident enough to understand that more choices are a good thing. Many of them actually like the idea that they can choose from Bersatu, UMNO, PAS, PKR and for a minority, DAP.
But Malaysian politicians are banging on the myth of Malay unity to garner votes - that somehow, if most Malays are united under one Malay-based political party, Malaysia would be a stable, modern, progressive country. But this has never been true, even during the country’s colonial era.
Malay unity, as defined by Mahathir, is simply impossible because the three pillars of contemporary Malay political ideologies - Malay nationalism, the quest for an Islamic state and Malay constitutional monarchy - cannot be merged into a unified, coherent political movement practically speaking.
Ongoing attempts at trying to merge these three competing powers since independence have led to unresolved tensions.
THE PALACE USUALLY WINS
Two examples illustrate this. Since independence, the Islamists have claimed that Malaysia is a de facto Islamic state because Islam is the official religion.
This is in fact not true - the constitution states clearly that while Islam is the religion of the Federation, other religions may be practised in any part of the Federation.
If the framers of the constitution wanted Islam to be the official religion, they would have stated so in clear language.
Second, the Malay rulers have always gotten involved in the politics of the states under their control. It is taken for granted among Malay politicians that the individual Sultan has some say when it comes to selecting the Menteri Besar (chief minister) in their states, no matter what the election results were.
After Osman Sapian stepped down as Johor Menteri Besar, Bersatu’s nominees for the role were rejected and replaced with someone the palace wanted.
Four years ago, the Selangor sultan rejected PKR’s preferred candidate and forced the party to resubmit another list of names for the Menteri Besar post.
In 2008, the Sultan of Terengganu refused to appoint UMNO’s preferred candidate as Menteri Besar.
In these three cases, the palace won in a political deadlock.
In modern times, the involvement of Malay royalty in business have led to tensions as they are seen to have an unfair advantage when it comes to business. The Johor royal family’s involvement in business is a controversial hot-button topic among Malaysian political circles.
MAHATHIR’S LIKELY MOTIVATIONS
The reality behind Mahathir’s recent invitation to join Bersatu is his plan all along to beef up the party before he leaves office.
Bersatu is the third largest party in terms of the number of MPs in the four-party Pakatan Harapan coalition.
Mahathir knows that Bersatu’s dominance in the PH coalition is a function of his personal power. The only way Bersatu can call the shots in a post-Mahathir era is to increase its presence in the Malaysian parliament.
The only way to do this before the next general election is via defections from UMNO MPs. Using the mantra of “Malay unity” is the simplest way to justify defections and give UMNO MPs a way out.
And how successful will Mahathir be? My sense is we can expect Mahathir to announce a new round of UMNO leaders joining Bersatu shortly.
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.