Malaysia: New Realities, Old Slogans


Professor Clive S. Kessler

Over the New Year period, Malaysian politics seemed both inflamed and becalmed. Following its 1999 electoral setback and the aftershock of a recent by-election loss, the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) and government leadership recognize the need to go forward. Only by a bold act of symbolic and substantive renovation can the UMNO prepare to face its next electoral test by 2004. But while straining to look forward, the leadership’s attentions were also pulled damagingly back: by its need to justify its unpopular buy-back of the unhappily privatized airline MAS and by its interventions to rescue the UMNO-related conglomerate Renong from financial embarrassment. The very attempts of leading UMNO personalities to focus attention forward highlighted the differences of direction and inclination among them. So despite a widely shared sense of urgency, the UMNO remained stalled; in the Malay idiom of unforgiving dilemma, ‘spit it out and your father dies, swallow it and your mother does.’ The sense that bold steps must be taken found expression for a while in speculation about a cabinet reshuffle which, when it eventually came, was substantively trivial. But the distraction-value was considerable. Protracted anticipation at least restored declining public belief in the Prime Minister’s personal authority, which had seemed greatly reduced at year’s end when he had to accede to the appointment of a new Chief Justice not really of his own choosing.

In awkward times, the UMNO’s usual recourse, and Dr. Mahathir’s impulses, are usually to attack the opposition, hoping to foment discord among its various elements. So the recommendation put forward, without great resistance from government circles the previous year, by the Chinese electoral reform lobby group Suqiu [pronounced "soo-shoo"] to moderate the operation of official pro-Malay affirmative action measures was now seized upon: to generate discord between Parti Keadilan and the DAP, the predominantly Malay and non-Malay components of the Barisan Alternatif coalition, and to embarrass the Parti Rakyat, the Malay-led anti-ethnicist leftist party which plays within opposition ranks a catalysing and brokering role much larger than its own minuscule size.

The other side of this same coin is a strategy to suggest that, despite over four decades of UMNO-led government and the achievements of its pro-Malay New Economic Policy from 1970-1990, the Malay stake in the country remains in jeopardy. The call for a reaffirmation of Malay political unity to ensure continuing Malay ascendancy, UMNO leaders assert, is directed positively within the increasingly divided Malay community itself, not against non-Malays. But the sub-text it clear: it is divisions among Malays, exemplified since the fall and travails of Anwar Ibraham in a crisis of popular Malay confidence in the UMNO, that makes possible non-Malay advances at Malay expense.

Old slogans never die. Yet the UMNO’s calls for Malay political unity have backfired. A Malay Action Front, which emerged to overawe Suqiu and its sympathizers, once the UMNO youth retreated from playing this habitual role, has turned anti-UMNO, or at least anti-Mahathir, and had to be reined in. While a reaffirmation of Malay solidarity on its own terms might serve the UMNO’s own political needs, the escalation and intensification of ethnic sentiments is not what Malaysian society now needs, nor what many of its own members want.

Nor, above all, is the Malay unity for which it calls possible. The entire purpose and effect of the pro-Malay affirmative action policies which UMNO-led governments have promoted since 1970, and especially under Dr. Mahathir since 1981, has been to diversify Malaysia’s numerically preponderant indigenous Malay community in all key dimensions: economically, socially, culturally. The hope that this diversification will not also seek expression politically is vain; the Malay political unity for which the UMNO now calls is a receding mirage. Since 1970 the UMNO has transformed almost everything in Malay society, except itself and its political approach to that society. Ironically failing to recognize the implications of its own greatest achievement, the UMNO and its leaders wonder querulously why the old calls for Malay political unity grounded in traditional deference no longer work.

Younger Malays understand this well. As a group, they are the products and beneficiaries of the UMNO’s thirty years of pro-Malay affirmative action policies. Dr. Mahathir expects them to acknowledge this fact politically in timely demonstrations of gratitude and deference. This, in a generational gesture of common defiance, they refuse. To him they are ingrates; but as the clock ticks down to Malaysia’s next elections and many more young people impatient with the old UMNO paternalism register as voters, their refusal increasingly sets the terms for UMNO’s ever more urgent self-reinvention.

The man who some still hope can answer the UMNO’s Malay dilemma languishes in poor health in prison; Malaysian politics is now haunted not by his presence but by the gap his absence has created.

WATCHPOINT: In preparing for Dr Mahathir’s departure, UMNO must urgently revive its credibility among younger Malays.


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