In the country’s current political climate, the hardliners seem to be gaining ground as the moderate voices are drowned out. Despite the gloom, one positive factor stands out – the overall good sense and moderation of Malaysians.
ON MAY 7, Utusan Malaysia carried yet another explosive front-page article reporting on a meeting of church leaders in Penang with the headline “Kristian Agama Rasmi?” (Is Christianity the Official Religion?).
The article and the polemic that followed marks a new low in Malaysian public life as we struggle to cope with competing visions of how our nation should be constituted, ordered and run.
There are five main points that I would like to make about the incident and what it says about Malay sia’s current political situation.
Firstly – and this is self-evident – the Malay hardliners are gaining ground as moderate voices are drowned out.
Whilst many of us are sceptical about Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak’s 1Malaysia agenda, events like this underline its importance to the nation as a whole.
Still, there is a mounting consensus within Umno, especially after the Sarawak state polls, that non-Malay votes, especially the Chinese, will not return to Barisan Nasional.
As such, an alternative strategy is being proposed, namely that Umno should focus exclusively on the Malay heartlands.
Amidst such thinking, ideas such as nation-building across racial and religious lines are becoming increasingly passé and irrelevant.
Of course, this approach is fundamentally flawed. More importantly, the Malay community is itself deeply divided.
A rock-solid block of Malay voters – an estimated 30% – are committed PAS supporters. They will never vote for Umno.
In the past, this reality forced Umno to occupy the middle ground, canvassing for non-Malay votes in order to control the Dewan Rakyat.
Ironically, the political terrain has been upended so much so that PAS seems to have assumed Umno’s more conciliatory and inclusivist stance.
Secondly, the growing might and confidence of the hardliners also means that Barisan’s ethos of give-and-take is slowly but steadily falling apart. This is very dangerous, especially since such “winner-takes-all” views are already feeding into the civil service.
The steady decline in understanding and mutual cooperation across racial and religious lines will in evitably eat away at Barisan’s once unshakeable hold of Sabah and Sarawak’s non-Muslim bumiputra communities, most of whom are staunch Christians.
However, it is worth bearing in mind that once the culture of shared aspirations and tolerance is lost it will be hard for Barisan to retain the support of other minorities.
Exclusivism, once adopted, has a pernicious impact on intra-commu nity relations.
As such, it remains to be seen whether the Indian community will truly remain in Barisan’s embrace right up to election day.
The third point concerns PAS’ future intentions. Many in Umno now view PAS as their logical electoral partner.
They see this alliance as one that would unite the Malays, whilst ousting the difficult and overly demanding non-Malay communities.
However, this view ignores decades of mutual antipathy and loathing between the two majority Malay parties.
I cannot envisage a scenario in which Tok Guru Nik Aziz (Datuk Nik Abdul Aziz Nik Mat) could ever work with Umno. Moreover, I’m not sure Tok Guru Hadi Awang (Datuk Seri Hadi Awang) would settle for the post of Deputy Prime Minister.
In short, PAS smells power and is playing to win.
Fourthly, as these political alignments continue to shift and public rhetoric becomes ever shriller, you can guarantee that many Malaysians will vote with their feet.
The uncertainty and the ugliness of the debate gnaws away at business confidence. Malaysia’s brain drain, as reported by the World Bank, and capital flight will only accelerate.
Unfortunately, the more open and free-wheeling environment has revealed the inadequacy of Umno’s cadres in explaining and winning over middle Malaysia.
Having grown up with a compliant mainstream media, they are unable to debate issues of substance with the opposition head-to-head.
Finally, before the gloom becomes too oppressive, I have to stress one positive factor, namely the overall good sense and moderation of the Malaysian people – you, out there.
Thankfully, most of you have switched off from politics. I guess you are too busy trying to manage the impact of spiralling commodity and oil prices to care.
Whatever the case, I salute you – you have prevented our nation from falling apart