Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

Analysing Politics in Malaysia: Playing the Racial Game

Written by johnleemk on 4:45:07 am Jan 29, 2007.

This is part of a series analysing the political situation on the ground in Malaysia. For an overview of the series, and a list of all its parts, please refer to the introduction. To comment on this series, a discussion thread on the forum has been opened.

It is undeniable that one major factor when it comes to politics - especially West Malaysian politics - in this country is race. For about 52 years, this country has been governed by a coalition of monoracial parties whose individual components each have their own racial agenda. For about the same period of time, the effective opposition towards this government has been ostensibly "multiracial" parties. Considering the heterogenous make-up of our nation, and all the grief that has been wrought as a result of that odd marriage of convenience known as the Barisan Nasional, it seems odd that the multiracial opposition remains the opposition. Certainly, as I have argued on many occasions, plain old incompetence and a lack of ideas have been the causes of this. However, another factor has been the simple fact that not a single one of these so-called multiracial parties is actually multiracial.

Like it or not, the Gerakan and the DAP both appeal mainly to the Chinese. The PPP, and to a lesser extent, the DAP, appeals mainly to the Indians. PAS is a monoreligious party, which in practical effect, makes it a nearly monoracial party. Keadilan has a very diversified base, but suffers from a general lack of dynamism and leadership - it does not have the young faces or the prominent leaders that, say, Gerakan and the DAP might have, and like the DAP, it has something of an image problem in that it seems (even if it actually isn't) mainly targeted at the Malays.

Now, none of this is a reason not to join any of these parties. If these parties truly are multiracial in outlook, their racial composition is not too important. The problem is that the Gerakan, DAP, and PPP are quite blatantly multiracial only insofar that multiracial means "Chinese and Indian". Keadilan, on the other hand, arouses some apprehension because of its old ties to UMNO, especially through its most prominent face, Anwar Ibrahim. Only time will tell if the ex-UMNOistas are sincere, so I would prefer to wait things out before passing judgement. The party holds some promise, but I think they've really shot themselves in the foot by continually pushing the social activist angle that many of its leaders prefer. It's a political party, not an NGO - it should be striving to attain power to meet its agenda, not pushing for its agenda outside the political system.

But as for the other parties, they clearly suffer from a lack of Malay members and leaders. As a result, their outlook is systemically biased towards that of the Chinese and Indians. I recall one Chinese telling me how apprehensive he was concerning Ye Lin-Sheng's The Chinese Dilemma because Ye cannot speak or read Mandarin. Surely, he argued, Ye would be unable to grasp the nuances of Chinese society and culture. If a Chinese man, with strong ties to the Chinese community, cannot be regarded as truly understanding his own ethnic group, what makes the Chinese and Indians of these "multiracial" parties so confident that their policies can accurately reflect and appeal to the Malay community's sensibilities? What makes them so assured that they will be able to convey their stands in a way that can appeal to the sensibilities of Malay voters and not unintentionally offend them?

Oh, yes, in theory, it's great to talk about being non-racial and all that. I'm all for putting an end to this stupid concept of ethnicity as a way of viewing our world. It's antiquated, archaic, and totally useless. We should not be permitting "heritage" or a bond with people thousands of miles away whom we have never met and whose only tie to us is having the same skin colour to get in our way when it comes to things like politics. But in practice, race is a (if not the) major factor in Malaysian politics, and it's absolutely moronic to pretend that people should evaluate you solely on your policy stands and not the skin colour of your leaders. Like it or not, skin colour is what you're going to be judged on. If people can't see someone who looks like them up there on that platform, they'll just tune you out and dismiss you. To get one foot through the door of people's consciousness, you have to tear down this racial barrier by, sigh, subtly playing to race. You cannot appeal to people without at least considering how you are perceived racially. Politics is all about perception, and if you are perceived as monoracial, like it or not, you have to address that - and usually the simplest, easiest, and most logical way to do that is to build up a membership amongst those of the missing race.

At this point, the people from those ostensibly multiracial parties will be moaning, "But it's not our fault! They don't want to join us, so what can we do?" That's an inane and absurd excuse. When you set up a political party, do you wait for the registration forms to come in? If you don't manage to get people outside your own circle of friends and cronies to join, do you blame "them" for not wanting to join you? Of course not, you stupid dolt - you actively go out and solicit people to join you. Why the hell don't these "multiracial" parties do this? They talk the talk of a multiracial party, but how often do you seem them actively and interestedly pursuing the support of all races? Have you ever heard of a DAP recruiting drive in a Malay majority area? The multiracial parties would much rather pursue the votes of Chinese and Indians rather than those of the Malays, plain and simple!

Now, if playing the race card with Chinese and Indians (albeit by pretending to be truly multiracial, thus appealing to the demand for "equality" amongst the second-class citizens of this country) were a practical route to power, this might not be so bad (at least speaking in terms of realpolitik). But this is not so. The "multiracial" parties in Barisan Nasional are consistently marginalised. Gerakan and PPP are very good at talking the multiracial talk (one of my favourite quotes actually comes from Lim Keng Yaik), but can they walk the walk by implementing the multiracial ideals they speak so passionately about? Of course not. The bloody bastards in UMNO would never allow that - they would rather destroy the original intent of our Constitution, and openly contravene it in public without batting an eyelid. And, of course, the other monoracial parties in BN merrily go along, happily taking their cut of BN's political largess and quietly pacifying their discontented supporters by whispering sweet nothings about how they can protect them from UMNO.

And as for the success of this multiracial ideal with the DAP, don't make me laugh until I cry. Just how successful has the DAP been? Let's see. Practically all of its seats are in Chinese-majority constituencies. Of all its elected representatives, only one or two are non-Chinese. Total representation of the Bumiputras (Malay and non-Malay) who form 60% of the population: 0. That's how it is with the DAP. And how many seats does the DAP control? Again, it's a pitiful pittance. It's impossible for the DAP to carry out its agenda with such a tiny minority - and that's assuming they have an agenda besides - and do pardon my frank language - "whack the government on every single one of its fuck-ups".

The problem of a policy agenda, however, ranks secondary to the basic consideration of race. The "multiracial" parties need to be truly multiracial, and move towards expanding their base. In some cases, it may be possible to ameliorate the problem by mergers - there was a proposal, if I'm not mistaken, for the PPP and Gerakan to merge. Most of the multiracial parties don't really have different stands on the issues. Those in Barisan Nasional run on a platform of being Barisan Nasional, while those in the opposition run on the platform of not being Barisan Nasional. It makes no sense to have so many different multiracial parties splitting the vote and resources, when they could be reaping economies of scale. The main problem I see standing in the way of this is, as usual, turf feuds. I believe that this is what nixed the Gerakan-PPP merger proposal. Politics is about power, and thus we often see meaningless divisions simply because one group refuses to share power with another.

The other solution is obviously to begin heavily recruiting Malays. Now, it is difficult, if not impossible, for BN parties to do this because UMNO insists on monopolising Malay support, so Gerakan and PPP can have fun acting as eunuchs in the government. Really, I don't see any point at all in these "multiracial" parties continuing to fly the BN banner, especially since they're participating in a coalition led by one of the most racist political parties to lead a democracy. The only reason Gerakan and PPP stay in the BN is mainly to live off the largess of the government gravy train, and so they are a lost cause.

There is no reason, though, that the DAP cannot fight for Malay support. The way I see it, it has to begin with a very targeted approach. There is no use in a broad campaign that nets little results. What the DAP should do first is start running Malay candidates in its traditional strongholds. It may be difficult to find a Malay candidate, but it will not be impossible. When the DAP has some Malay faces in Parliament, it will have taken the first step to dispelling its traditional stereotype as a Chinese party. Now, the DAP cannot allow its Malay MPs to languish as opposition backbenchers. It has to place them in the forefront. It will take Malay leadership to lead Malaysia - it is a simple reality - and so there must be emphasis on the Malay MPs. In this way, we will for once have liberal Malays leading the charge against government abuses.

The result of this will be that other liberal and centrist Malays who have been inclined to DAP's platform but had doubts because of its Chinese nature will now be more likely to support the party. A few of them will even join the party, and some may have the calibre to stand for election. This will allow the DAP to slowly branch out into constituencies with greater numbers of Malays. It's an incremental approach that will take time, but there is no reason that the DAP cannot have maybe a quarter to half a dozen Malay MPs within two to three election cycles (yes, I'm being quite pessimistic). The point is to start now, because this will commence a self-perpetuating virtuous cycle. As more Malay DAP MPs are elected, more Malays will flock to the party.

For years, the DAP has languished on the sidelines of Malaysian politics - it has often been the opposition leader, but it has never been taken as a serious challenger for the government. There may have been a time in the 1970s when it stood a chance (I recall Lim Kit Siang claimed around that time that 30% of the DAP membership was Malay), but for some reason, it didn't materialise. The raison d'etre of any political party is to gain the power to implement its agenda by either exerting influence on the government as a strong opposition party, or by becoming the government in its own right. The DAP has been hampered for decades in this respect because of its natural gravitation to Chinese support, and because of its general silence on concrete policies for change. It has been extremely vocal in criticising the government, but you cannot simply say you are anti-corruption and hope to gain the support of voters just like that. You have to have a plan for stamping out corruption, and on this part, the DAP has often failed abysmally. The other reason for the DAP's failure is that it has never managed to mobilise more than a handful of Malays to gather under its banner. Without the people who constitute a majority of the population backing you, you can never hope to become the government.

Keadilan is an interesting question. I don't believe it suffers from a problem with regard to race - at least not anymore. It seems to have been relatively successful in discarding its image as a mainly Malay party. I believe it suffers from other problems, mainly related to developing a coherent and concrete policy platform (just like the DAP). This is an issue for another article.

It is quite clear that multiracial parties in this country have rarely taken root because of one simple problem: they were rarely, if ever, multiracial. Those who could lay claim to some multiracial support have often been marginalised by either the racial attitude of the electorate (as the Independence of Malaya Party was in the 1950s) or simply unfairness in the electoral process (thanks to gerrymandering, in 2004 the typical Keadilan voter's vote was worth 28 times less than that of a Barisan Nasional supporter). The main "multiracial" parties that survived were those who were not really multiracial at all. They had to become monoracial in order to garner support amidst a still racially polarised electorate.

Nevertheless, I think that things have changed for the better in Malaysian politics. Keadilan's ability to garner multiracial support despite being tainted by Anwar Ibrahim (who remains negatively viewed by much of the electorate, whatever opposition supporters or bloggers might think) shows that there is now some room for multiracial parties to breathe. And although there are a lot of indicators that racial polarisation is increasing, not decreasing, it seems to me that people are growing less susceptible to the race card. Malaysians of all social strata are growing discontent with the Barisan Nasional regime. The only reason they grudgingly give it their vote is that they perceive the multiracial parties as either not truly multiracial at all, lacking a concrete plan for change, or both. The opposition can easily improve its share of the popular vote from the normal 40% range if only it works on improving its strength in these areas.

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