Racial Politics and the Best Candidate
The last by-election to be held in Malaysia before the next general election will be in the constituency of Ijok. The state assemblyman for Ijok, a member of the Malaysian Indian Congress (which is in turn a component party of the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition), passed away just short of the three-year mark since the last general election, after which no by-elections can be called.
Ijok is a multiracial constituency, with a slight majority of Malays, and the rest being roughly split equally between Chinese and Indians. BN will definitely be contesting the election, but there are tensions within the party about who to select as a candidate.
Parti Keadilan Rakyat, which gave BN a run for its money in the last general election, will almost certainly contest as well. There's an outside chance the Democratic Action Party will throw its hat into the ring, but I don't see this happening barring a really bad spat between the PKR and DAP leadership.
Interestingly, BN has consistently given Ijok to the MIC to contest, rather than to another one of the BN component parties. This is odd, considering that Ijok is a Malay-majority constituency.
In line with this, the prevailing gossip currently is that PKR will be fielding a Malay candidate to boost its chances of winning in a racially-polarised society. Apparently the shortlist of candidates indicates that it will either be a Malay or Indian who runs on the PKR ticket.
This has naturally agitated and upset the racially-minded BN. The United Malays National Organisation is up in arms about the possibility of an Indian BN candidate facing off against a Malay PKR candidate in a Malay-majority constituency. MIC, meanwhile, is naturally obsessed with preserving its own turf.
The resulting nomination fight will be interesting to watch; if I am not mistaken, we will learn, at the very latest, who is running by 19 April, which is nomination day.
One brief observation I would like to make for the moment is that this nomination fight shows just how undemocratic and how out of touch with the grassroots all our political parties are. In countries like the United States, the candidate would be chosen through a primary election; the candidates which the voters favour from each political party would be voted in, and represent it in the general election.
Instead here, the rakyat merely must choose from the menu offered to them by the political elite. They have no say in who will end up representing them; the local MIC branch has been complaining that outsiders not from Ijok have been representing the constituency for the past four decades, and wants a local in, but you can bet that this will never even be seriously be considered by BN. If there were a primary, even if it's only confined to members of BN parties, you can bet we'd see who the voters want.
There has been a lot of hoo-ha about the racial issue, as one might expect. PKR, though in theory non-racial, remains quite a Malay party, and some have remarked that many of its members maintain the race-consciousness that is characteristic of Malaysian society; the Indians of PKR, for example, have been demanding that the PKR field an Indian candidate.
Anwar Ibrahim, currently special advisor to the party, but widely tipped to take the helm once his ban from politics expires next year, has also been quoted as saying that although the party would choose the best candidate from the Malays, Chinese and Indians, one from, say, the Kadazan group would be out of the question. This remark was naturally met with much fury in some quarters, with wags wondering why we could not select the best man (or woman) for the task without considering race.
I think this is a very unrealistic demand. I am all for race-blindness, and personally try to be as blind to skin colour as I can be. But like it or not, part of the aspect of being the "best candidate" includes race.
After all, in racially-polarised Malaysian society, one's skin colour has a lot of impact on one's chances of winning an election, as mucb as we wish it were otherwise. If we want to field the best candidate, we want to field the one with the best chance of winning — and race must naturally enter the equation for best candidate.
I think what is more important is that the candidate himself must be race-blind; he must represent all communities, not just that of his ethnic group. If we elect race-blind leaders, they will be able to implement policies that can start steering us towards a race-blind future, and some day we will realise that race is no longer a variable in the equation.
But for the moment, we must accept the political reality that race is a factor. The person with the greatest chance of winning should be the candidate — but often, race will have something to do with these chances. Any which way, it is crucial the candidate be a person with a fair and just outlook, serving all Malaysians, and not just those of his or her race alone.