Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

Race-based Parties in Malaysia

Written by johnleemk on 1:25:20 pm Jun 14, 2007.
Categories: ,

In his book Towards A Competitive Malaysia, Bakri Musa criticises the notion that race-based parties have been nothing but trouble for Malaysia. He points out that they do serve their purpose of representing marginalised communities without negatively harming democracy.

This is an interesting conjecture to put forward, and one that merits more discussion. I can find no fault in Bakri's initial suggestion that it is wishful thinking to believe that an abolition of race-based parties would end racial politics and division in our society.

I think this is a very simplistic position to take, one that assumes a linear cause-and-effect relationship. I am inclined to think that when it comes to race, cause and effect reinforce each other, and to break the vicious cycle, we must put both cause and effect to death.

It is difficult to classify which is cause and which is effect, so I will not bother trying. Instead, I will suggest that if we want to heal the fractures in our society and stop racial politicking, we must not only attack the racialist and communalist sentiments held by our politicians — something which a ban on race-based parties would aid — but also the same sentiments held by our society in general.

To assume that there will not be racial politicking in a non-racial party when the society is racially polarised is simply wrong. The Democratic Action Party is proof enough — it is a party for the non-Malays, the Chinese in particular, and thus the question of race is its Achilles heel.

Likewise, anyone who thought that Parti Keadilan Rakyat was non-racial in nature would have been disabused of this notion by the fallout over the decision to field a Malay candidate in the Ijok by-election.

I am not quite as inclined, however, to agree with Bakri's view that race-based parties allied in a coalition represents an effective way of representing a cross-section of society without resorting to ridiculous antics such as gerrymandering.

Certainly, it is one such way. However, I would call its effectiveness into question, for it assumes that the interests of one community can only be represented by someone from that same community. I would have thought that Bakri would have realised this need not hold true, since as an American resident, he would be well aware that Bill Clinton has been billed as America's first black president. (Though I understand Bakri is actually not quite a Clinton supporter.)

Certainly, people like Clinton are outliers. But to dismiss their existence entirely is to do them a disservice. I believe it is difficult but not impossible for people to represent those of another community, even in Malaysian politics.

Moreover, I think the costs of race-based political parties have become very clear in how they have contributed to the polarisation of our society. Unlike many, I do not blame them solely for this, but they have played a major role in this polarisation — the existence of race-based parties has made even once non-racial parties turn into parties dominated by one race or the other.

The tendency to give undue weight to the majority in many democracies is actually a feature of the first-past-the-post electoral system utilised in most countries. To address the situation of imbalanced ethnic, political, etc. representation, all one would have to do is turn to some other electoral system — instant runoff voting being one such wise idea.

Race-based parties were probably a good idea in our nation's formative years. But the nation has outgrown them, and they are now acting as a drag on our development as a cohesive society.

In any event, I see no reason why I should care about the skin colour of my elected representative. What matters to me is whether his thinking and his principles reflect my own, and whether he can relate to my concerns as a citizen — and none of this has anything to do with his race. If our country is better off being led by a 100% Malay or 100% Indian Parliament, so be it. An effective government is better than an ethnically representative government which cannot work and only divides its society.


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Infernal Ramblings is a Malaysian website focusing on current events and sociopolitical issues. Its articles run the gamut from economics to society to education.

Infernal Ramblings is run by John Lee. For more, see the About section. If you have any questions or comments, do drop him a line.


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