Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

Racial Politics and the Pakatan Rakyat

Written by johnleemk on 10:47:10 am Apr 10, 2008.

About a month ago, Malaysians defied common stereotypes in casting their votes. Malays voted for the Democratic Action Party; non-Malays, for PAS. Parti Keadilan Rakyat, long upheld as yet another in a long-line of Malay-inclusive multiracial parties that were sure to fail, became the second-largest party in Parliament. Many commentators trumpeted the beginning of the end for racial politics in Malaysia. However, if anything, racial politics seems to have dominated the headlines as much, if not more than usual in the wake of these elections.

One of the highest profile cases was when the Sultan of Selangor supposedly intervened in asking that the Selangor executive council not have a majority of non-Malay members, since Selangor is a Malay-majority state. There was understandably quite a bit of grumbling about that, since PKR and the DAP are the two largest parties in the Selangor state government, and both had run substantial slates of non-Malay candidates. Surely the democratic and meritocratic thing to do would be to pick the best exco members regardless of race?

Similar cases have continued to present themselves in other states with Pakatan Rakyat governments. Although quite a few have been framed in terms of Malays versus non-Malays, the Indian community has also been a pressing issue. Many Indians have expressed frustration at not receiving greater representation in state executive councils and the like. More than a few have argued that they deserve this by right as compensation for years of virtual oppression and for the HINDRAF movement's galvanising support for the Pakatan Rakyat during the elections. But the natural counter-argument is that in an executive council of 12 members or less, anything more than 1 Indian member would be overrepresentation, and that a representative from another race might be just as or even more effective in advancing the interests of the community.

There is thus this strong tension between conflicting racial interest groups in the various Pakatan Rakyat-controlled states. It would hardly be surprising to see similar conflicts break out in Parliament, especially if Pakatan Rakyat decides to form a Shadow Cabinet. It is extremely tempting to condemn Pakatan Rakyat for not being able to put a lid on these sentiments, and also the various interest groups pressuring Pakatan Rakyat for succumbing to a racialist mentality.

But we cannot stifle an open debate of these issues, nor should we be surprised that they are suddenly coming to the fore. We have lived for fifty years under a regime that has insisted on bottling up these issues for resolution behind closed doors, all the while stoking them in public. I say fifty years, mind you, because we actually had more freedom to debate these issues and put forth such radical stands under the colonial regime than we did post-independence. Now that we finally have an opportunity to discuss these issues in the open, now that we finally have a chance to thrash them out politically, it is hardly shocking that these long-repressed sentiments rise to the surface.

That still leaves the question, though, of how to handle them. A lot of responses I have seen run along the lines of, "Well, the best candidate for the job is the best candidate for the job, and that's that! Why the big fuss? Can't a Malay represent Indian interests, or vice-versa?" Inasmuch as this argument has merit, it often comes up in a tone and manner that strongly indicates that meritocracy's proponents have not considered the rationale behind these racialist sentiments.

This is, I suspect, because the political situation in Malaysia has never really made it necessary for us to put ourselves in the shoes of someone else. We are unaccustomed to thinking about how the other side feels; the mode of political participation has always been the ruling party dictating to each community how things are going to be. We either put up, or we shut up. Dissent has been limited to a very narrow range amongst the opposition parties, who likewise have never really seen the need till now to seriously compromise. (Believe me, it was truly brutal for them to reach the compromise agreement on avoiding three-cornered fights in West Malaysia — I don't think anyone beyond those involved in the Pakatan Rakyat has truly grasped how big an achievement this was for them.)

Now, with a revitalised opposition presence in Parliament, and five states under Pakatan Rakyat control, there is much more room for dissent to percolate. Where there is dissent, there is conflict. Where there is conflict, there is a need to compromise. And where there is a need to compromise, there is a need to empathise. We have yet to truly try to get into the heads and hearts of the fellow Malaysians we argue with — a sad sight, considering this is precisely the lesson that our colonisers learned the hard way during the communist insurgency.

But even when we place ourselves in the shoes of the other side, this is only the beginning. The next step is using this vantage point to figure out how we can reassure them. It is not enough to brusquely dismiss their valid concerns as unfounded; virtually every community in this country is traumatised, considering themselves victims of those in power since the colonial era. People who possess a victimised mentality are particularly sensitive to how we deal with them and their concerns; we must look to reaching a compromise that everyone understands and accepts.

Now, why do the Malay and Indian communities insist on disproportional representation in government? Part of the reason almost certainly is that they fear someone from another community cannot adequately put forth their needs. Another part of the reason, however, is probably that they yearn for recognition that they, too, are important — that they are rightful participants in what the government is doing.

It is of course completely possible to rebut these arguments logically. HINDRAF supporters say that they played a crucial role in the Pakatan Rakyat's election victory; however, a government for all Malaysians would not prioritise one ethnic community simply because they were more likely to support this government. Likewise, the argument for stronger Malay numbers in important positions is weak if you argue that there are simply many more qualified non-Malay politicians to fill these spots.

What I think these arguments often fail to appreciate, however, is that being part of a particular community is sometimes a qualification in itself. In the run-up to nomination day for the Ijok by-election last year, I argued that race can and sometimes should be a factor in a candidate's competency, if only for political reasons. To elaborate, there are times when only someone from a particular community can truly understand and articulate that community's concerns.

This brings us full circle to what we discussed earlier: we are not yet at the stage where we are fully able to understand and put ourselves in the shoes of the other side. In light of this, how can we object when the other side suggests that they nominate someone from their own who can ably explain what ails them? Knowing the community's woes is a qualification in itself; and unless you are an adopted child, or someone who has truly spent his life getting to know people from that community, it is unlikely that you, as an outsider, will be able to fully comprehend these problems or make them clear to others.

As I wrote at the time of the Ijok by-election, this is what makes it reasonable to allow race to enter our considerations — for now. What is truly imperative is that although we appreciate the fact that we are far from a race-blind society just yet, we should stress the need for race-blind leaders. If half the Selangor exco must be Malay, fine. As long as they meet the minimum competency requirements, it's okay. What's more important is that they be race-blind; that they understand they are there not just to articulate the concerns of the Malay community, but the Malaysian community. You cannot and should not separate the two; you should not pit the interests of the Malays against the interests of Malaysians. In the long run, the two are one and the same, and at the end of the day, we will all be Malaysian.

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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.

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