Something Has Changed in Malaysian Politics
Immediately after the political tsunami of March 8, a number of Malaysians rejoiced at what they thought was a clear rejection of racial politics by the silent majority of the electorate. Others however feared that this was no systematic realignment in political attitudes towards race, but rather a simple rejection of government incompetence and corruption. Apparently believing this to be so, the ruling party has chosen to blast its racist rhetoric from the rooftops as a last-gasp attempt to reclaim its power; to denigrate and deny the basic rights of Malaysians who happen to be of a different race than them. But the events of the past two weeks, however, have proven beyond all doubt that something fundamental has changed in the political world — that racialism can no longer be the order of the day.
Before March 8, comments like Ahmad Ismail's were so common as to be unremarkable. The whole country was shocked in 2006 when the UMNO AGM was beamed live into their homes, revealing threats of violence from various leaders if they did not have their way. The infamous brandishing of the keris, the blatant disregard for the citizenship of non-Malays — all were on full display. And this was just the continuation of a fine tradition: this is how UMNO, especially its Youth Wing, has always conducted itself.
So when Ahmad Ismail told the audience at his ceramah in Permatang Pauh that the Chinese and other non-Malay communities in this country were little more than squatting foreigners, he was not expecting much, if any backlash. Maybe the DAP would kick up a little fuss, and maybe even some of the other opposition parties would follow suit. But at the worst, some Barisan Nasional component parties like MCA and Gerakan might merajuk sikit and take offense; Ahmad would just say he'd been quoted out of context, or was misunderstood, and they would let it slip by.
As we all know, that is exactly what did not happen: not only did the federal opposition Pakatan Rakyat lambast Ahmad's rhetoric, but MCA and Gerakan turned up the heat on Ahmad too. They did not just issue a statement and then maintain a stoic silence; their state divisions severed ties with UMNO Penang. In essence, Ahmad's comments — which previously were the norm for any UMNO leader — caused Barisan to completely collapse in Penang.
The whirlwind Ahmad stirred up had such an immense backlash that the Deputy Prime Minister himself was forced to give an unreserved apology on Ahmad's behalf, and state unqualifiedly that all Malaysians have a place in this country, as equal partners and stakeholders in its future. This is all the more ironic, considering that Najib Tun Razak has never apologised for threatening to bathe a keris in Chinese blood and supporting similar sentiments at the height of racial tension in the 1980s. A reversal of this nature has never, ever happened before in Malaysian politics.
And now, UMNO itself has been forced to act for once: it has suspended Ahmad's party membership for three years. While this is definitely little more than a slap on the wrist for someone who has destroyed the coalition in Penang, the fact that UMNO has taken any action at all is something; the last time a similar flap occurred, over very similar remarks made at the 2006 AGM, they simply declared that the leaders' rhetoric had been misunderstood and pronounced the whole matter resolved. For the first time, UMNO has actually had to disavow racism and actually punish party leaders who preach the ridiculous belief that some Malaysians have less of a right to be here than others.
This alone is proof enough that something very fundamental has changed in Malaysian politics. UMNO has been forced to alter tack, to shift its course. This could not, would not, should not have happened before March 8.
As tempting as it may be to attribute this shift to the wisdom of UMNO and Barisan, this also would not have happened if not for Pakatan. It is purely because of Pakatan's strength that MCA and Gerakan reacted the way they did; it is purely because Pakatan's agenda of multiracialism and a nation belonging to all resonated with the public so strongly that UMNO has had to reverse direction. Without a viable challenger to its own agenda, the UMNO/Barisan political farce would never have ended.
The ruling party still has a long way to go to heal its internal fractures and present a viable alternative to Pakatan's ketuanan rakyat. The Prime Minister's attempt to reshape ketuanan Melayu into a belief empowering the Malays to fend for themselves and to stand tall on their own, without falling into the trap of belittling or discriminating against other Malaysians, is admirable and commendable. But until Abdullah Badawi can silence the numerous UMNO men like Ahmad who persist in pushing the despicable notion that some Malaysians are innately superior and more entitled than others, until he can get Barisan united behind an ideology that puts Malaysians and Malaysia first, his party will not stand a chance against Pakatan in a fair and free election.
The simple fact is, something changed after March 8. I do not know what exactly that is; I cannot presume to know why things are different now. But the unmistakable reality is that one party's philosophy has been rendered obsolete, and another's has surged to the forefront of Malaysian politics. A strong blow may still set multiracial Malaysian politics back for decades. But in spite of this, it is inescapable: the people of Malaysia believe in a Malaysia where everyone belongs, and everyone has a place; a Malaysia where nobody is a pendatang or a penumpang, but everyone works together, bergotong-royong, to forge a better future for all of us in the only country we can call home.
First published in The Malaysian Insider.