Are we more united as a nation after GE-14?

(This is a paper presented by Dr Jeyakumar Devaraj, Central Committee Member of PSM, at Forum in Taylors University on 26/6/19.)

No, we are more divided and along ethnic lines post 14th General Election (GE-14). I say this based on the following observations –

–          The votes received by UMNO-PAS in the by-elections in Camerons and in Semenyih went up compared to PRU14

–          The whatsapp groups that I am in show an increase in anti Pakatan Harapan (PH) criticism among Malays compared to the time before the General Elections

–          UMNO PAS were able to mobilise significant Malay opposition to ICERD and the Rome Statute although these two conventions did not threaten “Malay interests” in any significant way.

The vote breakdown in Sg Siput in GE-14 was as follows –

–          The PH only got 15% of the Malay vote; while UMNO received 55% and PAS received 30%.

–          More than 90% of the Chinese vote PH, and roughly 80% of the Indians did so.

I think in certain States like Selangor, the % of Malays voting for PH was higher, but probably not above 30% of the Malay voters.

In other words, even at the point of regime change there was already a marked hesitation on the part of the Malays towards the PH. If not for the revulsion to Najib’s gross misuse of power and for the fact that PAS had split the Malay vote, BN would have won the elections!! What should worry us all is that this hesitation has gotten even worse since May 2018. Why is this so?

Lack of Malay Support for the PH

I think the most important factor is that UMNO has stepped up its propaganda that the PH is dominated by the DAP and that Malay interests are going to be undermined by the current government. UMNO has linked up with PAS to propagate this view and so far has done it quite effectively.

But the PH has also made several missteps that have helped UMNO-PAS build up Malay anxiety and distrust of PH. These include –

  1. Stopping or cutting down on several schemes that targeted rural Malay poor in the aftermath of the elections including

–          The rubber smallholder price support scheme whereby more than 150,000 rubber smallholders received top-up payments direct to their bank accounts whenever the cup-lump price of rubber dipped below RM2.20 per kg. (This scheme was reinstated in January 2019 but damage to PH image had already been done)

–          The RM 300 per month scheme for around 70,000 traditional fishermen

–          2019 Budget allocation for padi price support and for fertilizer subsidies for padi farmers has been slashed to 60% of the quantum allocated in the 2018 budget.

  1. There is also a perception among a section of the Malays that many non-Malays are trying to challenge the character of the Malayan state that was agreed upon at Independence in 1957. Implicit in the formulation of the Federal Constitution (1957) is the recognition that Malaya is part of the “Malay Archipelago” – the Nusantara Melayu. That is why Malay was chosen as the national language, and Islam as the “religion of the Federation” and the preservation of the institution of the Malay Royalty was written into the constitution.

However there are non-Malays who argue that as many Malays came from Java and Sumatra, they are also “immigrants” like the Chinese and the Indians. These non-Malays seem not to recognize that Sumatra and Java are part of the “Nusantara Melayu that the colonial powers divided up among themselves. Ordinary Malays feel challenged and some even threatened by such assertions (which are not uncommon).

And videos like that of our Minister of Human Resources saying (in Tamil) that as the Raja-Raja Solan built advanced kingdoms in Kedah etc long before the Malacca sultanate – Indians too should be considered sons of the soil. These sort of assertions irritate (and frighten) some Malays.

  1. There is still significant identification of ethnicity to certain economic sectors –

–          Malays and other indigenous people make up the bulk of the smallholder sector, and they generally own less than 5 acres of land per family, and their income is uncertain, and low (because agricultural commodity prices have been low for the past 60 years)

–          The Malays are grossly under-represented in the larger SMEs. In 2012, the market value of industrial premises purchased by Chinese entrepreneurs was RM 2.2 billion while the value of industrial premises purchased by Malay entrepreneurs was RM 0.1 billion. (Source: Answer in Parliament to Question # 106 on 3/10/2013).

–          Malays make up 85% of the B20 population of Semenanjung Malaysia despite being only 56% of the Semanjung population – ie they are over represented in the poorest quintile of the population.

  1. There are therefore quite a number of Malays who feel that affirmative action on the part of government is still required to address their disadvantaged economic status. So talk of doing away with quotas in education and the implementation of a system based exclusively on meritocracy is seen as being against the interest of the Malay community.

And UMNO is waiting hungrily to get back to power. If you give them ammunition to use to whip up Malay anxieties and turn Malays away from the PH, do you really expect them not to use the ammunition that the PH has so generously providing??

The way forward to building a more unified nation

I think that stating the problem alone isn’t enough. We need to talk about how the problem can be overcome.

I think the most important thing we need to do is to reach out to the poorer half of Malay society – find out their issues, understand the background to their problems and work with them in trying to overcome these. This I think will be the single most effective move that we have to take.

To do this we got to break out of the consociational mode of working. In the consociational mode, the elites of the different ethnic groups get together, hammer out a compromise and cooperatively administer the country. This is how Malaysia has been governed from Independence up till now, and we have managed to move along without too much strife. But the emergence of competing groups of elites within each ethnic group has led to one-upmanship where each group tries to portray itself as the better and more fearless representative of that ethnic group. As a result, Malaysian politics has become increasingly polarized along ethnic lines such that we now are confined within ethnic silos!

Consequently we, the non-Malays, have become very focused on our own issues and somewhat blind to the predicament of the B40 among the Malays. As an example of this, what issues have grabbed the attention of the non-Malays since GE-14?

–          Recognition of the UEC

–          Matriculation places, and places in Public Universities

–          ICERD – that the government should not back down

–          The bloated government bureaucracy

Not much attention given by us, on the whole, to the issue of persistent poverty among Malay smallholders, or residents of the PPR flats-slums, or the contract workers in schools and government hospitals, etc.

A united nation can only be constructed out feelings of solidarity among all the ethnic groups that share this nation. It cannot be built if we only see our own issues and shout shrilly about them.

We need to accept that there are differences in dress, beliefs and life-styles. We have to work on understanding where the “other” is coming from, and eventually, “embrace” our diversity.

Are today’s youth equal to the task?

These are things that will not be done by the political elite who are still organized along ethnic lines – even in so-called multi-ethnic parties, there are factions organized along ethnic lines – there are in the DAP and in PKR,  Indian “leaders” who canvass “Indian issues”. The building of solidarity has to be pioneered by civil society and especially young people like you. But I worry that you too are already “contaminated” by the ethnic prejudices in our society.

Can you rise to the task? Can you make friends with young people of other ethnic groups? Can you open up your minds and hearts to see things from their perspective? Can you take time to visit PPR flats to give free tuition on a weekly basis? And use that opportunity to talk to people and learn of the issues that they are dealing with. Do you have the conviction and drive to build a truly multi-ethnic movement that addresses the problems of the poorer half of society? For only genuine concern for the “other” can provide the glue to bring our people together.

This is the challenge you face! The answer to the question of whether we will succeed in building a more harmonious nation lies in your hands!

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