Najib’s One Malaysia challenge

By Lee Wei Lian (The Malaysian Insider)

KUALA LUMPUR, April 17 — That One Malaysia, a slogan meant to promote unity and mutual respect and trust among the different ethnic communities in Malaysia, has stirred up so much heated rhetoric shows how much the tricky goal of unity in Malaysia is and how it will be a challenge for new Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak.

The past few days has seen Umno-controlled newspaper Utusan write editorials on One Malaysia and carry stories that appear to be a message to the prime minister not to remove the New Economic Policy-type affirmative action programmes in the pursuit of One Malaysia and for Malays to unite against perceived extreme demands from non-Malays.

The opposition has also expressed disappointment over "divisive" statements made by Najib's deputy, Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin, and called on Najib to clarify what One Malaysia really means.

During his first Cabinet meeting on Wednesday, Najib fell short of articulating what One Malaysia means in terms of government policies, directives and programmes, saying that he did not want to be "too rigid". However, he urged his ministers to think of all citizens as members of one team rather than as Malays, Chinese or Indians and made a plea for all Malaysians to discard their ethnic silo mentality and think and act as one people.

He also denied that One Malaysia is the same as Malaysian Malaysia, a concept promoted in the 1960s by Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew that espoused equality for all Malaysians.

Prior to his swearing in, Najib has said in press conferences that he would expound on what One Malaysia means and how it is translated into policies and programmes. His statement on Wednesday, while generally welcome, is also disappointing in that it adds nothing really new to what is known about One Malaysia.

The fluidness of the concept, which Najib has said is the thrust of his new administration, leaves much room for interpretation — and potentially more inflammatory rhetoric.

Professor Shamsul Amri Baharuddin, an ethic relations expert with Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, says that the hawkish statements emanating from Utusan and Datuk Ibrahim Ali, the president of Perkasa, a grouping of Malay NGOs, are because the slogan is new and they are worried over its ramifications.

"People are expressing their own viewpoints," says Shamsul. "They are seeking attention. What they are saying is not about the concept but about what they think. To me, people are taking One Malaysia too seriously. It is not a new ideology but a concept of how governance will be in Najib's administration."

He adds that contrary to the strident tone from these groups, ethnic relations in the country are good. "Ethnic relations are wonderful," he says. "People on the street are doing well. What is giving concern is the ethnic perception, through blogs and tongue wagging."

Professor James Chin, who lectures political science at Monash University Malaysia, says however that no matter how well Najib defines One Malaysia, one side — either the Malays or the non-Malays will be unhappy. "One Malaysia is impossible to sell as long as you have the dichotomy between the Bumiputeras and the non-Bumiputeras," he says. "Unless that is addressed, real unity is not possible."

Chin says that Najib should not have "made the mistake" of introducing One Malaysia so early in his administration but nevertheless says that the blame lies with his advisors.

Ibrahim Suffian, chief of Merdeka Centre, an opinion research firm, says that the marked contrast between Najib's statements and those from Perkasa and Utusan makes him wonder if there is a case of "good cop and bad cop" going on over One Malaysia.

"One the one hand, Najib has been making a lot of positive statements but on the other hand, Utusan has been taking a more Malay nationalistic tone," he says. "I'm still wondering to what extent is this all structured? Or is it uncontrolled?"

Ibrahim adds that he is not ready to dismiss One Malaysia, saying that people are "hopeful" over the new concept.

Assessing Najib's performance so far, Ibrahim says that he has tried to do well within the constraints he faces. "The test will be in how much political will he shows in pushing through reforms and achieving key performance indicators," says Ibrahim.

Shamsul says that the difference between Najib and his predecessors is his emphasis on keeping in touch with the public. "With former prime ministers Mahathir Mohamad and Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, the first few months were more about structure," says Shamsul. "Najib, however, has been frequently saying he wants to keep in touch with the ground."

Many Malaysians will be hoping this emphasis on obtaining feedback from the ground will help manifest One Malaysia's unity objective and not cause it to be quietly cold storaged like so many slogans of previous administrations.