Mainstreaming Dilemmas: Muddling Towards the Middle

Mainstreaming in Malaysia has the salutary effect of reining in the ethnic and religious extremists. But there is also a cost.

By Cikgu Evara

“There’s nothing in the middle of the road but yellow stripes and dead armadillos”
Jim Hightower, columnist, populist, and former Texas agricultural commissioner

In PAS, the push for mainstreaming (a prerequisite for Pakatan Rakyat’s aspirations for federal power) threatens to sideline the “traditionalist ulama” tendency gathered around Hadi Awang and Nasaruddin Mat Isa, even as it elevates the “liberal modernist Erdogan” faction. By playing the “unity government” card (a bargaining chip for leverage in factional infighting and intra-party struggles?), the “traditionalist” faction in effect is saying to the “Erdogan” faction: there is more than one path to Putrajaya. They are well aware that a substantial segment of the Malay ground remains fluid and uneasy with the post-March 2008 status quo, an undercurrent they can tap into.

UMNO for its part is cultivating the same ground, even as it tries to mainstream, with Muhyiddin Yassin playing the Malay supremacist “bad cop” in a duet with 1Malaysia’s “good cop” Najib Abdul Razak.  This has been an impossible balancing act, so transparently ludicrous that they seem to have outsourced the supremacist ranting to Ibrahim Ali and his Perkasa brown-shirts (made up mostly of UMNO’s fascistic elements). Perkasa is now occupying the void left by the Khairy Jamaluddin-led Pemuda UMNO, i.e. as UMNO’s storm troopers.  Freed of any official ties to UMNO, we can expect Perkasa to be even more rabid than Pemuda UMNO at its worst. But let’s not be fooled – Perkasa is UMNO, a convenient stalking horse and threatening reminder that things could get worse, better stay with us…

Mainstreaming in Malaysia has the salutary effect of reining in the ethnic and religious extremists. But there is also a cost. The golden mean notwithstanding, Richard Lewontin, the renowned population geneticist, has remarked that the mean or average, as a population attribute, is a statistical reification, i.e. an abstraction that doesn’t really exist. What’s real in population biology are inter-individual differences and variability. Rather than be too fixated on population means, the proper object of study in population biology is variation and variability. Likewise in electoral politics, a middle-of-the-road fixation can give rise to a tyranny of an imagined majority. It’s perhaps time that we moved towards a system of electoral representation which is proportionate to the popular vote obtained (a truer reflection of the spectrum and variability of political preference among the electorate), rather than our existing first-past-the-post system with its bias for middle-of-the-road party politics.

Malay supremacist politics is losing its middle-of-the-road status in our evolving political landscape. Question is, what brand (or flavours) of populism might replace ethno-populism? Islamic social democracy? Islamic Third Way (with its market machismo)? A blend of greens (Islam and environmentalism), with a dash of feminism?