Theory of the race politics breakthrough

Bereft of almost any ideological left-right identity, excepting the mosquito party PSM, race politics is the only game in town. Superficially a left party, unable to compete under the Barisan formula, DAP plays the game nonetheless: its secretary-general and Penang chief minister Lim Guan Eng professes to govern like the Caliph Umar Abdul Aziz and adopting the motto ‘amar ma’aruf nahi mungkar’.

Written by Shuzheng, CPI   

Malaysia’s political system instead of advancing towards a harmonious society breaks up its parts, leaving only votes to be traded for public service, contracts and licences included. But it’s still the Malays, through Umno, that direct the exchange, a process cemented under the rule of Mahathir Mohamad.

The pragmatic Chinese community had been, and still is, prepared to interpret Chinese demands at their core as not being political in nature; they have more to do with culture and education, trade and business.

In other words, Chinese issues have a strong administrative flavour, and MCA as Umno factotum was until recently the only viable recourse available to the Chinese. (Consider why, for example, even DAP sympathizers turned to MCA service centres.) Problems erupt once they encounter a Malay bureaucracy or laws passed by a Malay-run legislature and administrative apparatus.

MCA once commanded the Chinese votes because its pro-Chinese position is the only direct route to making a deal with the bureaucracy, which happens to belong to Umno. If the bureaucracy was controlled by PAS, the Chinese would have voted PAS.

This suggests that if public service doesn’t keep the political bargain, Umno & Co. can expect voter backlash. March 2008 offers to Pakatan a limited opportunity to break into and influence the ranks of the bureaucracy and not because, as westernized Pakatan politicians have claimed, ethnic attitudes have flipped and so a new dawn in ‘beyond race politics’ has arrived.

In the Barisan then, MCA and MIC exist primarily to give the ruling coalition its multiracial glaze and, hence, Umno its national and constitutional legitimacy. Note that PAS, in contrast to Umno, has no such national standing when ruling Kelantan or Kedah; in either case it’s a one-party – and authoritarian – state (but don’t tell it to Anwar Ibrahim).

Pakatan attempts to distant itself from the Barisan political trading formula. MCA’s usefulness to Umno is predicated on the survival of DAP, against whom the Malay fights. DAP’s utility is, it hopes, independent.

Stripped of the language of ethics (equality, justice and so on), DAP has in essence asked Malays to give the Chinese more political space which they are unwilling: in return for what? Witness all the Mahathir-Perkasa commotion now and the suqiu-is-‘communist’ commotion some years ago.

Overturning the old formula, DAP, Pakatan by extension, has now turned the sleeves inside out – vote first, equal service to follow. Most glaringly, it’s politics before, for example, municipal service or school grants (recall Najib Razak’s “you help me, I help you” barter).

This is hazardous because politics – the struggle for power – is then made a cyclical and perpetual, objective state and not a pathway in national salvation. The politics of equality and justice can be made workable if these are principles not to be defined solely by the West, or Arabs, but it will be unworkable because the scars of inequality or injustice have a racial complexion that populist leaders in Pakatan refuse to look in the face.

Bereft of almost any ideological left-right identity, excepting the mosquito party PSM, race politics is the only game in town. Superficially a left party, unable to compete under the Barisan formula, DAP plays the game nonetheless: its secretary-general and Penang chief minister Lim Guan Eng professes to govern like the Caliph Umar Abdul Aziz and adopting the motto ‘amar ma’aruf nahi mungkar’.

This provides to its westernized, urban sympathizers a multiculturalist gloss; to the Malays as if a well-informed, imported (but sequestered) historical legacy. Yet, for many, the DAP leadership remains a philistine class or, worse, kafirs.

Mr Lim rounding up the Chinese to play complicit with an Islamist ideology based on a theology that deems itself superior to other faiths is the party’s capitulation to Anwar and to PAS, so giving flesh to the Aristotelian idea that politics is ethically amoral.

That also says DAP is today as un-Chinese as it is anti-Malaysian, subscribing to alien ideologies, relying on western ideas of power rather than virtue as a governance form, and ignoring the reality that as long as Malay, Chinese and Indian babies are born daily, differences contingent on race and by extension the religion of the child’s parents are never entirely reversible.

Nothing new Politik Baru

While DAP changed colours and values for a political expediency, PAS has not publicly wavered from its Islamic state aspirations. The PKR, on the other hand, has yet to find its feet, and so displays a disconnect between its internal identity and its public image.

PKR is at pains to project itself as multiracial but its acts, not its words reveal what it truly is under the ‘politik baru’ veneer. PKR is after all a political orphan, inheriting Umno DNA and numerous former Umno-ites.

In Ijok 2007, PKR fielded the ex-Umno employee Khalid Ibrahim in a seat that has about 27 percent Indians. In Hulu Selangor earlier this year, where the voters are about 10 percent Indian, it fielded the Malay Zaid Ibrahim.

Those decisions showed the PKR needed Malay allegiance that was doubtful where it was concerned. Race, then, is the first threshold to cross, no matter what English-speaking columnists (think Malaysiakini’s Joshie) might pontificate over a racist Umno or MCA.

If it were PAS contesting, its presentation of choices, first and always to the Malay, is clear: pick the more religious. Zaid’s admission to alcohol drinking is to it an irresoluble problem, likely to recur once it campaigns for DAP, which is today preparing the ground for PAS, hence Malay, acceptance (Mr Lim’s Caliph posturing, for example).

Such a strategy assumes too much: the ummah is inherently a righteous class; infidel Chinese is desirous of sleeping with the like of Ridhuan Tee’s bastard morality; MCA or Umno has no good or clever people; the DAP ones are god-fearing, hence, not evil.

The ethnic Malay support level is probably the least then of Pakatan’s worries getting past the next general election. Pakatan parties, in possession of alien ideologies, individually trying to be everything to everybody, are in an identity crisis – knowing who or what each represents.

Pakatan: What are you?

The PKR in particular cannot offer to the electorate a satisfactory explanation into its reason for existence if the party is itself unsure; it being a jumble of varied, sometimes antagonistic, interest groups.

Thus, for example, the common Indian perception of the party arrives indirectly, such as through a Malay neighbour or through events that had to do with Malay-Indian relations. In the latter category, a common thread stood out over the years among the Indians: Kg Medan, destruction of Hindu shrines, Islam, family disputes that involved syariah intervention, conversions and bodysnatching.

This is to say that acts of the government have racial implications extending to a Malay candidate regardless of party affiliation. Had the PKR failed to see this or has the Indian unreasonably made it culpable to all acts of government done in the name of Islam and, by extension, the Malay?

The answer to the question returns once more to the issue of party identity because PKR is identifiably Malay. When Mahathir Mohamad engages in race-baiting, he counts PKR as Malay and one of the Malay troika of Umno-PAS-PKR splitting Malay votes and disuniting the community.

Rather, to have Indians on its side, PKR would have to stand up for Indian interest on matters that are plainly about human decency. But then, this is to alienate the Malay orthodox Muslim fence sitters. Note that the liberal left in Pakatan always has a ready word on the abuse of executive power but is silent on religion because of PAS.

All that means PKR and PAS are amenable to group rights as distinct from the individual rights that DAP seeks. These group rights constitute the political essence of the Malayness in Anwar and Islamic ummah in PAS.

This is a crucial ideological difference between PKR/PAS on the one side and DAP the other. One consequence is that DAP today refuses to take up a collective Chinese interest in the belief, perversely, this will cost it the Malay vote even though MCA gets the Malay vote all the time.

The DAP standpoint then is as un-Chinese as it gets because the Malay polity, like the Chinese harmonious state concept, still expects, indeed demands, the fusion of collective and individual interests. Thus, at the core of Pakatan – and this includes the westernized elements in PKR/PAS – is a likely deterrent for continued support of its parties if it is ‘equality’ the parties seek.