Malaysia’s youth energises political landscape

Malaysia’s youngest sitting politician says his generation of leaders is ready to move away from race-based politics. Politics in Malaysia is centred on race and religion, with the Malay UMNO dominating a multi-racial political coalition. 29 year old Nik Nazmi Nik Ahmad says all signs are pointing to an early election – as soon as November this year, or in the first quarter of 2012. Nik Nazmi Nik Ahmad also calls for a more equitable distribution of wealth in Malaysia.

Sen Lam, Radio Australia

Presenter: Sen Lam

Speaker: Nik Nazmi Nik Ahmad, Selangor state assemblyman, Malaysia and Communications Director for the opposition Parti Keadilan. He was in Melbourne as a guest of the Asia Institute, Asialink and the Asia Society

NIK NAZMI: The problem we have today is that the economic policy we have in Malaysia is very much a trickle-down one for the ordinary people, regardless of race. Of course, the politicians would like us to see in terms of racial paradigms but in reality, the ordinary Malaysians regardless of race, lose out, whereas those who are politically-connected, regardless of race benefit. So I think that currently, the government talks about liberalising the NEP (New Economic Policy), moving away from the NEP adopting our own rhetoric, which is good, but in terms of reality, we think that it also means an over-emphasis on liberalisation, without a balance in terms of social justice, which is bad I think, for the country as a whole.

LAM: But in politics, appearances count for a lot as well, how do you think that will sit with your Malay constituents, who might feel that they’re losing their rights?

NIK NAZMI: It is, the problem for the ruling coalition is that they they have shaped the debate for so long in terms of race-based analysis. If a Chinese gains, then that means the Malays and Indians lose, and vise versa. Whereas our emphasis has always been about the ordinary people against the powerful. Even the One-Malaysia campaign (of Prime Minister Najib Razak) is not being accepted by their own (UMNO) party, because they’ve always been talking about Malay supremacy – Ketuanan Melayu. So I think that’s where the government faces a problem, as a result of they’ve become the victim of their own rhetoric.

The children of those who benefitted from the NEP, the younger Malays, who, their parents studied in Australia, in the US and in the UK, come back and they start to question the analysis, that Malays are naturally weak and that the Malays need political protection in order to survive. So in that sense, I believe that rather than being a headache for us, it’s actually a headache for everyone in the country, because this is your ‘Gen Y’, which is shaped by a different mindset than the previous generations. They tend to be critical of the government, which means BN (Barisan Nasional) rather than the (Opposition) Pakatan. But they’re not as loyal in terms of party politics, as their parents were. You know, I think that’s a phenomenon across the world, where in the past, our parents’ time, where they would vote for a certain party from cradle to grave, but today, the younger generation are more interested in voting along the lines of issues.

LAM: So are you saying, that the future in Malaysian democracy and in a more vibrant political landscape, lies in this current and future generations of younger people?

NIK NAZMI: Definitely, I mean, Malaysia especially being a very young country – the population pyramid in Malaysia is very broad-based because of the number of young people. So in that sense, definitely, the young people are the ones we should focus on. They are shaped by a very different view and things are changing so fast, the tools that are out there, we cannot take them for granted anymore, definitely.

LAM: If elections were called in early 2012, how do you think the Pakatan Rakyat, the opposition coalition, how do you think you’ll fare? Do you think you’ll get more than five states?

NIK NAZMI: Predictions are not my thing, but I would think that generally, the two coalition systems are here to stay. Malaysians do not want the time where one coalition knew best or one party knew best, or during Mahathir’s time, perhaps one man knew best. I think those times are over. People see the benefit because now, both parties, the Opposition coalition has just been elected. I think there’s a greater desire, younger more energetic, they work harder but at the same time, the ruling coalition has been to a certain extent, woken up from their slumber. And they’re trying to win (voters) over. At the end of the day, the people benefit. So I think the people are smart enough to realise that. The government has lost the monopoly of information…

LAM: Through new and social media?

NIK NAZMI: New and social media, definitely. People are more interested to hear both sides of the view.

LAM: So, is the opposition Pakatan Rakyat coalition.. are you prepared to take over federal politics? To take over government?

NIK NAZMI: We are better prepared than we were in 2008, definitely. It was a loose coalition in 2008, there was no formal coalition between Keadilan, the Islamic PAS and the DAP. And we have come out with a common ‘Orange Book’ which details our common policies. Yes, there are differences, I will admit that, but it’s natural. There is no coalition or party in Malaysia that would not have differences, because it’s a reflection of the diverse spectrum of Malaysian society.

LAM: Well, some people might argue that the Barisan Nasional stayed in power for so long because it had UMNO at the helm, it had a galvanising factor, a party that’s strong enough to hold everyone together. It might be argued that Pakatan Rakyat lacks that cohesiveness -what do you say to that?

NIK NAZMI: Well, that model worked in the 20th century. It worked in 1955, it worked all the way until 2008. But I think the Big Brother model of politics, where you have one dominant partner is not relevant for the 21st century. People want a partnership of equals. And I think it has to go out from the race-based political situation that you have today.

Definitely, there have been differences, issues, but I think at the end of the day, all the three parties have accepted the Constitutional concensus in Malaysia, where Islam is the religion of the Federation, but the rights of other adherents to practise their faith are fully respected. We need to stick to things that we agree on, rather than harp on the things that divide us. I mean, I think we’re all learning here. It’s all a maturing process.

The ‘Arab Spring’ has shown whether you’re Islamist or whether you’re a liberal, that democracy is ultimately the most important thing to fight for, because it’s something that we need to run governments. At the end of the day, without a functioning democracy, then countries cannot function, nation states cannot have peaceful transitions of power.

LAM: I read in one blog, that recommended you as a politician of the future, and as the sort of politician that Malaysia needs, because, the argument of the blog goes, you are Malay and ultimately, Malaysia still needs Malay leaders because the Malays are the majority. So that’s still race-based though, isn’t it?

NIK NAZMI: That is the reality in Malaysia, because I think you want to talk about political change. It used to be about Malay supremacy, I think the Opposition has rejected that. We talk about “people’s supremacy” but I think at this point of time, change still needs to be Malay-led because people still vote along racial lines, that’s a reality. I think all countries have this – I’m not saying it’s perfect, but it’s a political reality. But what is better is that enlightened Malay leadership is better than this ignorant Malay leadership.

But I would say that, while there are those challenges, the good thing is that because of social media, because of the internet, people are better-informed. This is the Reformasi, the Bersih generation, you know, the concerns are different. So in that sense, the parameters are different, that provides an opportunity. The problem is that some politicians still want to dumb down old politics, but I think if we keep making the argument for a Malaysia that moves forward, then I believe that the younger generation is ready to step into the 21st century.