Malaysians want multiracial parties, but race-based policies

It’s more productive to put in the effort to make the interventions more effective and empowering for the vast majority, than to recite the stale narrative that the agenda only benefits a powerful self-interested minority.

Lee Hwok-Aun, The Straits Times

As Malaysia’s election coalitions and platforms shape up, the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition’s ethnic politics and longstanding ethnic policies have entered the spotlight.

Widespread reports of household economic hardships, in contrast to Malaysia’s sprightly macroeconomic statistics, mirror a populace discontented with the ruling regime.

There is much talk these days about the Malay community being discontented with the Malay-based Umno party that is BN’s major partner. Questions are being raised on whether Malaysians, especially the Malays, are turning away from the BN. The criticism is that Umno continues to manipulate ethnic and religious sentiments, but has moved away from protecting Malay interests to safeguard the interests of Umno-connected elites and corrupt chieftains, at the cost of ordinary (especially Malay) citizens.

Many commentators tend to view Umno’s ethnic politics as desperate attempts to whip up emotions to sustain outdated ethnic policies. This is typically accompanied by an assertion that bumiputera policies, which purportedly benefit a minority at the expense of the majority, are immovable because they are defended by Malay elites who have too much to lose.

Anecdotal observations and personal biases create such impressions. But the best available empirical evidence – representing the views of Malaysian people – paint a different picture.

Recent opinion polls and academic surveys portray Malaysian society, particularly the Malay community, as not neatly aligned in rejecting both ethnic politics and ethnic policies, as often presumed. The reality is messy and complicated. In a nutshell, most Malaysians are comfortable dispensing with ethnic parties, but a pivotal Malay majority approve of ethnically exclusive bumiputera policies.

Scholars at the University of Oxford’s Blavatnik School of Government, commissioned by the CIMB Foundation, recently disseminated a report based on a Peninsular Malaysia survey conducted from September to October last year. Responses to the statement, “all political parties should be racially mixed”, are instructive: 62 per cent of Malays agreed, along with 80 per cent of Chinese and 83 per cent of Indians.

Ethnicity is entrenched in Malaysian politics, especially on the peninsula, where the major BN coalition partners are ethnically exclusive parties, ostensibly representing Malay, Chinese and Indian interests. Umno has always dominated the alliance, but since the 2008 general elections, it has ruled with ever greater hegemony. Other BN partners today are the Malaysian Indian Congress and the Malaysian Chinese Association.

Unsurprisingly, overwhelming majorities of Chinese and Indians favour multi-ethnic parties. The sizeable majority of Malays sharing that view mirrors a broadening ambivalence, perhaps disillusionment, towards the BN’s ethnic party model.

These public dispositions signal openness to a more culturally integrated, less ethnically politicised nation.

But does this mean that Malaysians repudiate ethnic policies – specifically, the bumiputera preferential treatment enmeshed with the ruling regime? It is not so clear cut. For example, the Blavatnik survey also enquired into the level of comfort with Malays receiving special privileges. On a scale of 1 (“not at all comfortable”) to 5 (“very much comfortable”), Malay respondents averaged almost 4 out of 5, while Chinese were slightly below 2 and Indians slightly above 2.

On the statement that “fair competition for everyone so that no one group gets special privileges”, less than half of Malay respondents (47 per cent), but exceedingly more Chinese (85 per cent) and Indians (88 per cent), said they agreed with it.

Read more here