Mahathir stirring racial mischief in Malaysia

Malaysia is faced with grave development challenges, spanning from escaping middle-income stagnation to dealing with youth underemployment and recurrent severe flooding amid climate change — problems that transcend racial boundaries. A race-based approach to politics cannot solve any of the above problems. 

Kevin Zhang and Siti Suhaila Harith, Asia Times

Despite being a notch below 100 years old, Malaysia’s former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad remains active in politics.

Mahathir, a lifetime champion of Malay rights, was in frequent conflict with the Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) throughout much of his first tenure as prime minister from 1981 to 2003. Against this historical backdrop, the rapprochement between the Islamist PAS and Mahathir in May 2023 is perhaps surprising.

PAS President Hadi Awang signed up to the “Malay Proclamation“, a 12-point document written by Mahathir that calls for Malay unity to “restore the political power of Malays.” Malays — who form Malaysia’s dominant ethnic group — together with other Bumiputera constitute two-thirds of Malaysian citizens.

But the proclamation claimed that Malays have “lost” political control — presumably under current Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim — with calls to put aside political differences to “revive” and “save” the Malay race.

Mahathir ostensibly has a point. He contends that Malays are split into three political camps. In Malaysia’s November 2022 general election, the Malay vote was split among three rival coalitions — Perikatan Nasional (PN), Barisan Nasional (BN) and Pakatan Harapan (PH), in descending order. The Anwar-led unity government is a coalition of PH, BN and East Malaysian parties.

Since Malaysia’s independence in 1957, racial politics has been at the forefront of political discourse. Politicians and political parties often appeal to one specific racial group. For Mahathir, “Malay unity” is a dream and political slogan to galvanize support — never mind that such goals are not feasible or to be desired in the first place.

The paradox of Malay unity can be seen in the coming together of Hadi Awang and Mahathir. At the 1999 general election, PAS captured Terengganu from the United Malays National Organization (UMNO).

Then prime minister and UMNO president, Mahathir terminated petroleum royalty payments to PAS-led Terengganu for resources extracted within the state, even though its economic development is among the lowest in Malaysia. Hadi Awang served as the then-Terengganu chief minister and relations with Mahathir soured.

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