BEC: Part 5 – Gone the reformers

Dennis Ignatius

One clear message that emanated from the recently concluded Bumiputera Economic Congress is that Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim has now turned his back on reformasi. The reformer, if he ever existed, is now well and truly gone.

He once eloquently championed “Ketuanan Rakyat” but now it’s all about Ketuanan Melayu. He once spoke of a more inclusive nation, a nation that is just and fair to all its citizens; now he defends that status quo and prioritises the so-called ‘social contract’ that is so loved by UMNO politicians. He has also shot down calls to reform our monoracial civil service. It looks like he has gone back to his UMNO roots.

Even more disconcerting, is the way Anwar is allowing UMNO to exploit a number of racial and religious issues for political gain. Back in December 2022, UMNO President Zahid Hamidi intimated that he had learned from his mistakes and was ready to work together with Pakatan Harapan to build a more tolerant and inclusive nation. But inclusivity doesn’t apparently win votes; so it’s back to the old race and religion narratives.

And while the debates on contentious issues rages on and passions are inflamed, Anwar himself remains largely silent, even indecisive. He seems unwilling to confront the hotheads within his own coalition for fear of upsetting them. No surprise then that UMNO is now driving the government’s political agenda. At the Bumiputera Economic Congress, UMNO clearly overshadowed PKR and other coalition partners.

Many of those who fought long and hard for Anwar when he was in the political wilderness will no doubt feel used and betrayed. He spoke to their hopes, he played on their fears, he promised them a more just nation; in retrospect, it was pure chicanery. As I have written elsewhere, under Anwar, UMNO’s Ketuanan Melayuism has finally triumphed.

All hope of ending decades of discrimination and marginalization is gone along with any hope for a more just economic system that would help all struggling Malaysians.

Gone too are the other reformers in PKR and DAP. Many within DAP and PKR are sullen and dismayed at Anwar’s betrayal of the common ideals they once fought for but silence is the price of power; a price their leaders are all too willing to pay.

The DAP in particular has been a huge disappointment. After only a few years in power, they have abandoned all the great ideals that once animated their party. Now they are all about currying favour with UMNO. The more UMNO hits out at them, the more subservient they become. They pretend that they are still fighting for a “Malaysian Malaysia”, that they are still committed to a secular state[4] but their silence in the face of policies that run counter to their professed ideals says it all.

Their wimpishness was on full display at the Bumiputera Economic Congress too where they stood on the sidelines talking about things like the green economy, US-China rivalry and pleading for win-win solutions while UMNO pushed ahead with plans to further marginalize non-Bumiputeras. The people of Malaysia gave them 40 seats in GE15 – making them the second largest bloc in parliament – but what have they done with it?

The Bumiputera Economic Congress was a golden opportunity to break away from failed narratives and failed policies and take the nation along a different path – the path that Anwar himself had outlined when he was in the Opposition. Instead, whether out of conviction or convenience, he chose to throw his weight behind UMNO, the very party that once brought Malaysia to the brink of catastrophe.

As well, at a time when Anwar most needed to restore confidence amongst non-Bumiputeras that they have a future here, that they will be treated fairly after more than half a century of being disproportionately impacted by affirmative action, he abandoned them.

Anyone notice that we don’t hear that inane refrain about giving Anwar the time and space he needs to get the job done anymore?