Push on with reforms to counter divisive politics

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Don’t waste the chance to create a truly new Malaysia; quickly implement policies to promote inclusivity and socioeconomic justice, writes Henry Loh.

In an interview with Peter Hastings of the Sydney Morning Herald in 1983, the late Tunku Abdul Rahman once described himself as the “happiest prime minister”.

Looking at a couple of the accolades attributed to the Tunku – Bapa Kemerdekaan (Father of Independence) and Bapa Malaysia (Father of the Nation) for spearheading the formation of Malaysia in 1963 – one can understand the context and source of his personal elation and satisfaction.

The late historian Cheah Boon Kheng noted that Tunku, during his term as Prime Minister, earned “an even greater accolade – the sobriquet ‘high priest of inter-racial harmony’ – for his tireless efforts to integrate the various races to accommodate their different interests and demands, to work out compromises, and to maintain peace and harmony” [emphasis added].

Would the Tunku, if he were alive, be happy with what is happening in Malaysia in 2019? I doubt it.

Of late, certain quarters have played up ethno-religious issues, sparking unnecessary division in our multicultural society. The big show of Pas-Umno collaboration, for example, seems to rest on championing the cause of the Malay-Muslim ummah. Such a thrust can only trigger further fissures in Malaysia’s multicultural society.

Anil Netto calls upon the Pakatan Harapan government to promote a counter-narrative to the narrow, exclusive Pas-Umno rhetoric by bravely promoting inclusivity and unity.

Mustafa K Anuar notes the views of several political observers who expect the Pas-Umno political pact of convenience to further divide the nation.

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Lee Hwok Aun, a senior fellow at Iseas Singapore, was quoted as saying, “A solidified Umno-Pas alliance, without other parties and groups represented, will keep trying to push politics in a Malay-Muslim-centric direction at a time when the country needs to focus on social cohesion, human wellbeing, equality and fairness, and economic progress” [emphasis added].

Consider the impact of controversial Islamic preacher Zakir Naik on Malaysian society. If nothing else, Zakir – popular though he may be among many Muslims in our country – is a divisive figure.

Many Malaysians are deeply disappointed over why Zakir was allowed to go unpunished for saying that Chinese Malaysians should go back first to where they belong as they were the “old guests” in the country. Zakir had also publicly questioned the patriotism of ethnic Indians in Malaysia by suggesting they might be more loyal to India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad at first responded by chiding Zakir for getting involved in politics in our country, which as a “guest” he has no business being involved in.

Zakir’s controversial statements prompted calls for him to be deported from Malaysia. The young Youth and Sports Minister, Syed Saddiq Syed Abdul Rahman, joined several of his cabinet colleagues and called for Zakir’s deportation.

That news was reported on 14 August, but somehow 10 days later, another news item appeared: this time, Syed Saddiq urged Malaysians to forgive Zakir for his mistakes, saying it was time to move on.

The minister’s turnaround was probably motivated by the desire not to lose support among Malay-Muslim voters. This suggests that, as controversial and divisive as Zakir may be, he wields significant influence among the Islamic community.

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Now imagine if ethno-religious sentiments were a low priority with minimal traction. Imagine also if society was more focused on righting fundamental wrongs such as promoting justice and equality and reducing poverty for all, irrespective of ethnicity or religion. Chances are, Malaysians would reject chauvinism, racism and bigotry outright.

Pakatan Harapan as the ruling coalition must lead the way with this counter-narrative. The prime minister-in-waiting, Anwar Ibrahim, at a dialogue in Singapore on 19 September, bravely announced that Malaysia need to abolish race-based economic policies and replace them with needs-based policies.

Anwar said it was important to create policies that would tackle inequality. This, he pointed out, would be difficult and radical, with an expected pushback from the majority bumiputera community. But he remained optimistic that reason would prevail.

Only time will tell if Anwar will push forward with this reform agenda to tackle basic issues such as poverty, inequality, slipping educational standards and socioeconomic injustice.

But Pakatan should not and need not wait for Anwar to be PM. Show us concerned moderate Malaysians, who believe in an inclusive and harmonious multicultural and multi-religious society, you that have designed policies to meet this goal.

Don’t throw away the opportunity sparked by the change in government on 9 May 2018 to create a truly Malaysia Baru.


Henry Loh
Co-editor, Aliran newsletter
26 September 2019
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