It is not easy for the Pakatan Harapan government to dispel the fears and insecurities of the various ethnic groups, writes Daniele Speziale.
It was a bit of a fortunate coincidence that I got to visit Malaysia both in the summer of 2018 and of 2019.
On 29 May 2018, right after I left the Kuala Lumpur International Airport on the way to Kuala Lumpur, the taxi driver, an ethnic Chinese middle-aged man, asked me: “Do you know what recently happened?”
Yes, I answered, regime change had just taken place, and I had been following the event with the help of my many Malaysian friends, Malaysian school teachers and my Malaysian family.
The driver enthusiastically chatted with me about the election and the fate of ousted Prime Minister Najib Razak. He spoke about his own hopes for “Malaysia Baru”.
The atmosphere all around me then was joyful, excited, optimistic – adding to the relief felt over the just-abolished Goods and Services Tax.
Fast-forward to August 2019, when I returned both for a death anniversary function in my family and for a two-month research internship with a local university.
The enthusiasm of 2018 had been replaced by widespread apathy and disillusionment. The most recent debates were whether to introduce khat in schools and what to do with Zakir Naik after his controversial speech.
It was just over one year into “Malaysia Baru” and one year to go to the Vision 2020 goal of achieving a united “Bangsa Malaysia”. Yet it was the usual discourse of race-versus-race, of majorities and minorities, of various types of supremacy.
Through qualitative interviews, I set out to explore the perspectives of local people, to try and understand. Did the advent of Malaysia Baru actually bring a change in ethnic politics? Why is the government struggling to tackle ethnic issues?
Here are some extracts from interviews with politicians, activists and teachers and some of my findings and thoughts. All interviews took place in Penang.
New government, old fears
The interviews would always start with general questions relating to the level of satisfaction with the new government and whether inter-ethnic tensions had improved or worsened.
Of 23 respondents, 18 argued that tensions have either got higher or are as high as usual; and half of them expressed some sort of dissatisfaction with the government.
It was possible to delve deeper into people’s perspectives, however, by asking them about specific issues. For the interviews, I decided to enquire about three controversial events that related to ethnicity: the non-ratification of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, the proposal to introduce khat and Zakir Naik’s preachings.
The results can be summarised this way. It may be “New Malaysia”, but old patterns persist of minorities being constantly alert to not being taken over by the Malays. Malays, on the other hand, are constantly afraid that their privileges, rights and position might be taken away.
A school teacher, when asked about the international convention said: “It (the rejection of the convention) is related to why we rejected the Malayan Union in the first place. If Malaysia is not for Malays, where should they go? Chinese have China and Indians have India, but Malays have been here since God-knows-when.
“Malays are well known for being tolerant. Islam itself promotes tolerance. But we are afraid that once we give an inch, they (minorities) will want a yard.”
Similarly, an Umno activist said that, since the change of government, “they have tried to reduce hak Melayu (Malay rights), slowly”.
As for fears among the Chinese Malaysian community, an ethnic Chinese PKR politician said, when asked about khat: “People angry already reached to irrational. Anything that you’re not familiar with, you think it’s another group of people want to impose something on you, so they (minorities) feel khat is Islamisation; they feel that their children will be converted.
“When people get scared, you cannot reason. It’s a ‘you-are-with-me-or-against-me’ mentality; it’s do or die. Once they let khat into Chinese schools, they think the school won’t be Chinese anymore.”
That Malaysians show such deep-seated fears of “the Other” presents a challenging dilemma to the ruling coalition: it is an ‘electoral minesweeper’: any decision taken in favour of the Malays risks an ‘explosion’ of outrage from other communities while, vice versa, a decision taken in favour of other communities risks angering the Malays.
If before elections, Malaysians found a sense of unity in diversity in the Bersih rallies, supported by Mahathir himself, it is now way harder for the new government to represent all of Malaysia’s societal and ethnic interests.
The coexistence within the coalition of parties as diverse as Bersatu and the DAP, each appealing to different groups, gave to many respondents the idea of a divided government. Interviewees would argue that the coalition often does not have a single stance on an issue, does not act cohesively and is late and weak in denouncing racism.
Five respondents who argued that tensions have been getting stronger blamed Umno and Pas for what some of them called “mainkan isu”, ie manipulating ethnic issues to their own advantage.
It is arguably an easier game for Muafakat Nasional: while Pakatan Harapan must reflect so many different points of view, the Umno-Pas alliance has one single target group to mobilise, the Malays.
The interviews would always end with questions relating to Malaysia’s future and whether the Bangsa Malaysia ideal could be achieved.
Ten respondents were optimistic about it, others had mixed feelings, but four respondents rejected the concept entirely.
A member of the Socialist Party of Malaysia noted, “For the non-Malays, these slogans (Satu Malaysia and Bangsa Malaysia) are meaningless because they see a different treatment of races. As such they cannot imagine unity.
“And for the Malays, unity can also be meaningless because they are afraid the little protection they have, their special rights will be taken away.”
This point was confirmed by an Umno-affiliated activist, who said, “Bangsa Malaysia is the part where they shut the Malays out of the Constitution.”
He and another Umno respondent also said that “ketuanan Melayu” is in danger under the current government. Six Malays said that ketuanan Melayu is a fundamental part of Malaysian politics, and only two Malay teachers argued that Malaysia could do away with bumiputera privileges.
For a government that initially promoted values such as those found in the international convention against racial discrimination, it is difficult to maintain support from all ethnic groups in a scenario where ethno-religious issues remain for politicians a ready-made carrot on a stick to easily mobilise voters.
If Malaysia is to achieve unity and end ethnic tensions, it would need great effort by progressive politicians and NGOs ie those people who can promote needs-based and class-based politics rather than the old ethno-religious politics.
Daniel Speziale, originally from the small Italian town of Savona, is a political science student at Leiden University in the Netherlands. In 2015-2016 he lived in Kulim and studied in the nearby Penanti Secondary School in mainland Penang. Apart from Italian and English, Daniel – who is passionate about languages, the arts and history – can speak Malay, Mandarin and Tamil.