Whither neo-feudalism?

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Melayu memang mudah lupa? Election results show that the bold trend among young Malay voters demonstrates a break from the neo-feudal mindset of hutang budi that once gripped the Malay community, says Azmil Tayeb.

Mudah lupa? - Photograph: Malaysiakini
No more hutang budi – Photograph: Malaysiakini

As we walked back to his car amidst the snarled traffic, fluttering party flags and ear-splitting vuvuzelas, a festive atmosphere brought on by the massive 120,000-strong Suara Rakyat Suara Keramat (People’s Voice, Sacred Voice) post-election rally in Stadium Kelana Jaya, my friend lamented: “I wish that my dad were still alive, so he could have helped my mom to make the right decision.”

What he meant was that his late father used to print online news articles and blog posts, along with taking out a subscription to Harakah, Pas’ newspaper, to show his mom that there are other sources of information besides the pro-government mainstream media. Now that his father has passed away his mom has gone back to getting her information from Utusan Malaysia and TV3, and ended up voting for the Umno candidates in the recent election.

My friend’s parents live in the rural Pendang parliamentary district in the state of Kedah, where Mohamad “Mat” Sabu, one of Pas’ moderate leaders, was closely defeated. This seems to jive with the general consensus that there is a wide urban-rural divide, which characterises the current Malaysian political landscape. But is this so-called dichotomy that simple?

A closer look at the election results shows that the fault line is not clearly demarcated between the pro-status quo rural people and the pro-reform urban people.

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Firstly, the trend among the young Malay voters tends to favour the opposition, even in the rural areas. The information gap that afflicts my friend’s mom and other older rural folks seems to be less of an issue for the young rural voters. It will take more time to pinpoint the exact reasons for this discrepancy but it is safe to assume for now that availability of affordable smartphones does play a part in allowing the young rural people to connect with the wider world, especially through Facebook.

While having internet connectivity does not necessarily transform one into a sophisticated consumer of information it does offer a relatively free space for wide-ranging views should one chooses to partake, an option certainly not available in the mainstream media. Coupled with PR’s dominance in the cyberspace, the wired generation, rural and urban alike, is more likely to be amenable to the Ubah! (change) agenda of the opposition.

Secondly, while the geographical divide might seem clear at the parliamentary level, a perfunctory scan of the seat distribution at the state level reveals that the opposition has made major inroads compared to the 2008 results, especially in rural areas and seats that are considered as BN strongholds. This shows that spending on election-related candies such as BR1M and various rural development projects, totalling up to RM57.7bn, did not achieve the results that the BN government had fully hoped for, putting to rest the claim that the rural votes can be easily bought off with just a few hundred ringgit and a newly paved road.

Still, it is premature to say that promises of development projects and cash handouts no longer hold any traction among the rural communities but the trend is assuredly pointing to that direction, especially in the peninsular Malaysia. The fact is, if not for blatant gerrymandering, PR would have snatched at least one more state government (Perak) by virtue of having more popular votes, and not to say, the federal government as well.

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What this trend signifies is a slow break from the neo-feudal mindset that has gripped the Malay community, especially in the rural areas, for decades. It is the decline of the patronage system which sees Umno politicians as feudal lords dispensing favours for their local communities i.e. fiefdoms, in return for the people’s support to keep them in power.

In addition to the material logic, there is also an emotional appeal to this neo-feudal system. The concept of hutang budi (gratefulness) is deeply ingrained within the Malay psyche, which in essence means that any favour done on a person’s behalf must never be forgotten and will be repaid in kind at some point in the future.

One major narrative weaved into this notion of hutang budi is the national myth that without Umno, Malaysia would have never attained her independence from the British. As the reasoning goes, every Malay person has the moral obligation to support Umno as a sign of gratefulness for liberating them from the yoke of colonialism.

In the post-independence years, the narrative has been expanded to portray Umno as not only the sole defender of the Malay community from the evil British but also from the threats posed by non-Malays, namely the Chinese. Thus, for decades the Malay people were told that the only way to balas budi (repay the favour) is to unquestionably support Umno.

It seems like the young Malay generation in general feels less obliged to show its gratefulness for all Umno has achieved over the years, unlike the previous generation that came of age in an era when race relations were extremely tenuous. The further removed a Malay person is from the early years of Malaysi,a the less gratefulness he or she will likely hold for Umno.

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It comes as no surprise then that the Umno-dominated government decided to screen the racist film ‘Tanda Putera’ in some university campuses and Felda communities as a timely reminder of Umno leaders’ ‘heroic acts’ to protect the Malay community from the ‘rampaging Chinese mobs’, purportedly led by DAP leader, Lim Kit Siang (he was not even in the peninsula), during the May 13, 1969 riots. As the former Prime Minister, Mahathir Mohamad, is fond to say, Melayu mudah lupa (Malays forget easily).

And the young Malays do forget easily, at least when it comes to showing their gratitude for Umno’s ‘good deeds’ in the past, much to Mahathir’s dismay. It is a trend that started in the 2008 election and continued to the 2013 election with nary a sign of slackening.

As more and more young Malays lose the emotional link with Umno, the party is left with a fast dwindling, aging rural base. It does not help Umno that the Malaysian population in general is getting younger and more urbanised.

The question then is how will Umno respond to the changing dynamics within the Malay community, not to add, the challenges presented by the non-Malays, especially the Chinese, who are now solidly in the opposition camp.

Umno leaders are taking the party further off course by blaming the election results on the “Chinese tsunami” and calling the Chinese ungrateful for supporting the opposition. This us-versus-them, racialist rhetoric no longer has any real resonance within the Malay community, especially with the young generation.

People will be waiting with bated breath for the outcome of the upcoming Umno annual general meeting as its leaders decide which direction to take, for the choice can either be toward a more unified and tolerant Malaysia or permanent irrelevancy in the dustbin of history.

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