Mustafa K Anuar speaks to a range of analysts to uncover what is driving the politics of race and religion.
The politicisation of race and religion has escalated in recent times, undermining certain institutional and social reforms that concerned Malaysians, including academics and social activists, have been pushing for.
Academics and social activists pointed to the informal alliance between one-time foes Umno and Pas as an example, as fears mount that the politics of race and religion has come to rear its ugly head in a big way.
Political science academic at Universiti Sains Malaysia Azmil Tayeb is concerned about this political tie-up because he feels that the “unholy alliance” currently taking place between Umno and Pas exclusively focuses on divisive ethno-religious issues. This, he said, “only worsens the current toxic political environment we are in.
“We can already see the effects of this strategy with the gap between Muslims and non-Muslims getting bigger, hardening the siege among many Malays that their religion and ethnic group are under attack by the non-Malays.
“There is an all-around climate of fear and intimidation as one’s words can be arbitrarily construed as an insult to religion and monarchy.”
Perlis mufti Mohd Asri Zainul Abidin has been in the news recently with allegations that Muslims are being bullied under Pakatan Harapan (PH).
He drew from examples of the arrest of Muhammad Zamri Vinoth Kalimuthu, an aide of controversial Muslim preacher Zakir Naik, over his remarks allegedly insulting Hinduism and of insults against Prophet Muhammad by certain individuals in social media.
Asri gained support from Malay-Muslim-based Umno Youth, which echoed his concern of Islam purportedly not being safe under PH.
In sync with such professed concern for Islam was the rally on Saturday to give voice to the Malays’ so-called “growing sense of fear and isolation”.
The rally allegedly was meant to cover a whole gamut of issues ranging from the Rome Statute and the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination and the United Examination Certificate to threats against the sovereignty of Islam.
Against this backdrop, Azmil said PH cannot play a similar game as the previous Umno-Barisan Nasional government. “It cannot kowtow to these ultra-conservative ethno-religious groups and allow itself to be cowed into appeasement.
“To change the political narrative from divisive ethno-religious to a more inclusive and tolerant one, the leaders in PH needs to have the political will and courage to do so.”
On the siege mentality that is purportedly haunting the Malays, Azmil said it can be arrested if the government addressed their economic concerns – especially among the bottom 40% of households – which he thinks is the root cause of their insecurity.
“They look to ethno-religious factors to explain their predicament, instead of the real root causes and, in turn, vent out their frustrations through ethno-religious issues and come up with bogeymen which they can pin the blame on,” Azmil said.
“Economic empowerment that alleviates hardship among needy people, not just Malays, can counter the toxic ethno-religious narrative currently seen at play.”
Universiti Malaya research fellow Por Heong Hong, however, believes that Malaysia has a long history of politicians, from both sides of the divide, racialising public issues and policies.
Of the international convention to end racial discrimination and the Rome Statute, she said PH’s non-ratification of these treaties is akin to maintaining the status quo.
Worse, she added, “turning both treaties down to appease right-wing Malay groups is perceived by many, especially those who voted in PH for reform, as too reconciliatory to the Malay supremacists.”
She shared Azmil’s view that although the siege mentality might have been a result of fear-mongering tactics by the right-wing Malay groups, the everyday bread-and-butter issues that many urban and rural people face are real. “If these issues are not effectively addressed, they can be easily racialised by the right-wing groups.
“For example, addressing the issues facing fishermen and many others whose livelihoods will be greatly affected by the Penang reclamation project; [the] low-wage issue and workers’ welfare that cut across all racial groups etc.”
Institute of Southeast Asian Studies senior fellow Lee Hwok-Aun cautioned that Malays should not be perceived as mere pawns manipulated by a political establishment to feel insecure, weak and angry.
“We must also stop subscribing to the popular view that pro-Malay socio-economic policies only benefit ‘the elite’ – who rile up the masses to support the programmes – and, therefore, can be taken away with minimal impact on the masses,” Lee said.
“The fact is, the system disburses opportunity extensively, but it has not sufficiently imbued capability, competitiveness and confidence, so people do worry at the prospect of special access being removed. These anxieties should be acknowledged.”
He said PH’s general election win last year has stirred expectations among non-Malays for more access to socio-economic opportunities, especially education.
The underlying sentiments and sense of grievance at being relatively excluded are valid and understandable – and should be acknowledged and not dismissed. “As much as possible, we should integrate more needs-based access and financial assistance in education – regardless of ethnicity.”
Echoing similar concerns about the race-religion couplet, Khoo Ying Hooi contends that “this has been long a significant feature of our national politics and it is rather unfortunate that the new government has not been able to change the narrative”.
The deputy head of Universiti Malaya’s Department of International and Strategic Studies said this is highly unhealthy, given that “we are undergoing the democratic transition”.
On the Umno-Pas alliance, Zaharom Nain said it is an alliance born of desperation, of wanting to reclaim lost power for Umno and a hunger for more power by Pas. This political strategy, the professor at the University of Nottingham in Malaysia said, is divisive as they work towards marginalising various communities and citizens in the country.
A lecturer at a private university who declined to be identified, said: “I think we are seeing the return of bad old habits eg using the zero-sum rhetoric to win votes rather than moving forward to a more progressive politics that sees ‘Bangsa Malaysia’ as its starting point.
“More importantly, it may disincentivise the powers that be to make progress in deepening democracy and giving priority to human rights in favour of garnering votes based on ethnic constituencies.”