New government, same problems


I TOOK a break from writing this column because I was preoccupied with the impending birth of my first child and completing my master’s degree in law.

After almost 100 days in government, a recent survey by several media outlets tells a story of a very mixed and confused reaction to the performance of the unity government.

To sum it up, the non-Malays are pleased, while the Malays are unhappy.

This binary approach to politics forms the very fabric of Malaysian life. Race is a factor that we cannot escape. Subconsciously, we are guilty of it in our way.

During the recent Kuala Lumpur Bar election, I remarked to a fellow lawyer that no Malay lawyer was in one of the “teams” campaigning to be elected. I immediately corrected myself and realised that I, too, was racially looking at things.

But race is not just a Malaysian problem. In America, the woke movement has propelled race to the forefront of their national debate so much so everyone can have their own “truths” – meaning, you can believe what you want to be the truth. Conversely, those opposing you can have their version of the truth. So you can have two or maybe three “truths” on one particular proposition. Some call this the post-truth era.

In Europe, right-wing political consolidation is resulting in more anti-immigrant governments. Many Europeans feel immigration has changed demographics, and there is general resentment that Europe is not as white as it used to be.

In India, pro-Hindu nationalists are taking very strident stands against Muslims. Cow slaughter is now banned in most states even though not too long ago, India was one of the largest exporters of beef in the world.

So, globally, race and religion remain vexing issues.

Back in Malaysia, the election has thrown up some serious questions. A majority of the Malays/Muslims voted for Perikatan Nasional, and a majority of the non-Malays/Muslims voted for Pakatan Harapan.

Barisan Nasional was relegated to third place, while Sabahans and Sarawakians mainly voted for their local parties.

By some accounts, Perikatan got over 50% of the Malay vote, with the lion’s share coming from four northern states, Perak and Pahang. Pakatan did well in its usual urban centres and emerged as the largest bloc. Johor and Negri Sembilan saved Barisan.

Given that we have an almost exclusive Malay/Muslim opposition confronting an ethnically balanced government – more narratives and polemics will take an ethno-religious line.

PAS president Tan Sri Abdul Hadi Awang has drawn the battle lines with the Unity Government by claiming it is on mushy ground.

Hadi told Parliament that “(the government’s) roof is leaking. Their doors are wide open, and their walls have holes.”

Hadi also actively purveyed the theory that more non-Malays/Muslims voted compared to Malay/Muslims; hence, Perikatan did not form a government on its own.

“Non-Muslim turnout was 98% while Muslim turnout was only 68%. This is worrying,” said Hadi.

However, independent researcher Dr Briget Welsh has disputed Hadi’s figures on voter turnout given our voter demographics.

Nuances matter less in politics these days because platitudes and invective win votes. Empirical studies on electoral trends have given way to incendiary beliefs. Malaysia, too, is confronting the age of post-truth politics.

In trying to understand this Malay/Muslim reticence toward this new government, I undertook some research. Still, I qualify by saying it is not empirical but predicated on raw feedback I obtained.

When asked why many voted for Perikatan, the answer I got is that the vote was mainly for PAS because there is a feeling that other Malay parties failed to champion Malay interests.

Of course, this is a very general assumption because Umno, for all its fault, is solely responsible for creating the Malay middle class but is now being bitten by the excess of its wealth distribution policy.

Second, the distrust of DAP and other non-Malay/Muslim political parties stems not from a general fear of loss of political support but more because they feel these parties are insolent and do not respect the special position of the Malays and Islam.

Third, Perikatan is refreshing even though the most tumultuous tenure of the last Parliamentary term was under the leadership of Perikatan.

So, as I said, nuances matter less to the Perikatan voter. It is more about finally having a viable political force that effectively articulates both their hopes and insecurities.

This begs the question, how does the Unity Government overcome the same problems of ethnoreligious balancing that have confronted almost every government before it?

With anaemic Malay support, the Unity Government will continue to pull out all the stops to appease the Malay/Muslim electorate. But given the recent surveys, this outreach is not working.

But we must have the courage to ask the more important political questions – do “neutral” policies such as good governance, equal wealth distribution, and better economic opportunities matter less to all Malaysians?

I believe the answer is a resounding no.

It is undisputed that all Malaysians want a better Malaysia.

So this is where the Unity Government must learn from the reactionary ways of the Pakatan Harapan government in 2018.

On the back of the perceived erosion of Malay support after a string of by-election losses, Bersatu pulled the plug on Pakatan, and we had three PMs in three years. The common denominator then and now is PAS, but the only difference between 2018 and 2020 was PAS was with Umno then; now, it is with Bersatu.

Also, as the unity government confronts sustained agitation from Perikatan led by Hadi, it will be tested in the coming state elections.

But what Malaysia needs is a great reset, and because of the broad representation of the unity government, it can achieve much more if it exhibits courage and wherewithal.

However, politics is rarely about long-term plans these days.

In the coming months, the resolve of this government will be tested as it attempts to win over its detractors. But a new government confronts the same problems; it will have a unique opportunity to show it has a new way of dealing with them, which will determine its longevity.

Source: New government, same problems-TheStar

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