Sunday, May 14, 2006

Is Race-Based Politics Still Needed In Malaysia?

Not many countries practice the unique race-based system of power-sharing that we have in Malaysia. Unlikely coalitions are there all over the world but most are artificial marriages of disparate ideologies united in the common aim of attaining or remaining in power.

The Malaysian system or at least the Barisan Nasional(BN) formula of power-sharing was created for the long haul and not as a device for tinkering with the political situation prevailing then. It succeeded remarkably in uniting the leaders of the component parties and although very much Malay-controlled and dominated it gave a strong and credible 'voice' to the non-Malay minority partners. This ushered in a period of relative peace and consequent stability.

Now the question arises whether this coalition has outlived it's usefulness. Should it be replaced with a more 'relevant to the times' model? While none of the minority coalition leaders are openly saying anything to this effect, popular opinion is that they have had enough of the implementation of unjust policies as well as the public posturing of the Malay leadership on issues ranging from religion, race, education, recruitment and promotions in the civil service including the police and the armed forces, the tiresome repetition of the 30% corporate share and the annual jingoistic diatribe at every UMNO general assembly. The open letter by the non-Muslim cabinet ministers to the Prime Minister recently is one subtle indication of their discomfort.

Any discussion on this subject must take into account the very real dichotomy of the country in terms of opinion on every issue that can be raised. Even the most civilized discussion on this subject will ultimately gravitate to an 'us' versus 'them' standpoint. Of greater danger to any suggestion of changes to the status quo are the champions of race and language on both sides. Let us not be fooled. When an emotional appeal is made by these rabid chauvinists in a way only they can, people do listen. If they come into the equation things then get messy and the whole subject is hijacked to fit the agenda of these cultural extremists.

The most important and I would think crucial requirement for any change to the current race-based political system is a genuine understanding of the prevailing political climate, the near-total polarisation of our society, why this is happening and who is responsible for it. Sometimes the truth can stare at your face and you can be either blissfully unaware of or choose to ignore it. As much as the BN formula has been a panacea of sorts in the past it is now turning into a bane. An idea that has worked well before need not necessarily be beneficial now. On the contrary it can even cause more harm despite the good intentions all-round. In short there has to be a recognition of the problem and the political will to rectify it.

All this doesn't mean that we are going to be plunged into a state of anarchy the day after tomorrow. We are not nearly there yet. However to acknowledge now that things are slowly getting out of 'synch' is wiser and safer than being blinkered and getting caught on the wrong foot later. I'm not suggesting that we 'dismantle' the BN today but opining that the time is right to improve and adapt. All creatures adapt. So must the political animal.


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