Friday, March 07, 2008

Malaysia's Elusive Dream Of Color-Blind Politics

They're All The Same

Born out of the "Reformasi" (Reform) movement in the 1990s, the political party of Malaysia's Anwar Ibrahim vows to break away from race-based politics that has long dogged the country.

But multi-racial Parti Keadilan is struggling to unite a fundamentalist Islamist party and a secular Chinese one to form a credible front to challenge the ruling coalition.

In a country where race-based politics is well-entrenched and mistrust among opposition groups runs deep, Keadilan's push for color-blind politics may remain just a dream.

In Anwar's political base in the northern town of Permatang Pauh, locals see the opposition parties as strange bedfellows because of their vastly different ideologies.

"The Islamic party cannot be trusted," said Chan Kok Heng, a 50-year old ethnic Chinese auto mechanic in Permatang Pauh, a semi-rural enclave in Penang state.

"They are sweet talkers, but once they turn around, they can change their tune," he said as he worked on a beat-up red 1970's Toyota in a wooden garage.

Ten years after touting an alliance capable of toppling the ruling coalition, Malaysia's opposition parties head to March 8 polls divided, with dim hopes of forming a union.

Together, Keadilan, the hardline Parti Islam se-Malaysia (PAS) and the mainly Chinese Democratic Action Party (DAP) had only 19 of the total 219 seats in the last parliament.

A fragmented opposition force for the past 50 years has meant minimal checks on the ruling coalition, which holds sway over the media and parliament. Recently, a videoclip allegedly showing a lawyer brokering the appointment of judges has raised questions about the independence of Malaysia's judiciary.

Anwar said Keadilan is working separately with DAP and PAS despite the absence of a formal pact. "The only difference is that the three of us cannot be together -- for now," he said in a recent interview.


The prospect of a strong opposition alliance that can rival Barisan Nasional looks dim for now.

Keadilan has found it tough to bridge the yawning gulf between PAS and DAP's ideologies and broaden their appeal beyond a select group of followers.

Many Malaysians, especially non-Muslims, still view PAS suspiciously. Seen as a fire-and-brimstone clique of bearded clerics in flowing robes, PAS's advocacy of sharia law to punish Muslims with amputation and stoning has won it only a small group of supporters.

An earlier partnership between the three -- a loose coalition known as Barisan Alternatif -- foundered in 1999 when PAS's pledge to form an Islamic state frightened the Chinese.

Keadilan was seen as the best bet to unite PAS and DAP. Apart from being multi-ethnic, it is led by Anwar who has a sizeable following among ethnic Malay voters but is seen as inclusive enough to draw minority ethnic Chinese and Indians.

But Keadilan's strategy of trying to straddle the spiritual and the secular to achieve broad-based appeal has had limited success. "Because the politics of this country is basically ethnic politics, Keadilan becomes less appealing to the Malay crowd because of its relationship with DAP," said political sociologist Rustam Abdullah Sani.

"And then it becomes less appealing to the non-Malay side because of its relations with PAS."

The upcoming polls could be make or break time for Keadilan which has seen its support wane after winning five parliamentary seats in 1999, the year it was formed.

It has only one parliamentary seat now and there are fears that its appeal was largely founded on sympathy for former deputy premier Anwar whose sacking in 1998 turned huge swathes of ethnic Malay voters against Barisan Nasional.

But some say the tide of support could turn in favor of the opposition in this month's polls, due to voter discontent about the rising cost of living and racial and religious discord.

"If they can win substantially, they will have to work out some kind of structured united front," said political columnist Zainon Ahmad.

"I think especially in urban areas, Chinese and Indian areas, there is going to be a change in favor of the opposition. (Reuters)

***** The sad truth is that most Malaysians are mired in racial prejudice. Perhaps due to the racist divide-and-rule policies of the government or the diversity of the ethnic groups here or both, Malaysians generally have 'self-compartmentalised' themselves and practise a self-imposed segregation where they have no time for or feel comfortable with fellow human beings of a different race.

Our separate school systems sadly instill and repeatedly reinforce age-old, traditional, unfounded prejudices from a tender age and by the time a child reaches adulthood the racist mentality is well ingrained.

In many ways we are a nation of psychologically stunted individuals and it would take decades of 're-tuning' before we as a nation find non-racial politics and governance palatable and acceptable. Until then be prepared for more of the same from BN or the opposition.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Malaysian policitcs is very ethnocentric and only attracts politician who have done nothing but exploit that to meet their objective of making as much money as possible. The opposition has no track record to prove but it has the same flavour of racial politics. So what do Malaysian do ..given the choice the between the devil and deep blue sea? In this stage of Malaysian politics, it is extremely important we vote a strong opposition, irrespective of their colour or creed or their party vision(if they one at all) is our only way to ensure there is some check and balance in a system, that if left unchecked will only continue to rot.

9:35 PM GMT+8  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The govt keeps saying that we are multi-racial and living in harmony. In reality, although there is no open hostility, none of the races mix socially. why can't we just be Malaysians, whatever our race??

Do you know why not?

Because the BN govt has racist policies and the leaders are racists. And you are right. Our children may be pure but as they go though the schooling system and watch the unfair going-ons and face the racist discrimination promoted by the BN govt, the children themselves become bigots and racists. The cycle then repeats.

1:48 AM GMT+8  

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