Categorised | Columns

The Malaysian Obama

(Obama image public domain; Abdullah image © Wan Leonard)

COMMENTING on Barack Obama’s presidential victory, Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi assured Malaysians that anyone can become prime minister of the country. But one wonders if anyone actually believes him.

Just two time-zone-adjusted days before Obama’s election, the New Straits Times‘s Syed Nadzri reminded us that our sixth, seventh and eighth prime ministers could incidentally be the sons of the second, third and fourth prime ministers, respectively. You can’t rule out that possibility if Umno wins the 13th general election.

In other words, in an Umno-ruled Malaysia, there is not even a question of whether any non-Umno Malay Malaysian could have the chance of becoming prime minister. And for now just forget about non-Malay Malaysians, the functional equivalent of African Americans.

The question now is, can any Umno member whose father, father-in-law or uncle was not prime minister become the premier?

Legal and non-legal obstacles

Is there any obstacle in the country’s or the party’s constitution that bars a non-prime minister’s son from becoming prime minister? Of course not.

Similarly, the question of whether we can have a non-Malay Malaysian prime minister is not a legal but political one.

As we all learned after 8 March, the legal obstacle on ethno-religious grounds does occur for the office of menteri besar in the Malay states. One can therefore see the federation as a more inclusive entity than some of the Malay states.

The political obstacles can be analysed from three dimensions: the executive electoral system, the extra-constitutional challenge, and the social cleavage.

Trevor Phillips (Source:
First obstacle: Indirect election

Some think it is easier for an ethnic minority candidate to win the office of chief executive in a presidential system, like in the US. It would be more difficult in a parliamentary system, like in the UK and Malaysia.

For example, UK Equality and Human Rights Commission Chairperson Trevor Phillips made an interesting observation about what Obama’s chances would be like in the UK. Apparently, someone as brilliant as Obama would be unlikely to “break through the institutional stranglehold that there is on power within the Labour Party.”

By constitutional logic, a presidential system maximises separation of powers by having separate elections for the chief executive (president) and the legislators (senators, representatives). Technically, a presidential candidate only needs a slight majority — in some cases a mere plurality — to win the election. If the candidate first needs to win the nomination from a major party, then he or she would similarly need only a slight majority from party members or delegates.  

Assuming a two-party system, as with the US and some Latin American presidential democracies, the support needed from the electorate for a candidate’s entry to the highest office can be as low as 25%.

Obama won only 48.1% of the popular vote in the Democratic primary, which translated into 53.6% of the delegates’ vote. He went on to win 52.5% of the popular vote, which translated into 67.7% of the electoral college vote.

Fujimori (© Roberto Ribeiro)
And Obama was not the first ethnic minority who has ever won an executive presidential office. Ethnic Japanese Alberto Fujimori won the Peruvian presidential elections in 1990, and ethnic Hungarian Nicolas Sarkozy assumed the French presidency in 2007. France is a semi-presidential system, but the above logic still applies.

In contrast, a candidate would need to first win a parliamentary constituency and then win the support of fellow parliamentarians before becoming prime minister in a parliamentary democracy.

In a parliamentary system, it does not matter whether the party leader’s position is formally elected by members, delegates or parliamentarians. Take this first scenario: a prime minister needs the support of parliamentary colleagues to form a cabinet and can be toppled by a no-confidence vote. And then take this second scenario: a president can appoint anyone to his or her cabinet and is not so easily impeached by Congress. Clearly, the prime minister needs more collegial support compared with the president to strengthen his or her position.

Manmohan Singh (Public domain)
Hence, if there is institutional racism amongst the party elites, it would be harder for a capable ethnic-minority politician to move upward in a parliamentary system. Because of this, an ethnic minority prime minister like India’s Manmohan Singh should have raised more eyebrows than Obama, at least for citizens of Asian and Commonwealth countries.

Mind you, based on the size of its population, India is the world’s largest democracy. The US is only the most powerful one. And India’s ethnic problems are certainly no less complex than those the US confronts.

Just 22 years ago, one of India’s most powerful prime ministers, Indira Gandhi, was killed by her two Sikh bodyguards after her bloody crackdown on Sikh militants. (Gandhi’s daughter-in-law still controls the ruling Congress Party.) In 2004, however, the Congress Party had no qualms in appointing a Sikh to run the country. Neither did the largest opposition party, the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), protest that the Congress Party had sold out the Hindus.

Indira Gandhi (Public domain)
Now, if an African American had assassinated a US president in the past, could Obama have stood a chance to win the election? During the recent presidential campaign, Obama was already troubled by the “radical” views of his black pastor, Jeremiah Wright.

Second obstacle:  The extra-constitutional challenge

Elections are but a part of the bigger picture. You may get elected to the highest office but you may not last long. For Obama, the threat of assassination is real. But he does not need to worry about a hostile police force or civil service sabotaging his administration. He need not even worry about a coup by a hostile military — the most integrated institution in the US, as a matter of fact.

Fiji’s first ever ethnic Indian Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry was not so lucky. His Fijian Labour Party won 37 seats in the 71-seat parliament in 1999 and led a multiethnic cabinet, with 11 out of 18 ministers being ethnic Fijians. However, his government was overthrown in a coup led by a corrupt, bankrupt businessperson proclaiming to champion ethnic Fijians, who was later supported by a faction of the military.

Mahendra Chaudhry (© Michael Field)
The sustainable presence of an ethnic-minority chief executive therefore hinges on the de-ethnicisation of unelected institutions such as the military, police force and civil service. If vital institutions like the military see themselves as ethnic champions, no Obama can rule well whether the system is presidential or parliamentary.

Third obstacle: Social cleavages

However, whether an ethnic-minority politician can win office and survive depends much on how social cleavages translate into party competition.

If either the Republicans or the Democrats saw themselves as exclusive representatives of the whites, it is unlikely the election campaign could have been fought with such limited ethnic messaging.

And back to India — what has prevented Congress or BJP politicians from making a big fuss over Manmohan’s faith?

The answer may lie in the founding ideals of the US and India — their “social contract” if you like.

While many of the US founding leaders were slave-owners, their Declaration of Independence states: “[A]ll men are created equal”(though not all persons), instead of “All white men are created equal.”

India was similarly intended to be a multiethnic and secular state, not a Hindu equivalent of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan.

India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal
Nehru (Public domain)
In other words, citizenship in America and India is based on equality and inclusiveness. The seeds of Obama’s and Manmohan’s rise were planted therefore in the likes of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Mahatma Gandhi, and Jawaharlal Nehru.

In this sense, whether Malaysia can have an Obama, or more relevantly a Manmohan, is a false topic for debate. Let’s talk about equal opportunities in citizenship first before the equal opportunity for premiership. After all, if we are all treated equally as citizens, does it matter what our prime minister’s skin colour or faith is?

It’s time to dream, not of our own Obama, but along the lines of Martin Luther King Jr‘s dream.

A political scientist by training and a journalism lecturer by trade, Wong Chin Huat uses the Federal Constitution as his “bible” to fend off the increasingly intolerable evil called “state”.

See also US-Malaysia political parallels

Post to Twitter Post to Google Buzz Post to Delicious Post to Digg Post to Facebook Post to StumbleUpon

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

4 Responses to “The Malaysian Obama”

  1. Melissa says:

    Brilliantly captured and well-researched. Everyone is so (understandably) caught up in the charming minority story of Obama, but failure to see the underlying system that makes America the country that it is (both good and bad) will mean that we can never ever hope to replicate that, or rather, India’s political climate, in our fair country. It has to start with recognising all Malaysians as equal citizens and that bone-deep fear of one race conquering the others has to END. Why not accept that we each have our strengths and that it complements each other? Gosh, I’ve understood that since I was in kindergarten!

    We must learn to focus on the Big Picture if we’re ever going to be a modern civilised country.

  2. NH says:

    “And for now just forget about non-Malay Malaysians, the functional equivalent of African Americans.”

    While the systemic and constitutional factors are indeed relevant, I do not agree that non-Malay Malaysians are fair equivalents to African Americans. The differences are so glaring that they cannot be glossed over so easily.

    Non-Malay Malaysians make up for about 40% of the total population, African Americans 12% of the total American population. By and large, non-Malay Malaysians form an economically powerful and educated lot, significantly more affluent than the majority group in Malaysia versus African American being, by and large, the least affluent in America, even more marginalized economically than the Hispanic Americans.

    Non-Malay Malaysians are mostly non-Muslim while Islam is the predominant religion in Malaysia upheld by its majority group, versus African Americans being mostly Christians, Christianity being the predominant religion backed by the majority of the voting public and by both governmental and private institutions in America.

    Non-Malay Malaysian mostly speak their mother tongue at home and more fluently than they speak Malay, the national language, versus the African Americans who mostly speak only English at home and as their native tongue in America along with the overwhelming majority of Americans.

    Malaysia’s social cohesion is detrimentally affected by the fact that the Malay language does not occupy a similar unifying position in Malaysia among its people as the English language does in America among its people.

    You could even argue that Malaysians are further separated by the English language along the rural/urban divide, even as Malay tries to assert itself as the official language and lingua franca.

    But blame it on history, demographics, politics which have played out not identically in Malaysia as in America. Each context is unique to its own, any attempt to make it appear identical to any other contexts for the purpose of comparison will fail. It makes for interesting academic discourse, countless MA, PhD dissertations.

    So, the socio-religio-cultural factors, along with the systemic barriers rightly attributed to in Mr Wong’s article above, need also be given equally serious consideration when making an analysis of the Malaysian context versus the American context in producing an Obama.

    In fact, according to M Bakri Musa ( that Malaysia had already produced its own Obama in Dr. Mahathir, and not just one.

    Being of mixed-race parentage (Keralan Indian and Malay), of majority religion, speaks the majority language, Malay at home and as native tongue and embraces the Malay culture as his own, not Indian culture. Compare this with Obama being of mixed parentage (Kenyan Black and White), of majority religion (Christian), speaks English at home and as native tongue, embraces the American culture as own, not Kenyan.

    If Obama were Muslim or spoke English with a Kenyan/Indonesian accent, do you think that the American people would have been as receptive to his overtures?

    Ideally, race, religion, gender, class, sexual orientation should not matter in choosing a leader if she/he is capable of doing the job well. But sadly, they do.

    Dream your own dreams, whatever they may be. Not Kenyan or Indian or American. Our own.

  3. rejal says:

    Malaysia already had “Obamas” as prime ministers. I am referring to Tunku Abdul Rahman (part Thai – mother), Tun Hussein Onn (Turkish) and Tun Dr Mahathir (one set of grandparents – Indian). But of course they are accepted as Malays because they have assimilated into becoming Malays i.e. habitually speak Malay, follow the Malay customs and are Muslims. These are the only three requirements needed to be considered a Malay.

    Thus anybody at all in Malaysia can be accepted as a Malay so long as they are willing to adhere to these three conditions.

    People often forget the differences between the US and us. In US there is assimilation. Anyone wanting to be Americans have to habitually speak American (English) and adhere to the American way of life. In Malaysia the minorities like the Chinese and Indians were allowed to exist as distinct communities without having to conform to the majority Malay (the original inhabitants of this country) way of life and customs. Thus there is no integration or assimilation. They even have their own schools monetarily supported by the government. This was what was agreed to when the country gained its independence with the Malays recognised for having their special position (first embodied in the Federation Agreement in 1948).

    Of course if the minorities are willing to assimilate into the majority there is nothing to stop them to be recognised as Malays.

    I just want to ask one question? Would the Chinese in Penang (as the majority group) accept a Malay or an Indian as Chief Minister?

    Way back 10 years ago when Umno got more seats than the Chinese parties (Gerakan and MCA) it still did not insist a Malay be appointed the Chief Minister. Is this being racist?

  4. Chin Huat says:

    If Obama owes his election to his assimilation into the white-dominant mainstream society, then Manmohan Singh provides just the right answer – if Malaysia is not America, can she be like India?

    Mr Manmohan Singh has neither removed his turban nor disowned his Punjabi mother tongue to be the prime minister.

Most Read (Past 3 Months)

Most Comments (Past 3 Months)

  • None found




  • The Nut Graph


Switch to our mobile site