IN envisioning federal power, one of the Pakatan Rakyat (PR)’s trickiest points is where to place the DAP (read, a Chinese Malaysian) in the executive line up. As prime minister? God forbid, not in this Malay-Muslim majority country. As deputy prime minister? But what about PAS?
Recently, PR parliamentary leader Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim said it was okay for a Chinese Malaysian to be a deputy prime minister (DPM). It could mean creating two deputy posts, as is now the case in DAP-ruled Penang. Anwar’s original statement was only reported in a local Chinese-language newspaper. Other media did not repeat it until PAS president Datuk Seri Abdul Hadi Awang was asked for a reaction. He said he didn’t know of any such plan within the PR. DAP chairperson Karpal Singh, meanwhile, said a Chinese Malaysian DPM shouldn’t be a problem, since the PR parties have already agreed that a Malay-Muslim would be prime minister.
The need for a Malay-Muslim Malaysian prime minister has become the default position, even among the opposition. Yet there is nothing in the Federal Constitution to state that Malaysia’s prime minister must be of Malay origin. So if convention isn’t cast in stone, is Malaysia ready for this change?
Not numbers alone
Going by numbers, DAP secretary-general Lim Guan Eng should now be the parliamentary opposition leader. It’s the DAP, and not PKR, which has the higher number of parliamentary seats in the opposition alliance. The DAP has 29 seats and PKR 24. PAS has 23. But the DAP is happy to let Anwar remain as opposition leader. Evidently, politics isn’t always about the numbers.
In India, Sonia Gandhi was on track to becoming prime minster after her Congress Party won in the 2004 general election. But she nominated Manmohan Singh instead, who became the first Sikh to hold the post. Lebanon, meanwhile, is the only confessional democracy in the world where positions are filled based on religious belief. Thus, the president must be a Catholic Christian, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim, and the Speaker of the House a Shia Muslim.
Similar to India, Malaysia inherited a parliamentary democracy from the British where the constitution stipulates that whoever has the majority support of the House is qualified to be prime minister. Article 43(2)(a) states that the Agong shall appoint as PM a Member of Parliament who has the House’s majority support.
Beyond that, however, Malaysia under the Barisan Nasional (BN) has its own formula. Yes, the BN fulfils the constitutional requirements of the prime minister being an elected member of the Dewan Rakyat, and who commands the majority support in the House. But the BN has also created its own conventions as to race and religious “requirements” for a prime minister. These are political norms, rather than rules, which have become instituted by practice. Over time, Islam and being Malay Malaysian have been conflated into the requisite identity of a prime minister until it’s taken by some as a given.
Former prime minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, as ultra a Malay as he may be, was not wrong when he said in 2000 that a non-Malay Malaysian could become prime minister. Indeed, he was constitutionally correct.
“Confluence of factors”
So what’s stopping opposition parties from thinking differently? For all the multi-ethnicity they champion in policies, why do their politics end up mirroring the BN’s?
With regards to Anwar’s candidacy for prime minister, the DAP’s Liew Chin Tong says this was “never a matter for debate” among the PR parties because there was “no other choice”. Anwar, he said, was the most qualified person from among the three parties given his past federal experience, wide networks and public persona.
“For the DAP, it wasn’t that he is Malay [Malaysian], but because he is the most acceptable to all. Politics is not mathematics but a confluence of factors, and Anwar fits these factors,” Liew, the Bukit Bendera Member of Parliament, says in a phone interview.
Political analyst and The Nut Graph columnist Wong Chin Huat concurs on Anwar’s acceptability to most people, albeit from the position of PKR being the most centrist of the three parties.
Wong believes that while the DAP and PAS would each prefer their own party leaders as first choice to lead the PR, “they know their leaders will unlikely be accepted by other parties and the public because of their ‘flank’ positions”.
“It’s about the relative positioning of each of the three parties. PKR is the most multiracial, so as far as such values are concerned, Anwar is in the end the common denominator,” Wong says in a phone interview.
The electorate’s vote
However, it’s hard to ascertain just how much support Anwar has based on Wong’s reasoning, and how much support is still based on the default thinking that the prime minister must be Malay-Muslim.
A sizeable number of young Malay Malaysians are not ready to accept a non-Malay Malaysian head of government. This was reflected in a Merdeka Center for Opinion Research survey, which was conducted in late 2008 during Barack Obama’s historic election as US president.
How many Malaysian voters actually think that race counts less than a candidate’s principles and abilities in administering just policies for the country’s good? If the Merdeka Center poll is anything to go by, the numbers are not encouraging. The same sentiment was at work in Penang when Lim became chief minister. Strategically, he was compelled to appoint one Malay and one Indian Malaysian deputy to assure voters that his government would represent all races.
What needs to happen, then, before the current default thinking on who qualifies to be prime minister can be successfully challenged by the majority? At least two things would have to happen first:
the BN must lose federal power so that the current practice of filling up cabinet positions based on racial quotas can potentially be replaced by a system that is constitutional, yet merit-based; and
race-based political parties and racial politics must be disbanded.
Between the BN and PR, which of the coalitions are able, or even interested, in facilitating such change? If it is the PR, how well is it leading the way in this?
Unfortunately, Malaysia still needs a Malay Malaysian leader to convince the majority of Malay voters about a mindset change. That is likely the hope that the PR has in Anwar and the challenge that Datuk Seri Najib Razak faces as BN chief.
No matter, what is clear is that until and unless Malaysians can put leadership qualities above race and religious criteria, and demand for such leadership, Malaysia will be stuck with the same formula of racial politics, whether from the BN or PR.
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