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Reaching the middle Malay Malaysian

(See-saw image by scusi/Dreamstime)

THE DAP’s unveiling of “Middle Malaysia” couldn’t have been at a better time. But with the ongoing “Allah” debate and the defiance by Parti Keadlian Rakyat (PKR)’s Zulkifli Noordin, an apt question is, just who are Middle Malaysians?

From party secretary-general Lim Guan Eng‘s description, Middle Malaysia indicates a state of mind or a set of values based on moderation and mutual respect. However, the DAP’s new catchphrase is also an electoral strategy. Lim’s confidant, parliamentarian Liew Chin Tong, says in an interview: “We’re responding to the leadership vacuum left by the Barisan Nasional (BN), which has no middle-ground leadership. There has been no effort to create space for ordinary people, who may not be ideologically inclined, but who just want a government that works.”

But whether it is an election strategy or a mindset approach, defining Middle Malaysians may be a trickier exercise than assigning group labels such as “moderate”, “tolerant” or “the silent majority”. Ultimately, assessing the DAP’s game plan raises at least two questions. Are collective values consistent? And is the line of moderation largely drawn along ethnic boundaries?

Where’s the middle?

Nik Aziz
How consistent are moderate values? A modern-minded, Western-educated, occasional beer-drinking Malay-Muslim Malaysian may today strongly object to letting non-Muslims in Malaysia use “Allah”. Conversely, hardcore Islamists like PAS spiritual adviser Datuk Seri Nik Abdul Aziz Nik Mat have no qualms over sharing “Allah” with other faith communities.

Other examples: a young PKR leader like Nik Nazmi Nik Ahmad can be forward-thinking on meritocracy and needs-based affirmative action, and yet be uncritical about Islamic moral policing by the state. Or take PKR de-facto leader Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim‘s indecisiveness over disciplining hardliner Zulkifli at the risk of angering PKR’s Malay Malaysian support.

If PKR, whose leadership espouses plurality and equal rights, is concerned about losing its Malay Malaysian base, is being moderate in Malaysia largely defined by race?

In the March 2008 general election, to be moderate meant having values contrary to the BN’s alleged corruption, cronyism, and race-based policies. But election results showed that the middle ground was largely Peninsula-based non-Malay Malaysians who voted for the opposition. Opposition parties netted only 35% to 40% of the Malay Malaysian vote, notes DAP publicity secretary Tony Pua.

The question then becomes, who are the middle Malay Malaysians? As the largest ethnic group at over 60% of the population, it should matter to the DAP, which knows it cannot succeed in elections without the help of its partners, PAS and PKR.

Making sacred what isn’t

Norani Othman
Political sociologist Prof Dr Norani Othman thinks the Malay Malaysian middle class, also known by the idiom “Melayu Baru“, is still evolving. “They have not shown clearly whether they have had a change of values to be necessarily cosmopolitan and global in outlook,” she tells The Nut Graph in a phone interview.

The rise of this middle class is the result of the New Economic Policy and rapid national transformation under former premier Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad. It brought fast wealth and drastically raised standards of living along with the sense of entitlement.

“Scratch beneath the surface of those who say they are tolerant, and what they mean is that they are tolerant only if their security is assured. Tolerance comes from being in a superior position,” Norani says.

One reason for this, she says, is the sacralisation of the Malay Malaysian’s “special position” and privileges. Islam, intended as the country’s official religion, is conflated or equated with Malay identity and issues. Thus, any discussion on such matters is considered “a threat to Islam and Malays”, and hence, taboo.

Norani notes that the country’s leaders have been encouraging this making sacred of Malay Malaysian issues. It perpetuates a sense of racial and religious superiority and causes some to question if they are weak Muslims. It becomes a barrier that keeps middle-class Malaysians from stepping onto the middle ground.

Setting the agenda

The number of truly middle-ground Malay Malaysians in tune with the DAP’s thinking may be too few in number. The party’s own membership comprising Malay Malaysians is less than 5% of total members, says Pua.

But he is optimistic that there are more of such Malay Malaysians out there. He believes the “Allah” debate has exposed deep fissures in the collective Malay Malaysian mindset.

“The fact that there are some who can agree with the High Court judgement means there is a group that does not operate based on insecurities. We’re not asking them to forsake their ideals about what being Malay and Muslim means, but when we say they are Middle Malaysia, we recognise that they are willing to engage and to respect others’ differences,” Pua tells The Nut Graph.

The DAP’s challenge is to convince middle-class Malaysians by ensuring party policies cater to them as well, Pua adds.

And though there are different degrees of moderateness, the aim is to net support from different people “within the context of Pakatan (Rakyat)”, says Liew.

“Through our partners, we can win different people with different definitions of being moderate,” he adds. In other words, Middle Malaysia is also about the DAP setting the middle-ground agenda for PAS and PKR without putting them off, especially the Islamist PAS.

“It’s a roadmap for the PR. The DAP is clarifying its relationship with PAS and PKR by stating clearly that we need them and are serious about our collective path to Putrajaya,” Liew says.

But the Zulkifli saga in PKR shows that this won’t be easy. What we mustn’t be surprised about is the likelihood that as the DAP and other secularists push to expand middle-ground values, reactions from conservative forces are likely to increase.

Is Middle Malaysia a hopeful gamble? Are the DAP’s partners up to it? Whether it works as an election strategy remains to be seen.

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11 Responses to “Reaching the middle Malay Malaysian”

  1. malay says:

    “Occasional beer-drinking Malay-Muslim Malaysian” – why is there no Sex and Drugs?

  2. MarinaM says:

    Could not the DAP have had more imagination than to come up with the phrase ‘Middle Malaysia’? It seems to mean ‘neither here nor there’, ‘middling’, ‘fence-sitters’, middle-class and middle-aged…

    Nothing more dynamic than that?

  3. maLay says:

    Malaysia truly for MALAY [Malaysians]…the others are just invited and are not to share anything!!!

  4. sumat says:

    Some one who discards NEP could be considered as a Middle Malaysian.

  5. ellese A says:

    DAP cannot be in the middle. Their Malaysian Malaysia agenda has pushed the country too far left and that’s why we are seeing the “right” reacting. I’ve written a piece on this one year ago. Also highlighted our problems [which] will be more acute when we have politics based on religion. Religion-based politics can never be logical. We have hundreds of years of history [which shows that] division by religion has never worked. On the other hand “ethnocentric” politics has worked longer and remains as it is. See [the] democracies in western Europe which were and still [are] based on ethnocentric politics. See also last year’s issue of Foreign Affairs [magazine] giving a full write up on this issue. No one system is perfect but ethnocentric politics seemed able to last.

    Now, DAP also recognises this. You can see that all its members (save for a very few) are Chinese [Malaysian], speak [the] Chinese [language] and conduct society’s business in Chinese [medium]. DAP is protecting this turf. Protecting the racists business clans, educationists and schools. How can you then consider DAP wanting to be in the middle? People still see that they want to maintain the Chinese identity and culture, etc, and in fact want more. They ask others to give up race-based politics while they happily are [race-based].

    In order to move to the middle they must be like Anas Zubedy. Both left and right have to give up. Malay [Malaysians] have to give up NEP and Chinese [Malaysians] have to give up […] clan-based business practices which NEP seeks to overcome. There should be more assimilation and interaction among people. They should not support Chinese [vernacular] schools for want of a more integrated malaysia. Spell out this policy. Say out loud in principle that they want this too. Then people can see that they are going beyond race-based politics. Then people can see that they moving to the middle.

  6. mid-malay says:


    Agree with you, the Malay [Malaysian] needs sex (orgies) and drugs (designer pills) too, just like other Malaysians. Without all these, there’s no Middle Malay Malaysian.

  7. Tongsan says:

    Middle Malaysia concept means:

    DAP as the dominant party shall become the leader and therefore sit in the middle of the “coalition”.

    PKR, as an opportunist and also “kaki ampu” party shall position itself at the right side of DAP.

    And not to forget, my beloved PAS! As PAS has recently adopted [a servile] mentality […], PAS shall be placed at the left side of DAP.


  8. To Marina Mahathir above:

    Don’t be lazy. Use your head and think just a little bit.

    ‘Middle Malaysia’ is a term simply to denote tolerant, broad-minded middle-class Malaysians, including a fair portion of Malay [Malaysians], some of which may even include non-urban Malays. It could also mean, as has been explained very clearly by DAP, that they are likely also to include the fence-sitters who are undecided about who to support.

    I suggest you prop yourself up a little bit on your lazy chair and do a tiny bit of research. For instance, read the academic Ooi Kee Beng’s piece for The Malaysian Insider entitled ‘Middle Malaysia vs 1 Malaysia’.

    Middle Malaysia could be of any demographic group, whether they be middle-aged citizens or not. This does not matter. That you even wondered if they could be ‘middle-aged’ citizens is indicative of the political problem of voters in Malaysia — they are quite unwilling to think and need to be prodded into doing so.

  9. PoliticoKat says:

    I am not sure if there are any Middle Malaysians anymore. The racial polarisation is so severe that primary school children don’t speak to people of other races anymore.

  10. paul says:

    I strongly feel that the component parties of the Pakatan should meet and work hard to form a solid coalition that really serves the rakyat. I feel that this can be done with a little more “give and take” from all the component parties for the benefit of the population. If Pakatan Rakyat is serious about serving the rakyat better, they must seriously work together to achieve this objective.

  11. Laksamana says:

    Walking the middle path simply means that you should avoid the two extremes. Here are two websites about the middle way and middle path of Islam for interested readers:

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