PRIME Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak and his government seem to have had a personality change. Before the 13th general election since independence (GE13), Najib talked about human rights, 1Malaysia and rendering support to the Chinese Malaysian community. Najib after GE13 has re-introduced indefinite detention without trial, focuses on bumiputera empowerment and blamed Chinese Malaysians for his coalition’s worst ever electoral performance. The Nut Graph asks political scientist Wong Chin Huat for his views.
TNG: What’s going on? Why the about-face so suddenly and drastically? What are Najib and Umno trying to prove and to whom?
Najib and Umno are merely adjusting their usual modus operandi. Umno has always had two faces – one of ethno-nationalism and fear-mongering to hold the Malay heartland, and another of moderation to attract the middle ground and ethnic minorities. It’s a tough balancing act, but one that Umno has been doing with some success for a long time. Strong leaders like Tun Abdul Razak and Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad played these two roles so well that they could switch conveniently and even emerge simultaneously as ethnic champions and national leaders. And by playing both roles, the party’s interests coincided with the leader’s interests.
This changed slightly after the 1999 general election. Desperate to win back Malay Malaysian votes, Mahathir turned against Chinese Malaysian voters who had largely supported him, accusing them of exploiting the Malays’ political division. By doing so, he focused only on his role as the Malay champion, abandoning the other role as a national statesperson.
After Mahathir, a division of labour appeared where these two roles go to different players, giving rise to the perception that there are moderates and hardliners in the party. This has continued under Najib. The story being told by some that Najib is at heart a moderate being cornered by extremists is, therefore, just a fairy tale. There are certainly factions in Umno but, in my view, Najib is fundamentally no more liberal than his deputy Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin or even Mahathir.
The two-faced strategy, if it works, benefits everyone in the party. Muhyiddin and Mahathir benefit from Najib’s “moderate” positioning if that wins back Chinese Malaysian votes. Similarly, Najib benefits from Perkasa and Utusan’s antics. They are all pragmatic men to the core.
So what’s different now? Why is Najib’s moderate face now overshadowed by the ethno-nationalist one?
Najib is not strong enough to convincingly speak both the languages of communalism and national interests, as the super-powerful Mahathir or his father Razak did. He, therefore, had to continue with the division of labour after the 2008 general election. This resulted in a schizophrenic, twin strategy. On one hand, under the 1Malaysia banner, there was the inclusive “2R” packaging of “reconciliation” and “reform”; on the other hand, the exclusive “3R” conventional positioning of race (ethnicity), religion and royalty.
Najib, as prime minister, emerged as the “presidential-style” mover of the 2R strategy, with public relations firm Apco and lobbyists in Washington, DC. Being branded an inclusive reformist and the spokesperson of moderates in the Islamic world would give him legitimacy at home and abroad. The 3R strategy was outsourced to the likes of Perkasa’s Datuk Ibrahim Ali and Datuk Zulkifli Nordin, Datuk Dr Hasan Ali, Utusan Malaysia and the Malaysian Islamic Development Department (Jakim), with the support of Mahathir and Muhyiddin.
The division of labour means the players of the two strategies would be rewarded or penalised by their success or failure in executing them. The undisputed fact here is Najib did not deliver and has been significantly weaker. Umno’s increase of nine parliamentary seats and the Barisan Nasional (BN)’s overall decline of seven seats in the last general election have the 3R warlords claiming victory. And the winners want Najib to disown his 2R campaign and lean towards the 3R positioning.
Even if the 2R strategy had attracted back the middle ground, based on Umno’s track record, the position shift from 2R to 3R would still happen – but at a slower pace – under Najib’s control. Any insecurity about its Malay base, as after the 1999 general election, would lead Umno to emphasise the 3R positioning. Feeling too secure, such as after the BN’s strong 2004 performance, would lead Umno politicians to turn their energies to out-Malaying one another. It is only when Umno feels fairly secure of Malay Malaysian support but uncertain of non-Malay Malaysian support, as after the 1990 elections, that we see a strong 2R strategy, such as Mahathir’s Vision 2020.
But will the return to a strong 3R positioning win back Malay Malaysians who have drifted away from Umno? Will this strengthen the BN as a whole in readiness for the next general election?
I doubt that Umno cares much about the BN’s survival as long as it can hold on to East Malaysia through its Sabah chapter and vassal parties like PBB, PBS, PRS, SPDP, UPKP and PBRS.
The future of Umno’s survival depends on two games it plays: Strengthening its electoral position through malapportionment and gerrymandering, and maintaining a captive market within an expanding and tightly policed Malay-Muslim political community.
With just 29.45% and 2.10% vote share, Umno and its sole Muslim-dominated partner, Sarawak’s PBB, hold 39.64% and 6.31% of parliamentary seats, only 4% short of a simple majority. If Umno/BN gets to redraw the constituencies the way it likes, it’s not difficult for them to win 5% to 7% more seats and achieve a simple majority. And if the Umno-PBB axis holds a simple majority, they will be able to command support from some vassal parties.
Umno’s minimal target is, therefore, to hold on to its existing vote-bank, rather than attract a massive return of ex-supporters. While Umno certainly wants to dominate the Malay-Muslim vote, the key of its survival really lies in the Umno-PBB core having about one-third of national votes. This is done by increasing the number of Malay-Muslim voters and then maintaining, and if possible, growing Umno support among Malay-Muslims. Other than Project IC in Sabah, this basically involves converting non-Muslims, especially bumiputera ones, to Islam and also assimilating non-Malay Muslims as Malays.
Assimilating the indigenous peoples of Sabah and Sarawak as Malays has been Umno’s unspoken goal from Day One of Project Malaysia. This ethnic expansion is made possible with selective incentives in the form of “bumiputera privileges” for only Malay-Muslims, denying even non-Muslim bumiputeras.
However, an externally expanding ethnic group is futile if it becomes internally pluralised and adopts different political allegiances. To ensure that Malay-Muslims stay interested in Umno’s Malay-Muslim ethno-nationalist discourse, the “deviants” must be policed and, if possible, silenced or banished. This encompasses religious and non-religious groups such as the Shiites, socialists, liberals, women, homosexuals, and subculture groups like heavy metal. This explains why the intra-Muslim policing has become more widespread after the last general election.
What does this mean for Malaysia? Attempting to polarise the communities is not a new strategy, but the effects are felt more and more today. Are we becoming more united or more fragmented?
Real reform is not possible within a well-protected Umno that sits on the apex of the electoral one-party state. Umno’s regime maintenance requires three things: Electoral manipulation, ethnic expansion of the majority group through economically enticed conversion and assimilation, and policing of the ethnic majority.
Of these three mechanisms, the most difficult to break is the economically powered ethnic expansion. “Bumiputera privileges” serve as a selective incentive to hold a captive market for Umno. And this is the heart of the problem: Should Malaysia be a plural democracy or an ethnocracy? We cannot move on as a nation until “bumiputeraism” is dealt with, but raising this has become so politically incorrect and sensitive that any open discussion on it is immediately shut down.
Bumiputera privileges have become like the lottery. Perhaps 99% of lottery ticket buyers lose money and only 1% gain. Most of the money goes to the operator. It’s a scam, but why do people still buy lottery tickets? It gives them hope and a chance of good luck.
Most bumiputeras are like the 99% lottery ticket buyers who pay the price in the forms of economic lethargy and cronyism alongside the non-bumiputeras. But they won’t give up the lottery because most of them are poor despite 44 years of bumiputeraism. Now Najib is giving them more lottery tickets.
Is there a way out? Yes, a tough one. Like it or not, non-bumiputeras have to take on the bumiputera problem as their own so that all Malaysians can put their heads together to work out a less costly solution than Najib’s Bumiputera Economic Empowerment Programme (BEEP). Until we Malaysians come together to lift the poor bumiputeras out of their poverty, most will still turn to Umno and we will have to pay the price of Umno’s parasitic rule for much longer.
What about the poor non-bumiputera? Of course, every poor Malaysian deserves help. And we should work to dismantle communal prejudice so that Malaysian citizenship is an equal blessing to all. But until then, helping the poor bumiputera would be the utmost political priority. In other words, we need to find a better alternative to BEEP. Unfair? Yes, but the consequence of not doing this would be living longer under Umno’s corrupt rule.
Wong Chin Huat is a political scientist by training and was a journalism lecturer prior to joining the Penang Institute, a Penang government think tank. If readers have questions and issues they would like Wong to respond to, they are welcome to e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org for our consideration.