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Uncommon Sense with Wong Chin Huat: What does Malay unity mean?

“MALAY unity” and “Malay special rights” are grabbing headlines again. On 5 July 2010, Deputy Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin reminded Malay Malaysians that they faced losing political power if they remained divided.  On 28 July, Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak warned the DAP not to highlight the issue of bumiputera and Malay Malaysian “special rights”. He said such discussions could instigate anger and dissatisfaction.

Such rhetoric has become commonplace in Malaysia. This week, The Nut Graph asks political scientist Wong Chin Huat to comment on what Umno leaders actually mean when they call for “Malay unity”, and what it would take for them to change their tune.

TNG: Do Malay Malaysians have to be “united” to “maintain political control”? Is “Malay unity” even possible? What exactly do Umno politicians mean when they say the Malays must be united?

Wong Chin Huat: “Unity” in Malaysian politics is actually a code word for “elimination of competition” and “one-party politics”. When politicians sing the tune of “Malay unity”, they are basically talking about building political monopoly to control the Malay Malaysian electorate.

Such a monopoly disadvantages both voters and politicians. Voters cannot play politicians off one another for a better deal if politicians were all united. Barring those already in dominant positions, politicians themselves would be denied the chance to compete and progress within their own party based on their strengths. Additionally, when you have no enemy out there, you fight among yourself. Competition is what politics is about, and how human societies operate.

Wanting to eliminate competition is naïve, or sinister, or both. Do we ever lament that hypermarket giants Tesco, Carrefour, Giant and Mydin are divided and engaging in competition, instead of cooperating to give consumers a better deal?

Ultimately, though, politicians’ need to compete will eventually terminate any unity arrangement. That’s why the Umno-PAS alliance in the Barisan Nasional (BN) from 1974 to1978 eventually broke down.

Is it true that non-Malay Malaysians are more united, as some politicians claim?

Would you say the non-Malay Malaysians are united when they have representations in [the different political parties of] the DAP, PKR, PAS, PSM, MCA, MIC, Gerakan, SUPP, SAPP, PRS, SDP, Upko, PBRS and LDP?

(Pic by Luc Viatour | Wiki commons)

(Pic by Luc Viatour | Wiki commons)

If non-Malay Malaysians appear more united rallying behind the Pakatan Rakyat (PR), it is simply because of the threat of Umno. Non-Malay unity will [really] materialise if Umno and PAS work together for “Malay unity”. That’s what happened in the aftermath of 13 May when the calls for both “Malay unity” and “Chinese unity” were popular.

Tony Pua‘s call for selective scrapping of bumiputera discounts for luxury houses led to a warning by Umno information chief Datuk Ahmad Maslan not to “play with fire”. How much longer do you think Umno can assert the “don’t mess with the Malays” rhetoric and survive in Malaysian politics?

The “don’t mess with the Malays” rhetoric survives on two premises. One, the myth that all Malay Malaysians, whether billionaires, labourers, farmers or the homeless, share the same interests and would act in concert. Two, the presumption that people can run amok and act violently and not be penalised because they were somehow instigated.

The first premise is collapsing as it cannot withstand the examination of common sense. What do poor bumiputera have to gain by defending the right of rich bumiputera to buy luxury houses? Will bumiputera billionaires [share their discounted bungalows with bumiputera labourers] for even a day?

The only “rationale” is that the poor bumiputera may hope to rise and somehow become rich, for example, by winning the lottery one day. The discourse of ethnic solidarity is very much one of gambling and get-rich-quick schemes. The premise seems to be this: If someone of the same skin colour or faith can enjoy the privilege of being rich, you can too one day. So, you must defend that probability with your life even if it is just a one-in-a-million chance.

The second premise is more dangerous. If there is impunity for violence, and one can threaten violence and not get punished, then unless final victory is assured and you are prepared for the sacrifice, it is more rational to back down. What this means is that even if the majority of people are rational, society can be held ransom by a militant minority that enjoys impunity for violence.

Ahmad Maslan must clarify what he meant by “play with fire”. He can easily rebut Pua’s suggestion with reason without the metaphor of fire. Does he imply riots and looting? If so, then Najib should sack him and police must investigate him for criminal intimidation. What reform is the prime minister talking about if a deputy minister thinks and speaks in this manner? Who will invest in a country ruled by the logic of violence?

Do the realities of grassroots sentiments push Umno to take the “ketuanan Melayu” stand to ensure voter support, or is it a miscalculation on their part about what the electorate wants?

No one miscalculates. It’s conflict of interest on different levels. Umno party members and the Malaysian citizenry at large are two different populations. Anyone in Najib’s position will realise the general mood of the nation is to move forward and away from ethno-religious politics. That’s the lesson PAS learned in the 2004 elections.

Ibrahim Ali

Ibrahim Ali

But Malay Malaysian politicians not in Najib’s position, from Muhyiddin to Datuk Ibrahim Ali, [have the incentive] to play to the gallery of Malay Malaysians who feel insecure about reforms. Or to those who dream of winning the lottery to become the next bumiputera billionaire. There is a natural constituency waiting for this kind of leadership.

Najib is strategically caught between two goals: on the one hand, fanning dissatisfaction among Malay nationalists against the PR; on the other, wooing the non-Malay Malaysian constituency with his 1Malaysia propaganda. It’s a challenging balancing act, but not mission impossible. All you need are collaborators in the traditional media and an unthinking public that only complains about politicking and refuses to analyse why.

What do you think it would take for Umno to try a different approach than their current “ketuanan Melayu” rhetoric?

Defeat or clear signs of defeat. If the 1Malaysia-Perkasa double-speak depletes non-Malay Malaysian support to a record low of 10%, while PR’s Malay Malaysian support remains at about 40% minimum, then Umno may become the opposition by the next elections. Umno will then realise Malaysians are too smart for their tricks. To avoid this Waterloo, they will have to drop the Perkasa approach and practise what they preach in 1Malaysia.

But there is a danger here. Like any other one-party regime, some in Umno will not bow out in any situation. If they lose the elections, they may resort to palace or military coups to stay in power or to force a coalition government.

Ultimately, Umno needs to transform itself into a democratic party – a party that unconditionally accepts multi-party democracy – before it will give up “ketuanan Melayu”. So, the key to evaluate Najib’s or Umno Youth chief Khairy Jamaluddin‘s credentials as “reformists” is not in their commitment to the New Economic Model, but in their willingness to bow out graciously should Umno lose the next poll.

Wong Chin Huat is a political scientist by training and a journalism lecturer by trade. If readers have questions and issues they would like Wong to respond to, they are welcome to e-mail [email protected] for our consideration.

Next: PAS-Umno unity: Who gains?

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12 Responses to “Uncommon Sense with Wong Chin Huat: What does Malay unity mean?”

  1. Kong Kek Kuat says:

    “So, the key to evaluate Najib’s or Umno Youth chief Khairy Jamaluddin‘s credentials as “reformists” is not in their commitment to the New Economic Model, but in their willingness to bow out graciously should Umno lose the next poll.”

    I choked at that last statement, and I certainly hope that I´m not the only one.

    (Opposition or not,) Bow out and then let who in Umno to take over?

    Thanks. But NO, thanks. I prefer Najib and Khairy as equals.

  2. Dr Syed Alwi says:

    Dear TNG,

    I am a supporter of Malay Unity – especially PAS-Umno cooperation – because I want to see Islam put on a pedestal in Malaysia. For as long as the Malays of the Nusantara cling on to Islam – Malay Unity will always be on the political agenda. Your article here by Wong Chin Huat ignores the Islamic dimension to this issue.

    • Malaysian First says:

      Dear Dr Syed Alwi,

      The constitution of our country was agreed upon by all parties, i.e. the Malay Rulers, Umno, MCA, MIC, that the independent Malaya will be a secular country. Independence was negotiated by a team of multiracial Malayans lead by Tunku, and this is one key factor for the ease with which our leaders at the time managed to convinced the British to grant us self-rule. Any change to that agreement must be agreed upon by all races [...]

      Promote Islam and put it on a pedestal by all means, but as the foundation of the country, the constitution of Malaysia comes first.

      • Dr Syed Alwi says:

        Dear Malaysian First,

        Malaysia is NOT a secular, liberal democracy. Malaysia is a Muslim country to begin with. The majority of Malaysian Muslims want and insist on a Muslim Malaysia. By a Muslim country – I mean one that has a Muslim majority and one whose politics is dominated or controlled by Muslims.

        As for the Constitution – well – its interpretation and application depends on the majority – in particular, the Muslim majority.

        Finally – PAS itself is fighting for an Islamic State.

      • nipaa1412 says:

        Personally, I doubt a Umno-PAS unity is feasible. However, the fact that Umno is so eager on this makes me think that they feel very insecure. That very fact warms my heart.

    • Azizi Khan says:

      Dear Dr Syed Alwi,
      In order to “put Islam on a pedestal” as you put it, supreme Islamic principals must be followed, not the ones that are convenient. This means, racism, “Malayness”, cryonism etc must be done away with.

      Political Islam – Islam molded to suit Umno (or any other political party for that matter) must be done away with.

      Unfortunately this is not the direction you proponents of Islam would like to head. Instead Islam is an excuse for you. Calling yourself a Muslim yet doing everything opposite to what Islam teaches ( ie, the current “Allah” issue).

      Bottom line, Islam must be in the heart and mind, not banners and posters. Remember, even the Talibans call themselves Islamic as did Saddam Hussein.

      • Ellese says:

        Dear azizi,

        What are supreme Islamic principles? Do you mean dar al Islam where non-Muslims are regarded a different class of citizens as propounded by PAS all along?

        What is your standard of a good or bad Muslim? A Taliban is a bad Muslim? Saddam is a bad Muslim? So what about Yasser Arafat? Mahathir?

        You seemed to judge Muslims from a western media perspective.

        [With the] Allah issue you should have seen how politics has overridden religious interest. This schism is purely based on politics which does not benefit Muslims. See the khawarij incidence in Islamic history. You may not realise this but the Islamic agenda is no longer in picture. It used to be a battle between PAS and Umno to out Islamize each other. So much so PAS has a definition of Islamic state and Umno has come up with another definition. It has became the central political polemic. Now PAS and Umno can’t do it. PAS can’t talk about their Islamic state dream and morality anymore. Umno then becames too concerned about getting non-Muslims under 1Malaysia (which the non-Malays don’t appreciate anyway). So when the Allah issue crops up there was no leadership from PAS or Umno. What rubbish is this. If you don’t see it as a Muslim then you will not realise [how it can] get worse. Our beloved country has moved to the left. We need to bring it to the center.

  3. ben says:

    If there are Umno underlings who would willingly go against the PM’s direction for personal gain as you say (Muhyiddin and Ibrahim Ali), then would it not be these very people who will grasp on anything to stay in power, even at the cost of national security?

    What can the voters do to make sure all of Umno do bow out graciously if they do lose the polls?

  4. JayCKat says:

    Threats of violence, yes all very nice on paper. But people like Ahmad Maslan do not seem to realize that the world of 2010 is very different from 1969. They believe too much in their own rhetoric concerning Malay equity. If they ever go amok in the streets of KL, they will find that the Malay business community surprisingly large and unwelcoming.

    Worse yet, our neighbors have grown in the last 40 years. Malaysia is no longer the only game in town and has lost much of its edge. Go amok and the nation will see capital flight so large that it will bring Malaysia to its knees.

    Can Ahmad Maslan and co survive the violence their ilk so wants to unleash?

  5. terence says:

    Preservation of self interest is all that the current government led by Umno (Don’t like the talk of BN fool anybody) is all about. I like to tell this story to explain it it.

    A Chinese, Indian, and Malay walk into the room. All notice this rather sneaky looking character (aka Minister/Politician etc)…All are wary of him.

    The minister talks to the Malay (Eh why you friendly with the Chinese/Indian. They will take your money etc..).

    Talks to the Chinese (Sure we give you better business, one day even property education..no problem..anything is possible).

    Talks to the Indian (Sure I help you brother..). At the beginning all three are standing back to back to build a nation..but because of the distractions from the “minister” they start facing each other..calling each other names..

    The “minister” sneaks behind all of the pinches their wallets and flies off to his expensive condo in London. Ha Ha.

  6. kahseng says:

    Essential points again by Chin Huat. Every section has a conclusion that needs to be amplified for the general audience if we are to reform this country.

    There’s a puzzling point to me in the paragraph of “no one miscalculate.” Why do Najib and DPM’s interests diverge so much? They are only one level of management apart. Why such an opposing interest? Is there any lesson we can glean from such an analysis?

    Also, TNG’s interview format for Chin Huat’s idea is apparently less exciting and penetrating then his own structured article – judging from the less enthusiastic comments. The interview questions are good. But perhaps need to be re-written to have easier transition from the previous question and answer, so that the reading flows more naturally.

  7. stewoolf says:

    Master Chin Huat at work: unwrapping the confusing duality of 1Malaysia, i.e. the genuine vision to get non-Malay votes with a parallel yet opposing 1Malay (Malay unity) agenda to lure insecure Malay support!!

    The lack of articles of Master Wong’s quality in the local Chinese media is of huge concern. I hope TNG and WCH can get these articles re-posted and/or translated in other publications.


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