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Divisive politics: Bersatu-Umno/PAS contention for Malay hegemony

William Leong Jee Keen  |  Published:  |  Modified:

MP SPEAKS | For the past one year since May 9, 2018, the sound and fury of racial and religious rhetoric have pushed the agenda of social inclusion and moderation into the back burner. Consider the following statements:

“Yes, I will be accused as a racist for exposing the fate of the Malays and Bumiputera. But for 70 years I have seen the decline happening to my people.”

- Dr Mahathir Mohamad in his speech at the 2nd Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (Bersatu), Annual General Meeting on Dec 29, 2018.

“This government is not looking out for Malays and Muslim rights. Right now ‘the big house’ is full of ‘penumpang” …We have been made to feel like visitors in our own country. This is a spineless government. One that we should reject."

- Mohamad Hasan, in his speech during the Semenyih by-election on Feb 28, 2019. 

“[Muslims, especially the youth] have been used by enemies of Islam, to the point where there is a change of politics that endangers Muslims in our country. When it is being ruled and dominated by non-Muslims.”

Abdul Hadi Awang quoted in Harakah Daily and reported by the Malay Mail on Feb 17, 2019.

“It is politically convenient to rile people up. But I will not compromise on this issue - our economic agenda must be needs-based, not race-based… We must shed racial politics and fear-mongering, in order for Malaysia to progress… Distribution of income and gains that were concentrated on the elite Malays before this have to be changed to ensure that there is equal opportunity for all.”

- Anwar Ibrahim in a speech in the Dewan Rakyat in March 2019

Ominous signs of ethnic conflict

Merdeka Center’s recent survey found only 39 percent of voters gave Pakatan Harapan a positive rating. Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s rating fell to 46 percent from 71 percent in August 2018. Prior to the Sandakan by-election, the Umno/PAS alliance scored a hattrick of by-election victories.

Many blame the voters’ disenchantment to Harapan’s non-fulfilment of its election manifesto. Merdeka Center suggests the drop in support is due to unhappiness pf voters with the state of the economy, performance of the administration and concerns on Malay rights and privileges, as well as fair treatment of the other races. Many commentators say the Harapan government should focus on immediate implementation of its election manifesto.

I believe the drop in support and three BN by-election victories bear a more ominous sign. It is the high-risk game of playing racial-religious politics in danger of spinning out of control.

The statements quoted above show a resurgence of ethno-religious identity politics. Racial polemics have taken centre stage in public discourse. This is due to the ongoing Bersatu-Umno/PAS contention for Malay hegemony. Anwar Ibrahim is the lone voice for multi-racial inclusive politics. This Bersatu-Umno/PAS contention is closing out the space for politics of moderation.

Playing the race and religious card

Political entrepreneurs in plural societies are often unable to resist the temptation to embark on a strategy of whipping up racial hatred, widening social fragmentation and increasing racial and religious intolerance. By manipulating ethnic emotions to exploit fears and ignorance to mobilise support for their own selfish political purposes, these political entrepreneurs push the country off the precipice into a devastating racial conflict and violence. Bosnia, Rwanda and Sri Lanka quickly come to mind.

Umno and PAS have always played the race and religious card. However, the conditions prevailing today are different from those existing for the past 61 years. Recent developments point to the impending convergence of five factors that political scientists have identified as leading to “the perfect storm” of racial conflict and violence.

Experts have found that ethnicity “embodies an element of emotional intensity that can be readily aroused when the group’s interest are thought to be at stake.” A sudden major change, such as the collapse of communism in Bosnia and decolonisation in Rwanda and Sri Lanka, upsets previous political and institutional arrangements.

When these institutional mechanisms are no longer in place during a period of political and economic transition in which “the old no longer works while the new will not yet function”, a situation of instability and uncertainty about the political, social and economic future of the communities arises. This leads to the particular racial group, who under the previous regime enjoyed distribution of the nation’s resources based on racial criteria, to encounter “a collective fear of the future.”

Political entrepreneurs, in their quest for power, mobilise ethnic constituencies by promoting inter-ethnic animosities using rhetorical weapons of blame, fear and hate. Political memories and emotions also magnify these anxieties, driving groups further apart. Together these factors produce a toxic brew of distrust and suspicion. This leads to further ethnic intolerance, resentment, fears and eventually-violent conflict.

The five factors for “the perfect storm” are set out below:

The Perfect Storm: 1st factor - Major structural change

The first condition is a major structural crisis or change. The change in the federal government is the first in Malaysia’s history. It causes uncertainty and anxiety, especially among the Malays, who fear they will lose Malay rights, privileges and benefits.

The Perfect Storm: 2nd factor - Historical memories of inter-ethnic grievances

Political entrepreneurs manipulate fears and uncertainties of ethnic groups. They are able to “awaken a consciousness of common grievances and a desire to rectify these wrongs.” Ethnic cleavages allow political entrepreneurs to mobilise grievances against distributions of benefits that are perceived to be unfavourable to the group.

Umno, from its inception in 1946, sought leadership in the quest for independence through the social construction of Malay identity. In doing so, Umno perpetuated the myth and continued with the false pseudo-scientific claims of the colonial masters, such as “the lazy Malay,” the “venal Chinese” and the “cringing and cheating Indian”. While the British used these stereotypes to justify imperialism, Umno used them to justify their hold on political power.

Instead of forging a post-independence inclusive society, Umno used the Chinese and Indian stereotypes as convenient foils to maintain hegemony. It also served the purposes of the BN Chinese and Indian elites that they are the only ones with the capability to negotiate and deal with Umno. The use of these stereotypes allowed Umno to maintain power by raising the spectre of the Chinese bogeyman while the Indian became the invisible man and the natives of Sabah and Sarawak the forgotten man.

The constant use by Umno/PAS of these stereotypes, myths, reminders of the May 13 incident and repeated vilification of the “Others”- that without Umno the Malays will be left behind in their own homeland to become serfs to foreign masters - have become embedded and internalised in the psyche of many Malays. Internalisation is the process where an individual accepts the norms and values established by others through socialisation.

The continued use of this strategy after GE14 poses a danger that is different from before. The change in government means that, for the first time, the security blanket offered by Umno, torn and tattered by corruption as it may have been, is no more. The Malays suddenly find themselves exposed to uncertainties. They are facing the very bogeyman they are brought up to fear. This internalised acceptance of historical memories of inter-ethnic grievances fulfils the second condition of the “perfect storm” of ethnic conflict.

The Perfect Storm: 3rd factor - State institutions that promote ethnic intolerance

State institutions have distributed the nation’s resources, rights and privileges on an ethnic basis beyond the special and reserved rights under Article 153 of the Federal Constitution. In doing so, the state institutions openly practised and legitimised politicised racial preferential policies.

The Umno elites have taken advantage of their dominant position to assume a position they have a manifestly divine right to scarce resources, contracts, monopolistic power, economic advantages and privileges. Political patronage and rent-seeking behaviour have become the accepted norm.

The minorities (“the Others”) in the meanwhile begrudge their exclusion in silent resentment. Uneasy peace and order are maintained by a strong state apparatus and robust use of its coercive powers and repressive laws.

Malaysia’s experiment on social engineering has, until now, been blessed by a growing economic pie. The current global economic slowdown, together with the kleptocrats’ plundering, has reduced the Harapan government’s financial space to satisfy everyone’s needs.

Beverly Crawford, a professor in the University of Los Angeles California and co-editor of the book, “The Myth of Ethnic Conflict: Politics and Cultural Violence” opined that a weakening of the Malaysian state is likely to lead to intense cultural conflict because its political institutions have indeed cemented the political relevance of ethnic differences.

State institutions’ legitimisation and promotion of ethnic intolerance fulfil the third condition of the perfect storm of ethnic conflict.

The Perfect Storm: 4th factor - Manipulation by political entrepreneurs

Political entrepreneurs must possess the skills and ability to articulate in a coherent and plausible fashion, the structure of opportunities and constraints that face the particular ethnic group and the potential costs of not acting collectively. Umno and PAS leaders have long mastered these skills.

Scholars have found in Bosnia, Rwanda and Sri Lanka that such appeals have historically shown to be persuasive in times of trouble when societies are faced with high degrees of uncertainty and see their economic and social prospects come under challenge.

The effectiveness of the political entrepreneurs’ rhetoric to win support is not dependent on the truth of the grievances. Often the grievances may sound frivolous and are indeed even ludicrous. It is not that the masses do not know that racial discrimination, racial intolerance and ethnic violence are wrong. The masses buying-in are dependent on whether the interpretation of discrimination and injustice articulated by the political entrepreneur draw sufficient support from the targeted group (“the In-Group”). There must be a sufficiently large number of the In-Group supporting the venture in ethnic disharmony to show it has a more than an even chance of success to be able to mobilise the masses.

It is also dependent on whether the political entrepreneurs’ promises of financial and material gains are sufficiently credible. It is financial rewards, material gains and exclusive access to resources promised by the political entrepreneurs that motivate the In-Group to act. Grievances are used as a cover for greed.

The combination of Umno and PAS enjoying two-thirds of Malay support fulfils the requirement of the In-Group being likely to be on the winning side. The proven Umno machinery of institutionalised political patronage is seen as a credible confirmation that their offer of material rewards will be honoured.

Ultimately, to paraphrase an Umno leader’s infamous saying, the masses in the In-Group follow the political entrepreneurs on the basis that just as theft is not a crime if one is not caught, it is not wrong to carry out acts of racial disharmony if one does not end up on the losing side. In the final analysis, it is a feasible venture because when an unapologetic racist contends with naked racism, it is always the moderates and the Others who lose.

If ‘New Malaysia’ continues with the dominant racial political game, then the In-Group masses will be emboldened to ratchet-up racial tension, raise intolerance to ever higher levels and even carry out acts of provocation and violence. In the rush for a piece of the spoils, tears and death are never ever considered.

For these reasons, rhetoric by the political entrepreneurs evoking emotions of fear, resentment and hatred in the present circumstances fulfil the fourth condition.

The Perfect Storm: 5th factor- Interethnic competition over resources and rights

At the heart of all ethnic politics is access to and distribution of economic, political, social and cultural goods relating to property rights, jobs, scholarships, educational admissions, language, rights, government contracts and development allocations. All such resources are scarce and thus objects of competition and struggle between individuals and when individuals organise groups.

In societies where ethnicity is an important basis for identity, group competition forms along ethnic lines. Politics matters because the state controls access to scarce resources. Individuals and groups that possess political power gain privileged access to these goods. In multi-ethnic societies, resource rivalries and the struggle to control state policy produce competing ethnic interests.

In almost all ethnic conflicts, the demands of ethnic groups are focused on securing basic rights, a fairer share and distribution of education admissions, employment opportunities and contracts. What is “fair” is seen from their own subjective viewpoint and often partial to that ethnic group because each group is living in a silo society.

When a group establishes its dominance within the society, it is able to maintain a system of stratification of economic differences on ethnic lines. In a major structural change, the In-Group begin to see the Others as taking away their entitlement to the economic and political goods. Thus, inter-ethnic competition for resources spawns the politics of political, economic and social exclusion.

Umno and PAS have exploited Malay anxieties that if they lose dominance, they will be denied access to resources and rights. To maintain access, they must exclude the Others from the programmes and institutions distributing the resources. Social exclusion of the Others is, therefore, an important feature of ethnic-based distribution of resources.

Inter-ethnic competition for resources and rights fulfils the 5th Condition.

Convergence of the five factors

The presence of all five factors is cause for concern. Strategic action by the political entrepreneurs, to be described in Part 2, may trigger ethnic violence and conflict.

Part 1: Bersatu-Umno/PAS contention for Malay hegemony

Part 2: Strategic action of the elites

Part 3: Rekindling our sense of shared identity


WILLIAM LEONG JEE KEEN, the Member of Parliament for Selayang, is a member of PKR.

The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.

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