January 20, 2021 House of Trust

Happy New Year, Fellow Malays!

As we embark into the new decade, we should simultaneously look at the elephant in the room. As much as we tried to justify the teaching of Jawi in vernacular schools or even to an extent of abolishing race-based or vernacular schools altogether (if this happens, it must also include sekolah agama and pondok), the bigger picture would be – what is the future of Malay-Muslim politics in 2020 and beyond?

A senior politician in UMNO, whom I had the privilege to converse with a few weeks ago asked me this pivotal question: “Do you think race-based politics will matter in the future?” 

I did not grow up with conservative parents. My parents are pretty much moderate Malays who’d eat at a Chinese Kopitiam and attend Deepavali open houses (if that is the barometer for moderation, why not). But for some Malays, especially in the ‘deep Malay belt’ like rural Pahang, Perak, and Johor for example – Malaysia has never changed a bit. It is still Tanah Melayu or Tanah Jawi, even if the Malays there live amongst other races and conduct their daily affairs with a dependency on one another.

Now hear me out. It is not their fault, as political views and identity are inherited or nurtured through one’s upbringing and of course, external influences like the mass media. 

Identity Politics
*Picture Credit: Free Malaysia Today

Post GE-14 has witnessed an increased of populist identity politics at play by various political entities (left or right) to assert their political hegemony and outdo one another. I once attended a conference organized by a ‘left-wing’ NGO in Kuala Lumpur, and one of the participants declared openly that her enemy is the ‘right-wing Islamists’ (despite knowing that the majority of the country’s population are prone to identify themselves as such). 

Every day, there are new WhatsApp groups created under the name of ‘Penyatuan Ummah’ or ‘Melayu Islam Bersatu’ (for example) to spread race-based ‘concerns’ and ‘consciousness’ to the Malay-Muslim electorate. They are not spreading hatred or incite anger, for we should thread carefully in using such classification. These WhatsApp groups act as channels to remind the Malays of who they are, what they should do in the age of ‘Malaysia Baru’ and how pertinent it is for them to be ‘rights conscious’ now than ever before.

Many might assume that these kinds of communicative channels or online communities are ‘racist or ‘bigoted’ – because they are not inclusive and cater only to a certain group of people with the same in-group bias most of the time. But, it is just an expression of their identity and their political paradigm in a virtual, often non-regulated sphere. 

Does it only appear amongst the Malay-Muslim electorates? No. Let us be fair. Malaysians post GE-14 are more engaged in the discourse of race, religion, and nation-building than before. Apart from social media sites like Facebook or Twitter, WhatsApp groups played an important role in the discourse, and it happens across racial and group divides. All of us want to belong. To a certain community, a certain identity, and a certain bias.

Therefore, race-based politics will remain. As long as we identify ourselves along those lines. Who would know, one day if one community decides that Nasi Lemak is their biggest self-identifier, they might as well form a political party and run for elections based on that alone?

Coming back to the question given by the UMNO man, I retorted with confidence by saying that no, race-based politics will not be a thing of the future. Especially for UMNO. Because it is no longerMelayu itu UMNO dan UMNO itu Melayu. Malays now have less dependency on the party as the ‘sole’defender of their special rights enshrined in the Federal Constitution. 

This is evident with the existence of multiple Malay-Muslim based NGOs which not until recently, made headlines and are more vocal towards the community’s legitimate interests – unapologetically. 

NGOs like ISMA, UMMAH and other smaller ones that claim to represent varied groups within the Malay-Muslim community itself. From the pondok students to Malay-Muslim diasporas in the Middle East, to followers of Salafi preachers and Sufi masters. NGOs that represent madrasah students, tahfiz and sekolah agama teachers to Malay-Muslim business communities and small-time entrepreneurs. 

‘Buy Muslim First’ movement
*Picture Credit: The Star Newspapers

Case in point – the ‘Buy Muslim First’ movement is still ongoing, supported by many of the NGOs representing the above groups. The ‘Vote Muslim First’ movement in the recent Tanjung Piai by-election showed a growing trend and a new wave of Islamism mobilized not by UMNO or PAS but by the above NGOs and personnel who are tired of ‘political ploys’ and ‘dishonesty’ made by the mainstream Malay-Muslim political bodies. 

It is a changing playing field for UMNO. They are not the only one who is speaking the language. Though they proud themselves of being the ‘biggest Malay party in the country’, it is high time for them to recheck and reassess such a claim. 

The responsibility of being the only torchbearer of the Malay-Muslim political paradigm is no more. It has been fragmented, divided and distributed to other players in the field. UMNO cannot buy these players (literally) because the Malay-Muslim NGOs and individuals work based on principles and accountability. And sooner or later they’d realize – why should they be dependent on UMNO? Why can’t they replace the party itself? It is all about numbers (and sentiments) anyway. 

So, what is the future of Malay-Muslim politics in 2020 and beyond? It is uncertain. Because it is politics and it is emotional. But as I have addressed above, the existence of social media sites and online communities like WhatsApp groups will play a more active role in spreading race-related messages and sentiments. Apart from that, the active involvement of multiple Malay-Muslim NGOs in the fight against ‘liberal values’ will at times outshine UMNO itself, who is battling a never-ending internal war by itself. 

UMNO grassroots machinery
*Picture Credit: Astro Awani

On the other hand, UMNO as an old, extremely feudal political party cum grassroots movement will find itself becoming less significant in the ideological and perception war to woo over the Malay-Muslim political paradigm. 

It is no doubt that with more than 3 million registered members, and a huge pool of grassroots machinery, only time will tell if all of that would be able to save the party from the ideological rigor they are lacking. In the age of disruption, nothing is absolute. You are replaceable. 

To my fellow Malay-Muslim electorates – “Selamat tahun baru. Jangan jadi Melayu yang layu.”

*This article has been published in Malaysiakini

**Abdullah Afiq is an Analyst at Bait Al Amanah

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