After admitting defeat, the vanquished M Manogaran accused the Barisan Nasional campaign machinery of playing up racial sentiments to win the recent Cameron Highlands by-election.
He said looking beyond race or religion made the government machinery stronger. The same tone was seen in the remarks of other Pakatan Harapan politicians, such as Loke Siew Fook and Mujahid Yusof Rawa.
Policymakers in DAP or the Pakatan Harapan political pact often forget that in this country, not all levels of society subscribe to the same narrative.
Some prefer to go back to the basics, looking beyond the matters of national policies and instead choose to dwell on issues that touch their very core — their identity.
This is very abstract and subjective, but our founding fathers have successfully navigated through the subjectivity of the matter.
Thus, they were able to form policies, engineer Malaysia’s social structure and address the interests of each community, with regards to what really concerns them as a citizen of Malaysia — as a Malay, an Indian or a Chinese.
Race and religion are the two basic building blocks of these communities. They cannot be left in the dark, and not be given enough certainty that their culture, faith, values, and principles will be retained after a change of government takes place.
Let’s talk ‘race card’
The Federal Constitution safeguards the legitimate interests of the non-Malays and, at the same time, acknowledges the special position and rights of the Malays and the Bumiputeras.
But the Malay-Bumiputera consciousness does not stop there. It goes beyond the explicit and the written, to the implicit and what is felt.
Therefore, if they think and perceive that their future — the future of their sons, daughters and their children — is unsettled, whether in terms of the economy or what is embedded within their sense of self, then they will always subscribe to the “race card” brought forward by politicians.
But we must acknowledge that there will be a tendency for politicians to overdo things. Extremists and rightist demagogues can easily hijack the already sensitive discourse on Malay-Bumiputeras and Islam in Malaysia.
Loud voices, populist approaches, the inconsiderate and distorted narrative of “Malayness” may disrupt the right momentum needed in navigating the said matter.
The un-Malaysia ‘Malaysian-Malaysia’
In the “Malay Dilemma”, Dr Mahathir Mohamad wrote that the main races in the country practically had nothing in common. Their physiognomy, language, culture and religions differ. He further added that race differentiated citizens.
Now, to say that racial and religious narratives will never matter in our political landscape is being naive. But we must watch where we are going when we use such a narrative so that it will not offend or commit injustice to other communities in the country.
Meanwhile, the so-called Malaysian-Malaysia narrative as an alternative to the “race card” used by politicians is somewhat unjust to many Malaysians — practically and philosophically.
It is believed that many out there still think that racial and religious tones matter. It is their identity that dictates who they are as a person and as a voter. But keeping the balance of moderation in everything is the key to peace and prosperity.
The Cameron Highlands by-election has shown that the rural Malay-Bumiputeras are considerably detached from the rest of urban Malaysia.
They are becoming more cautious and suspicious — cautious when it comes to handing the future of their race and religious beliefs to an inexperienced government.
They are suspicious over the double standards shown by DAP leaders in articulating its “no race, no religion” portrayal in Malaysian politics.
Such a depiction is the epitome of distorted political rhetoric, putting aside the viability of the intended idea in a country like Malaysia. This was apparent when Mahathir himself claimed that PPBM was a racist party.
Pakatan Harapan must acknowledge and come to an understanding that race-based politics and Malay-Muslim interests still matter in the country, and always will. Failure to articulate such an understanding will be the end of this crumbling “coalition”.
The latest research conducted by Ilham Centre has shown that nearly 30% of the Malay-Muslim population prefers PAS as the main protector of Malay and Islam, while Umno had 27%.
This is in stark contrast to a similar survey conducted by the same firm in August last year which showed Umno had 34% backing and PAS 29%.
In less than a year, sentiments have changed and it tells me, as an analyst, a lot about how the Malay-Muslims register the shift in the political landscape in the New Malaysia.
This has further concretised the notion that, after more than six decades of independence, the so-called “Bumiputeraism” is still prevalent in the country.
Is anything pro-Islam and pro-Malay racist?
Malays and the Bumiputeras are not superior to the other races. Superiority is a matter of attitude and a mental construct. It can be deconstructed, reformulated and reformed.
Nothing about pro-Islam or pro-Malay is racist, as long as all communities realise that their legitimate interests are upheld and guarded by the Malays (in this context), as stated in the Federal Constitution.
I do see that the burden to prove the workability of the Bumiputera Agenda lies on the shoulders of all Malay-Muslim politicians, and their political parties.
It is complex and requires wisdom, knowledge and, above all, decisions backed by data and empirical evidence. This is to ensure that such an agenda is not only based on intangible sentiments, but also on the realities experienced on the ground.
We must understand the Malays. They are a very complex group of people. They are receptive and tolerant to change but are also careful when it comes to the very core of their existence.
Politics of identity is now becoming more significant, and Malay-Muslim politicians must be the first to champion this discourse. Understand your subject matter!
*This article was also published in Free Malaysia Today