Ethnic ‘overdtermination’ singes yet another nation
The new ball-game in Malaysia
by Kumar David

Should one focus on trends in Malaysia per se and leave the intelligent reader to draw comparative conclusions where they exist, or write a comparative essay which would be a little convoluted since parallels are strained except in broad terms? I have opted for the former approach.

However, a quick theoretical comment first. Louis Althusser, the late French communist philosopher, injected the word ‘over-determination’ into political discourse; it has proved valuable in understanding many conjunctures. In simple words, what this means is that there is one thing (the ‘over-determiner’, forgive the horrible terminology), which excessively affects, influences and determines everything else – politics, social and personal behaviour, the economy; that is society in general. For example, with this understanding, we can say that ethnicity and ethnic issues have ‘over-determined’ everything in this country since independence; including hegemonic Sinhala-Buddhist and reactive Tamil ideology, the constitutions (plural intended), the state, employment, schools, the media, high society functions, sometimes personal friendships, and of course, without exception, the idiots in power since 1948.

The electoral setback

Anger among ethnic Chinese and Indians, 25% and 8% respectively of the population, over religious disputes and economic preferences for the Malay majority of 60%, played a key role in the stinging setback that Malaysia's governing National Front (Barisan Nasional; BU) suffered on March 8th, losing its two-thirds majority in the Federal parliament and surrendering control of five of the countries thirteen state governments. Opposition candidates did especially well in urban areas, for example winning 10 of the 11 seats in Kuala Lumpur. The Chinese based Democratic Action Party (DAP) captured Selangor and Penang, the most populous and important states. Defeat in Penang, Malaysia’s economic heartland, is a bitter blow because of its multiethnic character and economic importance; it is also the prime ministers home state. The Pan-Islamic Party (PAS), one of the three main parties in the opposition alliance, strengthened its control of Kelantan in the remote northeast and won rural Kedah and Perak in the northwest, all rural states. Losing so many states is a blow for BU since states have jurisdiction over land, local affairs and Islamic laws.

Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi’s BU won 140 of the 222 seats in the Federal Parliament, enough to retain power at the centre, but opposition parties quadrupled their seats to 82 and deprived BU of its two-thirds majority. Of huge symbolic significance is that in peninsular Malaysia (that is excluding the states of Sabah and Sarawak on Borneo Island) it lost the popular vote; it lost the heartland. It can no longer freely amend the constitution, which UMNO based governments have done hundreds of times. The core of the BU is the United Malay’s National Organisation (UMNO) which has been in power since independence; UMNO based coalitions have never lacked a two-thirds majority since 1969. The populations of Sabah and Sarawak are far more mixed than peninsular Malaysia and include hundreds of ethnic, tribal and aboriginal groups.

In Penang, a largely Chinese state, the victorious DAP has declared that it will no longer accept the controversial Bumiputra (sons of the soil) affirmative action policy under which Malays, whose politicians dominate the ruling national coalition, receive preference in state contracts, education, jobs and financial assistance. The policy was consolidated by the New Economic Policy (NEP) of 1971 to redistribute wealth to poor rural Malays. Now Penang has become the first Malaysian state to announce that it will spurn the NEP in state level governance activities. The three-party opposition campaigned on a "colour-blind" platform advocating affirmative action on a need, not an ethnic basis.

The National Justice Party (PJP) of Ibrahim Anwar, a former deputy prime minister, expelled from UMNO a decade ago, has been the loudest proponent of change. The PJP, in truth a multiracial party, did not win a single state government outright, but with 31 seats in the Federal legislature it is the largest of the opposition trio; the DAP and PAS have 28 and 23, respectively. Anwar, a possible future prime minister, is barred from holding public office until April because of a conviction, a miscarriage of justice, in a politically motivated trial, but his wife and daughter won seats. Anwar was hilariously accused of sodomising his driver, and beaten by the police while in custody! "I don't think Malaysian politics will ever be the same again; there is a wave, an outcry for democratic reform" he commented after the results.

Ethnic cronyism and corruption

The foundation of Malaysian politics has been race-based coalitions with UMNO as the centrepiece and Indian and Chinese parties in supporting roles. This arrangement has been blown apart. The leaders of the two ethnic Indian parties in government lost their seats, the only Indian in the cabinet, Samy Vellu, among them. The chief minister of Penang was ousted by Tamil nationalist university professor, P. Ramasamy, who is likely to play an increasingly important role in the future. I have lost touch with Ramasamy now, but knew him some years ago and thought him an able and upright person. M. Manoharan, one of five advocates jailed without trial for leading street protest by Indians, was elected to the Selengor state assembly from a predominantly Chinese constituency. Malaysia’s Internal Security Act is no less horrible than our PTA and its repeal should be a priority issue in future opposition mobilisation if the opposition is serious about expanding democratic spaces.

The truth is that the Bumiputra ideology has become a framework for graft galore. The Auditor-General’s Report of the early Mahathir years revealed pervasive corruption and criminal breach of trust. An opposition political leader, Lim Kit Siang, accused the Mahathir premiership of the RM2.5 billion Bumiputra Malaysia Finance scandal. Allegation of financial scandals, abuse of affirmative action policies, corrupt commercial practices and nepotism are widespread. Former police chief Hanif Omar claims that "40 per cent of the senior (police) officers could be arrested without further investigations, strictly on the basis of their lifestyles". The IGP Musa Hassan openly complained that some politicians want the police to "keep one eye open and one eye shut". Malaysia was ranked No. 44 on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index in 2006 and is falling.

Reasons for optimism

The reason why the opposition could make such electoral gains, while threatening to dump the NEP and the Bumiputra ideology as obsolete, is because the Malay community itself has woken up to the reality that these policies are a cloak for corruption. The benefits trickling down to the poorer Malay’s were significant at the early stages but the identity of the principal beneficiaries is no longer the same; now it is businessmen, contractors, politicians and their relatives, and corrupt officials and law enforcement personnel who rake in the bucks.

When the opposition, then mainly under Chinese political leadership, did well at the polls in 1969 and challenged Malay hegemony, bloody race-riots broke out. These memories have haunted the ethnic minorities who remained subdued ever since. Race-based affirmative action programmes to benefit the Malay majority have been accepted with docility. This was bearable for those in the Chinese community rich enough to send their children overseas for education and some Indian businessmen and professionals. Now things have changed! Fear has not held back Chinese and Indian anger, and one now hears angry and strident criticism. Chinese and Indians born in Malaysia, or who have lived there for long years and assumed citizenship, demand to know: "Am I not a Bumiputra too?"

The fracture within the Malay community has emboldened others. Hence there are grounds for optimism but one must be cautious. The opposition alliance includes the Islamic PAS which moderated its tone to partner with the other parties and attract minority votes, but strains are already showing; for example, already there are squabbles in the opposition about forming the state government in Perak.

Prime Minister Badawi has tried to fish in troubled waters. He warned the opposition not to provoke racial tension by undoing affirmative-action programmes. "The Penang state government must not try to create an atmosphere which can cause racial tensions; do not marginalise the Malays", he warned. The ghosts of 1969 are being summoned from the netherworld to strike terror into faint hearts. There will be troubled times ahead before things get better. It will take a while more, and loads of commonsense, before Malaysia’s ‘over-determination’ by race-based politics is eradicated; but it can be done.



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