THE real political battle currently being waged in Malaysia is not between Pakatan Rakyat and Barisan Nasional. The real conflict is in fact within Umno, a struggle between different concepts of Malay identity and leadership – one being more narrow-minded and exclusive and the other, more open and plural.
Indeed, it is arguable that the same dynamic also exists in the current internal PAS polls as Malay nationalists and ultras within the movement seek to head off the ambitious centrists who have taken the Islamist party firmly into the mainstream with its “PAS for all” tagline.
PAS’ move to expand beyond the Malay heartlands has caught Umno on the defensive.
For many Umno ministers, the sight of local Chinese communities in Bukit Gantang proudly displaying PAS flags has brought home to them the extent of their missteps.
Certainly, Umno is in danger of becoming what PAS once was (and still is in much of Terengganu) – a shrill and extremist fringe Malay organisation that scares the non-Malays.
However, as I write, Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak is veering in a direction that will win the approval and support of “Middle Malaysia”.
But this contest is by no means over because there are many within the ruling Umno elite who dislike the idea of an Umno that seeks to win the support of non-Malays rather than consolidating the Malay ground.
For them the idea of Malay unity and indeed Malay dominance stands above all else, thereby minimising the relevance and importance of other communities.
Needless to say, this is a backward and regressive political strategy and it rejects electoral realities on the ground.
Currently, only some 70 Peninsular Malaysian federal constituencies have Malay-Muslim majorities of over 66%. A further 44 have Malay-Muslim majorities of between 50 and 66% and are considered “mixed”. Finally, another 51 constituencies which are predominantly non-Malay.
In the March 2008 general election, the BN secured 25 of the mixed seats, 45 of the Malay seats and 15 of the non-Malay seats.
However, given the recent by-election results and if a general election was to be held today, the BN would see its non-Malay seats totally wiped out, the mixed seats reduced to under 10 and thus, delivering the power at the Federal level to Pakatan Rakyat.
Tactically, a push into “Middle Malaysia” would seem to offer the greatest potential for the BN to keep itself in government, especially since many of Sabah and Sarawak’s 55 parliamentary seats share the same mixed demographic that has been an advantage to the Pakatan.
Najib deserves to be commended for two recent initiatives.
Firstly, to liberalize the Bumiputra equity requirements for certain service sectors and secondly, to prevent the unilateral religious conversion of children.
Both policies represent small steps in the right direction – returning Umno (and the Barisan Nasional) to the middle-ground.
They also remind us of the moderation and good sense that were once a hallmark of the great party of Merdeka.
However, before we get over-excited, we need to remind ourselves that a spate of well-orchestrated walkabouts and some sensible government decision-makings doesn’t mean that Umno has redeemed itself in the eyes of the public.
Many Malaysians – especially non-Malays – remain deeply sceptical.
Mere public relations are not enough to turn the tide.
Umno must go further and drastic changes are crucial if the party wishes to govern beyond 2013.
For a start, the warlords (the all-powerful division chiefs) have to be reined in.
The party must reform its internal elections before this skewered approach destroys the party itself via corruption.
Secondly, the party needs to connect with ordinary Malaysians (including Malays) most of whom are disgusted by the political rhetoric of Malay rights because they sense that it’s merely a pretext for self-enrichment.
Instead, they want decent (and impartial) government services, jobs, affordable homes and an education for their children.
And thirdly, the racist rhetoric must stop.
The party must re-acquaint itself with the more nuanced, multi-racial approach of the Merdeka-era.
These noble traditions exist within Umno.
Our first Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman warned in his seminal memoirs Looking Back (which has sadly disappeared from local bookshelves) that Umno and the administration’s obsession with race would prove costly.
The Tunku wrote: “…there was too much emphasis being placed on bumiputeras, and not enough on Malaysians. Going about affairs this way makes it hard to instil Malaysian-mindedness in the hearts of the people. All the work being done to inspire patriotism among our polygenous population is being eroded as a result of this wrong approach.”
Tun Dr Ismail, another party icon, also felt that the NEP, ought to have only been a passing stage in national development:
“The Malays want the government to restrict the business activities of the non-Malays while the Malays reach parity with them. If this philosophy is accepted, then the whole concept of Malay participation in a growing economy is replaced by a policy of Malay participation in a standstill economy.”
Umno has a noble tradition; the party still possesses the capacity to return to the moderation, tolerance and good governance of its founding fathers.
Moreover, winning back the centre represents a return to Umno’s past electoral glories.
The party must be more broad-based in order to win in 2013.
And yet as I watch and observe the struggle within PAS, I can see that Umno is not alone in undergoing these political squalls.
The entire Malay community is trying to find a new paradigm on all fronts.
The tussle for the soul of Umno is in fact a struggle for the political soul of the entire Malay community.
Will Umno find its Merdeka soul ?
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