My column in the Malaysian Insider: the limits of divide and rule

12 Nov 2012 | Articles, Current Affairs | by | 0 Komen

It was inevitable. After feeling increasingly impotent in the face of UMNO’s racial-rhetoric, MCA followed the example of its “big brother” by taking a strong, anti-Islamic line in order to scare Chinese Malaysians back into supporting it.

Since BN’s massive victory in 2004, UMNO’s politics have shifted to the right. While the major setback UMNO-BN suffered in 2008 largely at the hands of non-Malay and urban Malay voters led to incoming Prime Minister Najib Razak trying to moderate his party’s rhetoric on one hand, but UMNO and the various NGOs it sponsor continues to play to the gallery.

In a need to find new ways to win back Chinese support, MCA President Chua Soi Lek has decided of playing up the hudud issue again. But this exposes the contradictions of BN’s strategy: while UMNO keeps attacking Pakatan as being anti-Malay and anti-Muslim, its own partner is making a mockery of Islam.

Of course, it’s natural that a political party representing the largest non-Muslim ethnic community in Malaysia should raise its concerns over the unresolved issues touching on Islamic law. But Dr. Chua’s careless and divisive language in the very complicated issue of hudud law has pinned himself into a corner as a Chinese chauvinist, a label that UMNO has long tried to tar the MCA’s opponents, the DAP with.

The fact is that MCA’s scaremongering exposes its ideological bankruptcy and the wider lack of ideas amongst BN as a whole. The fact is that BN’s over-long administration of Malaysia has eroded both community relations and the rights of minorities. Trying to make it seem like these will be destroyed should the Opposition take power simply rings hollow.

The fact is that BN has no ideas or plan for Malaysia beyond retaining power. The actions and rhetoric of its leaders thus far has proven that they are willing to do or say anything to remain in power. The appeal to primordial ethnic and sectarian passions is not the kind of leadership Malaysia needs to stay competitive and move forward.

In essence, the latest revival of the hudud issue shows the limits of the BN’s ethnocentric political model. For almost fifty years its brand of consociationalist politics worked fine – with each Barisan party representing their corresponding ethnic interest individually and the national interest collectively. There were exceptions of course: Onn Jaafar was ahead of his time for suggesting UMNO opens its doors to the non-Malays in 1951.

But as long as all the major groups continued to have a significant representation all was fine. Hence, when the MCA was routed in the 1969 elections, the Alliance Party model was recalibrated to the BN model with the absorption of Gerakan and other parties. But by then the balance of power within BN had shifted to UMNO.

The very fact that there is great unhappiness amongst all Malaysia’s ethnic groups shows that BN’s model of governance, which, let’s be frank—is simply a rebranding of the colonial practice of “divide-and-rule” is no longer sufficient to manage the complexities of our society. New solutions are needed, not only in how our economy is managed but also how our various communities interact which each other, and how weighty issues of race and religion are regarded.

BN however remains stubbornly entrenched with the status quo and refuses to countenance any change, some cosmetic changes like “1Malaysia” notwithstanding. Unfortunately, the lack of a multiracial opposition had prevented challenges to their power until very recently.

Before the 2008 elections, 1969 was the only time the Alliance or BN lost its customary two-thirds majority in Parliament. What differed in 2008 however that unlike in 1969, the government faced a multiracial opposition coalition that has largely held together in Parliament and the states that it now governs. This national coalition, Pakatan Rakyat, is poised to offer an unprecedented challenge to UMNO-BN going into the 13th general election.

While UMNO and MCA have largely vacated their traditional center ground that was their strength in the past, Pakatan is now stepping in to fill this vacuum. True, there was much pressure especially, on PAS and to a certain extent KEADILAN and DAP on retaining or generating substantial Malay support before, but MCA’s vitriol has now handed Pakatan an opportunity.

It is crucial that Pakatan continue to stick to the center as that is the only winnable position in Malaysian politics. At the same time, Pakatan must also clearly and substantively outline their vision to change Malaysia for the better. We must show our fellow citizens that we have a vision for the future, that unlike Barisan, we get it.

True, the politics of divide and rule may continue to work among a segment of Malaysians. But the question is if it can truly continue to serve us well in the increasingly borderless world of the 21st Century, with its multiple identities and diverse views?

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