The de-racialisation of Barisan Nasional?

— Yang Razali Kassim
The Malaysian Insider
May 20, 2013

MAY 20 — On the 44th anniversary of the May 13, 1969, racial riots that gave birth to it, the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) displayed signs of being in existential angst.

Though it won the 13th general election on May 5 by securing the most parliamentary seats, BN lost the popular vote and failed to wrest back its two-thirds parliamentary majority in the face of Pakatan Rakyat’s (PR) strong showing.

While BN was relieved to have been returned to power, the results were a body blow that sent it into deep introspection. A significant upshot has been a proposal to transform itself from the current model of a coalition of communal parties into a single, merged multi-racial entity.

Significantly, too, this idea came from no less than the secretary-general of Umno, the party that is the lynchpin of BN and the epitome of Malaysia’s communal politics. Given his key position, Datuk Tengku Adnan Mansor could well be reflecting an internal debate now spilling into the open.

Other Umno leaders who have begun to publicly float such “radical” views in the wake of the 2013 general election (GE13) are Datuk Nazri Aziz and Datuk Saifuddin Abdullah, both members of the Umno supreme council and the previous Cabinet. While Tengku Adnan and Nazri successfully defended their parliamentary seats, Saifuddin lost his despite being known for his reformist views.

Nazri started the ball rolling by calling for BN to ubah — the same clarion call for change which the opposition used so effectively during the hustings. He described BN as “outdated” and a political vehicle that does not resonate the younger voters.

His comments evoked a response from Tengku Adnan, who suggested the ruling coalition rebrand by merging its more than a dozen communal-oriented components. “BN could perhaps be made into a single party that is no longer race-based someday,” he was quoted as saying in The Malay Mail.

In fact, the idea of rebranding and renewing BN was first publicly mooted by the reform-minded former MP Saifuddin. On the day after his defeat, he said: “We are lucky to still be in government at the federal level.” To strengthen its position, he added, “we need to rebrand, there needs to be a new BN”.

These views are likely to provoke further debates in the public domain and corridors of power. Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak, in his usual style, will allow the discourse to proceed, to see where the wind blows, and eventually decide on what he should ultimately do. He is likely to frame this within his larger post-election template of national reconciliation.


If this shift in thinking within BN holds and becomes new doctrine, it will usher in a substantive change in the country’s dominant political ideology; it will mark a move away from the communal politics that has been the hallmark of Malaysia’s political system.

This will reprise the spirit of the founding father of Umno, Datuk Onn Jaafar, who had advocated an Umno open to all communities, not just Malays. As his thinking proved too unpopular and ahead of its time, Onn Jaafar left Umno in 1951 and since then, the idea of multiracial parties has struggled to take hold. What came close was a power-sharing model embracing the major ethnic communities — the three-party Alliance, which expanded in 1973 to become BN.

Like the Alliance, the idea of BN was anchored in communal politics, but unlike it BN aspired to be a single non-communal party one day. In this sense, Tengku Adnan’s idea of a unified non-communal BN was not really a revelation; even so, it signals that that “one day” may have come. The difference is that such a transformation and its timing are being forced by circumstances, not by BN’s own choice.


There is still much to be sorted out. For instance, will the deracialisation of politics, if it comes about, be just at the BN level, or will it permeate all the 13 communal parties that comprise BN? For instance, will Umno open its doors to all races and not just Malays and Bumiputeras, and thus revive Onn Jaafar’s radical proposal to transform itself from the United Malays National Organisation into the United Malaysians National Organisation? Similarly, will the Malaysian Chinese Association and the Malaysian Indian Congress cease to exist as we know them?

Besides these issues that have to be resolved within BN, there is another layer of existential questions surrounding PM Najib’s post-election proposal for national reconciliation. A transformed BN that is no longer a coalition but a single party would, in theory, make it difficult to expand to embrace the PR parties — should this be part of the strategic consideration.

But the early signs point to the PR parties rejecting any idea of joining BN. Let us say a scenario emerges in which BN exists as a single party and PR remains a three-party coalition: Will a new model then emerge in which BN and PR converge as a new and larger two-party alliance, in the name of national reconciliation?

These are obviously tough questions that are not likely to be attempted, much less resolved, in the near term.

But they have to be contemplated if the country’s leaders are serious about change and reconciliation. Malaysia, post-GE13, is clearly at a critical juncture. — Today

* Yang Razali Kassim is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University.

  1. #1 by Winston on Tuesday, 21 May 2013 - 10:10 am

    LKS, may I suggest a blog similar to the “Citizens’ Blog” of the Staronline which was discontinued sometime ago.
    Malaysians can post their views on the Malaysian political scene in this blog which is to be moderated by the DAP.

  2. #2 by sheriff singh on Tuesday, 21 May 2013 - 10:37 am

    Najib will launch a new party tomorrow called the Parti 1Malaysia Perkasa (P1MP) at PWTC tomorrow afternoon. It is for all races.

  3. #3 by drngsc on Tuesday, 21 May 2013 - 1:36 pm

    Datuk Ambiga is correct.
    For the first time, we have a minority government who refuses to listen to the voices of the majority, but decides to impose minority views on the majority.
    What BN does not want is NOT what the people want. BN is in the minority here. The people want a Tribunal to hear what happened. We all voted, but what happened. I will certainly hope that this peoples’ tribunal will hear BN grouses against PR too ( if any ).
    Let us all co-operate with this peoples’ tribunal, so that we can all know what happened on the 5th of May, during the day, and during the night.
    How did Malaysia returned a minority government for the first time. Enough of rumours. Let us have the facts.

  4. #4 by yhsiew on Tuesday, 21 May 2013 - 4:28 pm

    Communal politics should not have existed in the first place as it brings pain and grievances to races who are not the ruling race. Politics should be transracial and not monoracial.

  5. #5 by ENDANGERED HORNBILL on Tuesday, 21 May 2013 - 4:51 pm

    Hello Home Minister,

    Neither a beast nor a brute be.
    Adam Adli is entitled to a blanket and pillow!

    Why deny him that just because he thinks BN is corrupt, unjust and unfair?

    Why let him think the Home Minister and IGP are beasts or brutes from a different planet?

    Spare him that.

  6. #6 by sotong on Tuesday, 21 May 2013 - 5:16 pm

    It’s not the party…’s the decades of bad, incompetent and corrupt leadership.

  7. #7 by lee tai king (previously dagen) on Tuesday, 21 May 2013 - 5:52 pm

    About a week a major world event took place. The world’s only superpower had to bow to their own conscience and by so doing put right their own wrongdoing.

    It must be a truly embarassing moment for the americans but there is only one correct decision in the circumstances.

    The americans formally announced the decision to return to mongolia a number of dinasour skeletons which they had smuggled from the gobi desert.

    If the americans can do it why can umno own up to the fact that it is now only a government with minority mandate?

  8. #8 by PoliticoKat on Tuesday, 21 May 2013 - 9:19 pm

    Too little too late.

    Corruption and economic mishandling is what driving BN’s lost.

    Opening up UMNO to all Malaysians is a step forwards, one that should be taken 50 years ago. But it still not enough.

    Fusing all BN component parties into UMNO does not solve the underlining problem of corruption. Nor will it remove policies like the NEP.

    As for MCA, UMNO can strike it off the BN roaster for all I care. MCA hasn’t been doing it job for decades. In my mind BN is UMNO.

  9. #9 by worldpress on Wednesday, 22 May 2013 - 12:16 am

    Maybe Malay going doom coming 5 years once they stupidly doing Project IC in the west to illegal immigrant access facilities as them

    Nobody can telll anything can happen as it happened before in Sabah dared to TREASON

  10. #10 by worldpress on Wednesday, 22 May 2013 - 12:23 am

    It look like they do anything dirty things to keep power included Treason as Project IC in Sabah to native Sabah

    Their mind target profiting a lot of money if this land no safe to stay anymore they just leave not their problem anymore

  11. #11 by lee tai king (previously dagen) on Wednesday, 22 May 2013 - 8:40 am

    De-racialise? How? Merger? Merger of all component parties into one massive party known as BN. If so what is to happen to the component parties? I take it that they would become defunct. In other words they would cease and then vanish.

    At the moment (and in fact for a long time already) there are only two significant multi-racial parties of national standing in the country: i.e. DAP and PKR. These two parties esp the former have far greater experience in handling multi-racial issues and interest and more importantly they have the ability to move forward as a multi-racial entity. The multi-racial BN, if that really happens, would simply be dominated by the same Tuan Rempit McBullys of the then defunct umno. That is also to say the multi-racial BN would simply be umno in new skin.

    Someone here said not too long ago, if the product sucks, no amount of marketing (and re-branding, if I may add) would improve its saleability.

    Umno sucks big time. MCA’s worse. It’s gone. Gerakan’s buried. And MIC’s not too far behind. Gathering four stooges together will only give you four times the stupidity and nonsense – actually more if sabah and sarawak BN parties are taken into account.

  12. #12 by drngsc on Wednesday, 22 May 2013 - 9:23 am

    It is very difficult to de-racialise BN. BN is basically UMNO, more so after GE 13.
    Umno has in her constitution ( correct me if I am wrong ), as her mission, AGAMA, BANGSA DAN NEGARA.
    It is religion first, then race and then country. That is why, I believe when asked, the DPM said that I am race first before country.
    To de-racialise is to have to change the UMNO constitution.

  13. #13 by boh-liao on Wednesday, 22 May 2013 - 9:50 am

    Wow, Sarawak CM, exco, lawmakers now get paid triple, some more backdated 2 Jan 1, 2012 leh, banyak syiok 1
    What abt Kelantan, Penang n Selangor? Also got triple jump in salaries n backdated payment aah?

  14. #14 by boh-liao on Wednesday, 22 May 2013 - 9:58 am

    How 2 DEracialise?
    Just look at Selangor, 2 form its state executive council MUST also b BASED on RACIAL composition, not on ability
    Some ppl r still stuck in d MUD NOT thinking dat an elected person will n can look after ALL rakyat regardless of race n religion, MUST n ONLY think dat a Malay looks after d interests of Malays, etc
    So so SAD 1 – truly a fish rots from the head down

  15. #15 by boh-liao on Wednesday, 22 May 2013 - 10:02 am

    How come sul tans still got so much power 1?
    Tot years ago MMK stripped them of power

  16. #16 by Loh on Wednesday, 22 May 2013 - 11:24 am

    Constitutional monarch means that the monarch has his rights specified in the constitution. Does the constitution authorize the sultans to choose from the the elected representatives to form the government? If not, Khalid should not have given an alternative list.

  17. #17 by undertaker888 on Wednesday, 22 May 2013 - 12:24 pm

    Umno may open its door to banglas, Nepalis, Pakistanis, Arabians, but never to all its citizen. Wait long long la.

  18. #18 by ENDANGERED HORNBILL on Wednesday, 22 May 2013 - 1:21 pm

    Sultans should be fair….and seen to be fair in a 2-party system.

  19. #19 by sotong on Wednesday, 22 May 2013 - 4:17 pm

    For decades, politics of race and religion had been used racist and extremist to undermine the country institutions….narrow, divisive and damaging issues were tolerated by those in position trust, power and influence.

  20. #20 by boh-liao on Wednesday, 22 May 2013 - 5:51 pm

    M’sia is DOOMed cos it’s ruled by an unpopular racist, corrupt, incompetent gomen elected by MINORITY of voters

  21. #21 by tuahpekkong on Wednesday, 22 May 2013 - 6:24 pm

    Judging by the numerous sensitive issues that have been deliberately brought up by them after the recent GE to stoke up racial tension, it looks as though they still prefer to play the race card. I don’t think those from UMNO who are in favour of de-radicalisation of BN have gained the upper hand yet.

  22. #22 by good coolie on Thursday, 23 May 2013 - 12:06 pm

    Non-racist UMNO? I feel like laughing until I cough blood. Go on dangling carrot and rambutans. Some fools will believe.

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