Ethnic outbidding and red herrings

By Mavis Puthucheary
October 01, 2010

Ethnic outbidding is a favourite pastime among Umno politicians and they have become very good at some “innovative” ideas. We have been treated to “Ketuanan Melayu” and the declaration that Malaysia is an Islamic state.

Now we are told that as the Malaysian Constitution does not state that the prime minister should be a Malay, there is a chance that of this happening if the opposition coalition captures power at the federal level in the next election.

What are we to make of this “warning”?

First of all, we must distinguish the legal or constitutional aspects from political realities. In all democratic constitutions the person who becomes the prime minister is either directly elected by the people (in a presidential system) or is the leader of the party that has won the majority of seats in the elected house of parliament.

The Malaysian Constitution does not deviate from this basic democratic principle.

In reality, because democracy practices majority rule, in a multi-ethnic society, the prime minister is from the majority ethnic group.

However, this may not always be the case. In political parties that ideologically based rather than ethnic based, there is a strong possibility that the leader of the party would be from a minority group so if that party wins the elections, he or she would become the prime minister. But whether or not a person from a minority group gets elected would depend on the procedures adopted in the party for selecting their leaders.

Thus in India, the Congress Party elected a person from a minority group to be their leader and now prime Minister. In Singapore however, the highly centralized cadre system of the People’s Action Party mitigated against a non-Chinese being selected as leader of the party and prime minister.

When Barrack Obama was elected president of the United States, a lively discussion ensued in the local press about the possibility of a person from a minority group becoming prime minister.

At that time Lee Kuan Yew, the former Prime Minister, revealed that this matter was broached 20 years ago when a person of the right calibre was found.

However, according to the report, Lee left his name out of the list because “he felt Singapore was not yet ready for an Indian prime minister” (Straits Times November 15, 2008).

So much for the party’s creed of multiculturalism and meritocracy.

In Malaysia because Umno is the largest party in the multi-national coalition that has been in power since Independence, the prime minister has been from this party, and because this party is largely Malay, the person has been a Malay and Muslim.

Indeed, the posts of prime minister and deputy prime minister have “traditionally” been filled by the president and deputy president of Umno. The MCA has made repeated requests for a second deputy posts to be created for their leader but this has been rejected. .

Second, is the possibility of a non-Malay prime minister more of a reality than before? I don’t think so. True we have a new coalition that is a real alternative to the BN. Even so this new coalition, Pakatan Rakyat (PR) can only capture power at the federal level, if it has the support of the ethnic majority – the Malays.

Indeed with nearly 70 percent of the parliamentary seats in peninsular Malaysia Malay-majority seats, the possibility of a non-Malay prime minister is extremely remote.

Then why is this matter raised at all especially as it has not come from the non-Malay leaders but initiated by Mahathir and taken up by factions within Umno?

In order to answer this question we need to understand a little about the leadership motivation and behaviour of Umnoleaders especially Mahathir. It should be pointed out that this is not the first time that this issue has been raised by Mahathir but in a different context and tone.

In 2000 Mahathir, as Prime Minister, opened the 47th Annual General Assembly of the MCA by announcing his “confidence that a non-Malay would one day become the prime minister” (New Straits Times June 18, 2000).

Initially the announcement was hailed by non-Malays and members of the international community as a sign that Malaysia was moving away from racial politics. The Economist proclaimed that the prime minister has a dream that the nation’s next leader might well come from the Chinese, Indian or other ethnic minority (June 30, 2000).

Soon it became clear that this was nothing but rhetoric used by him to please his audience.

Within days of this announcement, an article appeared in the press entitled “Non-Malay PM: more rhetorical than real” (New Straits Times June 27, 2000). In this article Abdullah Ahmad explained that Mahathir only stated what was constitutionally correct, nothing more. Why Mahathir chose to raise this matter at the MCA’s annual assembly was never made clear.

According to Abdullah Ahmad, Mahathir’s real concern was the loss of Malay support in the 1999 elections. In that same article Abdullah Ahmad explained that Mahathir was “dramatizing” the issue in order “to create a certain impact within Umno and warning the Bumiputera that unless they stop warring among themselves the possibility of a non-Muslim becoming Prime minister – no matter how remote – exists” We are even more confused.

Why would Mahathir choose to deliver a warning to Malays and other Bumiputera at a meeting of the MCA?

But the matter does not end here. In a recent speech Mahathir again is reported to have issued a warning to Malays that they risked losing political power if the PR captures Putra Jaya from the BN.

How is it possible for Malays to lose political power when it would be through the exercise of their power that a PR government would come into existence?

It seems that Mahathir has resorted to yet another one of his twists and turns to argue his case. He is, intentionally one suspects, linking Umno with the myth of Malay political superiority in order to convince the public that they should vote for Umno and the BN.

The issue of a non-Malay prime minister is a red herring to distract people from asking the real question: what is the source of Malay political supremacy and why does it reside only in Umno?

Instead of dealing with the real issues, these leaders create bogeyman which they frighten us with. In this case the argument they offer runs like this: Umno gained for the Malays a position of political supremacy which is now in danger of being diluted because the PR leadership, though Malay and Muslim, is not working in the interests of the Malays.

The issue of the non-Malay prime minister is brought up in order to discredit the PR leadership. These leaders, though Malay and Muslim are accused of being “not really independent and a tool of others”.

So also PAS leaders have been accused of not abiding by their Islamic principles.

It seems strange that Umno which had always taken a more moderate middle ground with regard to political Islam has shifted to a position which makes PAS seem more moderate than Umno.

In the past voters were told not to vote for PAS candidates because of their strong Islamic principles – it was claimed that once they took power they would integrate Islamic values into all aspects of Malaysian society. But now we are told not to vote for PAS candidates precisely because they have shifted their extreme position to one that is more accommodating.

All this would be laughable if it did not have potentially a sinister side to it. In claiming Malay political superiority, Umno leaders have conveniently forgotten that even when they have won their seats in Malay-majority constituencies they have done so by getting the support of the non-Malay vote especially in straight fights between Umno and PAS.

In the 1999 and in elections Khoo Boo Teik pointed out that Umno’s parliamentary representation was less than the combined number of seats held by its coalition partners.

“The mutual access that Umno and its non-Malay coalition partners enjoyed came to Umno’s rescue in the ethnically mixed constituencies, in a reversal of past trends when it was the non-Malay component parties that needed saving. Ironically that result merely restored Umno’s unquestioned dominance of the BN framework” (Democracy and Elections in Malaysia, 2005) ,

A similar result happened in the 2008 elections when Umno was rescued by it partners in Sabah and Sarawak. As Khoo points out, the results of the 1999 elections hold dire implications for Umno “relevance” to the Malay electorate.

The results of the 2008 elections have all but shattered the illusion of Umno as the institutional party of government. The only way it can regain its position in the political system is to take an extreme pro-Malay stance, instilling fears of losing their political power as a way to unite the Malays under their leadership.

It is in this light that one should view the possibility of some groups taking up the issue of a non-Malay prime minister to demand that the constitution be changed to ensure that the prime minister is both Malay and a Muslim.

The fact that such a requirement is contained in some state constitutions with regard to the Mentri Besar, makes such a demand not as far-fetched as it otherwise might be.

It must also be borne in mind that as the space for public participation increases it also allows for the growth of civil society organizations that are organized along ethno-religious lines.

In such a situation there is a real danger of ethnic outbidding reaching a level where any remark, however innocuous, is interpreted in racial terms.

It is important that the PR political leadership not fall into the trap where they find themselves having to “prove” they are more pro-Malay than Umno by supporting such a constitutional amendment.

* Mavis Puthhucheary is the co-editor of “Elections and Democracy in Malaysia” (UKM Press) and contributor to the volume “Sharing the Nation: Faith, Difference, Power and the State 50 Years After Merdeka” (SIRD). ”

  1. #1 by Loh on Saturday, 2 October 2010 - 7:57 pm

    Mamakthir said that non-Malay can become Prime minister of Malaysia to justify his term as Prime Minister even if he had to follow Muslims culture which would have made him Malayali, a non-Malay.

    Mamakthir said that Nizar, the legitimate MB of Perak removed by the court, listened to DAP, and so Nizar even as Malay would not rule only for Malays interest. Thus Mamakthir implies that when he was PM, he did not have to be bothered with inputs on policy matters made by MCA, Gerakan or all other non-Malay component parties of BN. Mamakthir confirms now that there was no sharing of power among the coalition partners. If they did share, it would be business or corrupt opportunities and the PM used his power not to prosecute wrong doings.

    Malaysian Cabinet is represented by ministers from different races. Would the cabinet lose power to non-Malays, or would Najib lose political power of the Malays if he agrees to suggestions made by non-Malay ministers? If he did, then it makes no different whether UMNO or PAS members become Prime Minister. If Najib did not, why then should Nizar lose power of the Malays agreeing to suggestions made by DAP?

    Mamakthir in making those comments shows that he did not have the intellect of a qualified doctor. It is a disgrace to the institution that awarded him the university degree. It reflects badly on UMNO for choosing him as President of the party. We may be embarrassed that he was the Prime Minister of Malaysia; but we can say we never chose him.

  2. #2 by boh-liao on Sunday, 3 October 2010 - 1:28 am

    Who says a nonMalay cannot be our PM?
    An Indian masquerading as Malay was our PM for 22 years
    D same Indian is leading Perkosa too, I-Bra-him n U-bra-her shld know

  3. #3 by k1980 on Sunday, 3 October 2010 - 6:23 am

    There once was a lady from Niger
    Who smiled as she rode on a tiger
    They came back from the ride
    With the lady inside
    And the smile on the face of the tiger

  4. #4 by sotong on Sunday, 3 October 2010 - 8:26 am

    The failure of our country is a direct result of decades of bad leadership and gross mismanagement and its politicians constantly giving excuses for its failure and incompetent.

  5. #5 by lee wee tak_ on Sunday, 3 October 2010 - 10:08 am

    come on, lets come out of the closet. the reason a non-malay can’t be the PM of Malaysia is because the malays think a non-malay PM would make detrimental changes against their interest

    i think this is pre-judgmental and insulting to the intelligence of non-malay politicians

    a democratically elected leader has to listen to his or voters so if the malays vote in a non-malay politician as the PM, would the PM be so dumb to bite the hands that voted him in?

    it is a case of belum cuba, belum tahu

    throughout history, humans progressed with taking risk – the first men who sailed accross ocean into the unknown, the explorers in to wilderness, the doctors who operated without anesthetics (cringe), the first men who tried to fly and ended up as a pulp….

    why Malaysians are so chicken out? 5 year term to wipe out more than 5 decades of entrenched culture, infrastructure and legislation? I don’t think so.

    if you are not happy with whoever is in the office, vote him out the next round. that is democracy

    the yellow streak here is denying Malaysians a chance to get positive and beneficial changes coming from a non-malay PM. At the moment, we are denying ourselves a chance to seek the best to lead the way.

    why? because we are too yellow, too racist, too closet mindset

    really I do see malays working for non-malays (e.g. Ibrahim Ali used to work for Vincent Tan) and vice versa…

    if the Malays can work for a non-malay in a commercial organisation which leadership is autocratic in nature, why can’t a non-maly work for malays in a democratically elected adminstration?

  6. #6 by k1980 on Sunday, 3 October 2010 - 1:36 pm

    //October 3rd, 2010 11:30:00
    GEORGE TOWN: About 100 youths staged a protest against Penang Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng shortly after his arrival from Australia at the Penang International Airport here last night.

    Calling themselves “Pemuda Pulau Pinang”, they gathered outside the airport at 8.35pm carrying placards condemning him for the state government’s action of giving compassionate financial aid to Muslim senior citizens from money they alleged was earned from gambling sources, which is not permitted by Islam.//

    Very strange those 100 fools have never utter a word of protest at the billions of dirty tainted ringgit circulating in the country, obtained by the corrupt via such scandals as the PKFZ and others. Or is it dirty money from BN is clean?

  7. #7 by Bigjoe on Sunday, 3 October 2010 - 4:31 pm

    How many days is it already since Najib came back from his hypocritical speech in UN? He has not said a damn thing about BTN and now this stuff.

    If he does not have a plan to end malicious politicking such as this, its time for PR to ask him to resign or dissolve Parliament and let the people tell UMNO/BN what they think

  8. #8 by PoliticoKat on Monday, 4 October 2010 - 7:26 am

    At times like this I feel frustrated, angry and hopeless.

    It is at times like this, I want to say enough is enough. We should let Malaysia continue down it merry way on the road to destruction. The Malays in general are happy with this path. And the Malays make the majority of the population.

    If the majority wish to commit national and economical hara-kiri, we have to accept it for that is democracy. We don’t have to like it nor keep silent about it but we have to accept the realities of the situation.

    You can’t save someone who doesn’t want to be saved. All we can do is save ourselves as individuals.

  9. #9 by dagen on Monday, 4 October 2010 - 9:00 am

    “If the majority wish to commit national and economical hara-kiri, we have to accept it for that is democracy. We don’t have to like it nor keep silent about it but we have to accept the realities of the situation.” Politicokat.

    Let them die huh. How simple and then we can rebuild the country from scratch – and with a clean slate. But there are several problems. When failure finally struck them, those umno politicians would surely put the blame on, oh yes, the rest of us. When failure finally struck the country, where will all the rest of us be? In the country still or out of the country already? My bet, a large number of us will still be in the country. These people too will suffer.

    Actually after 50yrs of independence all of us ought to be reasonably well educated. And with the benefit of education we should be able to reason for ourselves what is good for the country. Umno realised this too well. So umno decided to kill off this ability, this consequence of education, by mucking up education in the country. Chinese were better off economically. So by and large they were able to escape the muck up. Malay kids are less fortunate. They became umno’s political pawn and were treated like little plastic toys. Of course now umno has a different problem. Plastic toy for plastic toy, better quality ones are actually better and umno has got for itself a load of low quality plastics.

    Come alive my dear friends. Do realise that other than rambutans, the world also has dozens and dozens of other fruits to offer.

    ps. Cintanegara, you can remain a rambutan faithful ok. I saw someone stepping on a couple of rambutans by accident the other day and in consequence the fruits were squashed. I hope those rambutans were not yours. So pls do check between your legs now and let me know ok.

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