Two paths stand before our politicians
MP SPEAKS | Must all Malaysian politicians play the race card? Are we stuck with race-based parties and racial politics?
Sixteen months into the birth of New Malaysia, these questions have unfortunately continued to haunt us. Former deputy prime minister Musa Hitam once reportedly said that a young Malaysian politician had to play the race thing to the hilt even if there was not a single chauvinistic bone in his body.
This was due to the predictable cycle in Malaysian politics: Politicians talking about national unity during general elections when they need to appeal to a diverse electorate; then outflanking one another in making themselves relevant to their race-based parties at party elections. This vicious cycle of a dangerous race to the bottom was a curse on our politics.
But racial politics and race-based parties are not inevitable nor are they Malaysia’s destiny. Racial politics nevertheless becomes a key feature when race-based parties are dominant and internal party polls of race-based parties beckon.
Embarking on the former is a conscious, deliberate decision made by some politicians - some of whom are supposed to be “young”, “bright”, “moderate” or “reformist”. Likewise; the continuance of the latter is due to their voters and party members choosing to sustain them.
This does not mean that either is good for the country - or that both are part of Malaysia’s default setting; its natural state of affairs.
A multiracial party
Rather, I would argue that the success of PKR shows that there is another path for Malaysian politics. The decision to form a multiracial party, with a multiracial platform as espoused by the Permatang Pauh Declaration was also a conscious decision by party founder and president, Anwar Ibrahim.
Many close to him had strongly advised him against it. It was felt that this was tantamount to political suicide. But it was a decision not only borne from his experience in politics – it is also his realisation that the only way Malaysia could truly evolve was via an entity that would champion the aspirations of all its people.
There have been many reports on my party’s death - and all of them have been greatly exaggerated.
In 2013, we won seats in every state of the Federation. In 2018, in addition to becoming the largest party in the Dewan Rakyat, PKR also emerged as the most multiracial - as it always has been. Our MPs consisted of Malays, Chinese, Indians, Dayaks and Kadazandusuns.
We could not have done this if Malaysian voters in the constituencies that elected our candidates were not open to the idea of multiracialism.
PKR has, after all, never hid this aspect of our ideology. We have always openly campaigned on it - and proudly so. After Anwar's release from prison in 2004, he called for a shift from the New Economic Policy (NEP) to non-race-based affirmative action. After the party's resurgence in the 2008 election, he declared our support for ‘Ketuanan Rakyat’, as opposed to ‘Ketuanan Melayu’, in Kampung Baru, the heart of the Malay community in Kuala Lumpur.
This by itself shows that race isn’t always the be-all, end-all of politics in Malaysia.
Our members are from all backgrounds. One close party friend is a Chinese-Malaysian Protestant pastor who joined the party in 1999. There are not a few Muslim ustazs who are now elected PKR YBs. One, I remember, advised us how to perform our prayers when we were caught in one of the Bersih rallies a few years back.
A party member and Invoke volunteer who was from Cheras, a safe DAP seat, chose to help out in Setiawangsa as it was a marginal seat, spending nights in my service centre with his wife and young daughter. Not long after witnessing Pakatan Harapan's victory on May 9, 2018, he passed away following a sudden illness.
I remember travelling and campaigning in Sabah with party comrades who taught me the original ‘Tanak Kampung’ song in Dusun that highlighted the poverty faced by many Sabahans, way before the Malay version was popularised in Peninsular Malaysia.
There is no way I - or any of my colleagues - could get ahead in our party politics by appealing to just one racial or religious group. Even the so-called “camps” in PKR are divided along personality and policy lines, rather than faith or ethnicity.
Some people claim that PKR flip-flops over the so-called “sensitive” issues - that we have no template answers to or strong positions on such questions. But this rather reflects the fact that we debate such issues vigorously, in a way that respects both our multiracial realities and democratic ethos.
This will likely not satisfy our critics but we believe this is the best way forward in a multiracial society like Malaysia. We cannot and are not trying to please everybody. Rather, we are working to create common ground for and confidence between all Malaysians. This cannot come about without a willingness to compromise.
Credible Malay leadership
I also believe that this approach is the best way to move my community, the Malays, forward.
The fact is that the monoethnic parties have let us down. They may seem bulletproof at times and they may even win power. But inevitably, they will go through the same cycle: strength, that leads to hubris, overreach and corruption, then to decline and downfall.
Complacency when they are in office and an unwillingness to accept competition means they will fail sooner or later. The founder of modern sociology, Ibnu Khaldun, wrote about this cycle afflicting dynasties and tribal sectarianism in his famous work, ‘Muqaddimah’.
But the damage these parties do to ordinary Malaysians - including the Malays - and to the country is very real.
The so-called “bumiputera agenda” cannot be achieved on our own - it will require the support of our fellow Malaysians with credible and principled Malay leadership. Closing the socio-economic gaps between and within the races, as well as greater national integration, with not only require the votes and consent of all Malaysians, but also their energy, ideas as well as emotional commitment.
This will not happen if our leaders are obsessed with relegating the non-Malays to second-class status. It will also not happen if we do not allow for diversity of opinion within our own community. It’s time we, the Malays, become more confident as Malaysia’s demographic majority today and of its future.
There’s nothing wrong with wanting to champion the fate of one’s ethnic group. Some feel there’s no need to be apologetic about it - and that’s perfectly all right. But it’s plain ignorant to think that the political power, dignity and socio-economic status of the Malays - or any Malaysian race for that matter - cannot be advanced via the multiracial path.
It is dishonest to believe that using racialist, sectarian and exclusionary language or actions do not hurt others. Both Malays and non-Malays need to recognise that as our forefathers did, our fate lies in recognising that our fortune depends on one another. That was the Merdeka Consensus, that was embodied in Rukunegara, even an original reading of the NEP.
As our nation celebrates Merdeka Day and Malaysia Day, two paths stand before its politicians and voters. One is the multiracial path. The other is of toxic sectarianism.
Everyone must make their own choices in politics, as in life. But I repeat: racial politics and race-based parties are not our destiny. Indeed, those who choose them will be condemned by history.
As for PKR and myself, we will continue to fight for a Malaysia that does justice to and is home for all its people.
NIK NAZMI NIK AHMAD is the chief organising secretary of PKR and MP for Setiawangsa. He has written a few books in Malay and English. His first book, ‘Moving Forward: Malays for the 21st Century’, first published in 2009, is now out with a new preface and postscript.