Politics: Get the Malay-Muslim agenda right

This article first appeared in The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on May 6, 2019 - May 12, 2019.

Other stories in the Malaysia Baru: One Year On Special Pullout

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The Pakatan Harapan government is one without a Malay-Muslim soul.” This is a very harsh and unfair assessment, just a year into its rule, after a change in the federal government for the first time in 61 years. But this is the rhetoric that has been promoted by some in Umno, its newly found partner but once-arch enemy, PAS, as well as segments of the Malay community.

This premise is based on the political story line that PH’s Malay-based parties Bersatu and Amanah and the Malay-dominated PKR have neglected the Malay-Muslim agenda and that the coalition is dominated by Chinese-led DAP, which has scant desire to uphold Malay-Muslim interests.

Much of this is not true but it is a simplistic counterview that is expected from an “effective” opposition. It is one that is gaining momentum and if PH continues to poorly communicate its Malay-Muslim agenda — without clarity and better understanding among its coalition partners and supporters, including the liberals that are also part of its national multiracial and multireligious agenda — then the alliance could become mired in a political quagmire that would be difficult to get out of.

What PH has done in the last one year for the Malay-Muslim community is credible, by cleaning up misdeeds and strengthening the operations of organisations that very much have a Malay-Muslim soul. Notable among them are FELDA (a Malay-dominated settlement scheme), Tabung Haji (a pure Malay-Muslim savings fund), Majlis Amanah Rakyat or Mara (a Malay organisation that focuses on rural development, entrepreneurship and education) and Lembaga Tabung Angkatan Tentera (a Malay-dominated military pension fund).

The process of correcting past wrongdoings — putting in a new set of professionals, charging managers who were corrupted and abused their positions and delinking political influence in these organisations — are still ongoing. In the case of FELDA and Tabung Haji, substantial financial assistance has been rendered.

The PH government is exorcising a wretched and misguided Malay soul, making room for one whose organisations are honest, not corrupt and able to develop and grow further. With more focus put on good governance, management and professional discipline, these organisations should yield better results for the long-term benefit of the community.

But why is this positive Malay narrative a lost plot within the Malay community, including those in the heartland? Is there a lack of effective communication in telling the story? Many, including myself, think so.

One reason could be that many of the seasoned and streetwise former opposition leaders — who were so good at articulating and assuring that the interests of the Malay-Muslims (and the non-Malays as well) would be taken care of — are now ministers and deputy ministers in the new government. Grappling with their new tasks and learning how to work effectively with the civil servants to execute the government’s plans, they have found themselves having limited time to go to the ground to explain their side of the story.

Many of these areas are the same fertile Malay-Muslim grounds that are facing a high cost of living. Rightly or wrongly, some within the community believe that things could worsen if the new government does not take care of their rights, which they feel were better protected by the Barisan Nasional government. These are the fears that are being fully exploited by Umno and PAS.

PH is now locked in a delicate position of balancing conflicting sentiments — trying to pacify a Malay heartland that is getting impatient and angry, losing its non-Malay supporters who thought they had voted for a fairer Malaysia and being criticised by the liberals and urban elites whose idealism does not seem to be not in sync with the majority of the Malay-Muslim population. And all of them want their interests to be heard today and not tomorrow.

In Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, PH has someone who can explain the Malay-Muslim agenda well but he has an inexperienced Cabinet to manage and a debt-ridden economy to grow.

So those outside the Cabinet — PKR’s

Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim, Rafizi Ramli, Nurul Izzah and Nik Nazmi Nik Ahmad, Amanah’s Husam Musa, Nik Omar (son of the late PAS spiritual leader Nik Aziz Nik Mat Aziz) and Muhammad Faiz (son of the late PAS president Fadzil Noor) and many more — can be of great help by going to the ground to explain PH’s Malay-Muslim agenda and that it is indeed a government with a Malay-Muslim soul.

The importance of the Malay-Muslim agenda — and communicating it correctly — is something that cannot be taken lightly in a New Malaysia that strives to be fair and equitable for all races. Like building a house, one needs to start with a strong foundation and build it brick by brick.

A new house — which replaced the 61-year-old one that collapsed under the pressure of corruption and that wants to emphasise on a racial and religious harmony and fairer and equitable society — cannot be built without a strong foundation and without taking care of the socioeconomic and political concerns of the Malay heartland and the bottom 40% of the population. Without a strong foundation, the house can collapse earlier than expected.

One year into power, the PH coalition has done fairly well in managing the nation. It still has ample time to improve the economy, create more jobs, bring down the prices of goods, strengthen the education system, tackle race and religious relations effectively and implement most of its election promises.

But politics is a numbers game and one that can be easily swayed by sentiment. In a democracy, a party or coalition that wins more seats rules. The next general election, four years down the road, will determine if the house that PH is building is on solid ground or if the majority will opt to build a new house with a foundation that likely rests on the pillar of Malay-Muslim dominance.

Azam Aris is editor-in-chief of The Edge