A ‘new Malaysia’ remains a pipe dream

Most political pundits agree that the 14th Malaysian General Election (GE14) was the beginning of the end of a one-party dominant political system in Malaysia.

The fall of Barisan Nasional (BN) at the federal level and several state governments controlled by BN was touted as the triumph of democracy and the fall of kleptocracy.

Some serious academics went a step further. They forcefully argued that the fall of BN in GE14 marked the rise of a “new Malaysia” – defined as a society that eschews race and religion-based politics.

Post-GE14, Malaysian society was supposed to erase all the bad and the ugly. While it is admirable to indulge in the propagation of lofty ideals such as a “new Malaysia”, it is, nonetheless, naive of some political actors to expect things to change overnight.

Teaming up with the remnants of the old regime – Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad and Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (Bersatu) – with the hope of bringing about a “new Malaysia” is laughable, to say the least.

The demise of the Pakatan Harapan (PH) government after only 22 months is testimony that the undercurrents in Malaysian politics are not easy to decipher.

Liberal-minded Malaysians may wish for the withering away of race and religious issues in the political arena, but this is not going to happen anytime soon.

Political analysts seem to miss the point that the “other” Malaysia – rural, underdeveloped, and dominated by one ethnic group – is not secular.

The “other” Malaysia is quite alien to ‘Bangsar-ites’ and the so-called progressive-minded Malaysians whose worldview is largely shaped by what goes on in the Klang Valley.

To appreciate the complexity of Malaysian politics, it is worthwhile to note that the Malay belt states are similar to the Bible belt states in the United States of America.

If we care to dig deeper into the psyche of the Malay populace in the Malay belt states, we will realise that just like the Bible belt states in the United States, religion factors in prominently. That is not to say that the Malays in other states are not religious.

In the urban centres, the Malays are more exposed to modernisation. With modernisation, it is argued that their value system and political culture will be more compatible with that of a secularist.

In the secularist scheme of things, religion and politics are mutually incompatible.

Before the coming of the West and the concomitant colonisation of the Malay Archipelago, the idea of secularism did not exist in its inhabitants’ worldview.

The scared was not separate from the profane. Similar to other traditional societies, the spiritual world fused into the administration of the various Malay kerajaan (governments).

For that reason, the British colonists did not interfere with religious matters and allowed the Sultans to remain as the head of Islam in their respective states.

With independence and the change of the role of the Sultans to constitutional monarchs, the position of Islam as the federation’s religion, was opened to various interpretations.

Is Malaysia an Islamic state, or is it a secular state? Or is Malaysia a hybrid political entity? The answer to these questions depends largely on your premise.

If you start with a different premise, you’ll end with a different conclusion.

Put another way, the political contestation in post-colonial Malaysia has not been able to move beyond the above questions.

Naturally, secular political parties are vehement that Malaysia is a secular polity and will not compromise with any attempts to change Malaysia into an Islamic state.

Malay-based political parties such as the United Malays National Organisation (Umno) and Parti-Islam Se-Malaysia (Pas) are in a tug-of-war to ‘out-Islamise’ one another.

Both parties are competing for the same electorates. Their constituencies are rural and religious. Unlike their urban counterparts, rural electorates do not keep religion and politics separate.

Umno and Pas had, and will continue to use Islam to appeal to their electorates. It is ludicrous to say otherwise. It is interesting to see how Umno’s decision to work with DAP will play out in the upcoming state elections on Aug 12.

While Pas had once worked with DAP, that unholy alliance had broken down, and Pas has since “repented”.

Umno is still trying to come to terms with its newfound alliance with the secularist DAP.

While Umno is busy explaining to its disgruntled members that DAP has “changed”, Pas and its partners are teaming up with Dr Mahathir to shore up their nationalist and religious credentials under the “Malay-Proclamation” banner.

In the meantime, a “new Malaysia” remains a pipe dream.

In the run-up to the 2023 state elections, Twentytwo13 has partnered with the Centre for Policy Research and International Studies (CenPRIS), Universiti Sains Malaysia, to offer readers research-based analyses and insights.

Established in 1974, CenPRIS is Malaysia’s oldest social science research centre. It serves as a resource centre for information and analysis of critical issues of common concern, bringing people together to exchange views, build expertise, and develop policy options.