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Tuesday, August 30, 2011

For UMNO and PBB, religion is the final gamble

Pak Bui

We are used to hearing wizened (if not particularly wise) men like Taib Mahmud, Wong Soon Koh and Alfred Jabu warning us, with furrowed brows, that the DAP and PKR must be stopped from bringing in ‘peninsular style’ politics to Sarawak. They talk about the DAP championing racial politics, and the PKR practising a confrontational style.

But these old men are increasingly greeted with scepticism. A growing number of Sarawakians now understand Barisan Nasional (BN) was built on racial politics, and was established to provide a kind of stability, as exemplified by its election symbol of (primitive) weighing scales or ‘dacing’.

Under this simplistic model, BN component parties behaved as advocates for each “imagined community”. Ostensibly, Umno would ‘fight’ for Malays, PBB for Malays and Dayaks, MCA and SUPP for Chinese, and so on. The model kept BN in power, but poisoned race relations in Malaysia for generations.

Racial politics gave birth to the New Economic Policy (NEP). The creators of the NEP showed an insatiable appetite for the petroleum, timber and other resources of the nation. The NEP provided an excuse for Abdul Razak, Malaysia’s second prime minister, his cronies, and their successors to enrich themselves, while poor Malays remained poor.

NEP-driven kleptocrats began the process of stripping the nation’s assets, all the while mouthing the excuse of helping Malays – like Saturn devouring his own children: according to Greek mythology, the titan Saturn ate each of his first five offspring, for fear they would overthrow him.

The income disparity between rich and poor Malays ballooned far higher than that between Malay and Chinese people. Racial politics created resentment among ‘bumiputeras’ and ‘non-bumiputeras’ alike. Malays saw a tiny cabal growing fabulously rich, while the ordinary Malays without ‘connections’ were neglected. Corruption and racial politics produced a generation of brain drain (of all races) and bumiputera dependency on the state.

The entrenched BN strongmen represented little more than their own families and political cronies. They were racial champions, but they fought only in a long, drawn-out struggle for their own personal and clan survival – a battle for survival that belongs more to the animal kingdom than any philosopher-kingdom.

The ‘dacing’ never represented justice. It stood simply for the principle that the races had to be kept in a kind of artificial balance or equilibrium, and that no-one must challenge the status quo.

But in the early part of this century, Umno found its demographic power growing. The Malay proportion of the population grew, thanks to a higher birth rate, and emigration of non-Malays abroad. Umno won a thumping victory in the 2004 general election under Abdullah Badawi, and began to believe it could rule without much support from other BN component parties. Umno began to sideline MCA, Gerakan and MIC, just as the PBB ignored the SUPP and PBDS.

However, Umno and PBB misread the zeitgeist and found its support slipping among urban voters in 2008 – Malays, Chinese and others. Now, Umno and PBB must scramble to secure their power base among the rural constituencies, where racial politics retains its strongest influence.

Afraid of being swept away

So when Sarawak chief minister Taib Mahmud says he rejects ‘peninsular-style’ politics, he means he is afraid of the political tsunami that took place in the peninsula in 2008. He fears political awareness among the people. In short, he is afraid of ‘peninsular-style’ political opposition, when he is used to having things entirely his own way.

In the latest state election in last April, Sarawak BN’s share of the popular vote dipped eight percentage points to 55%, despite all the overwhelming` advantages of BN’s gerrymandering, dirty elections tricks and vote-buying. Taib can see the end of his dynasty writ large across the election results.

This is the greatest threat to Taib’s near-absolute power since the Ming Court conspiracy of 1987. But this is no Ming Court revolt that could be put down with some judicious bribes, and cunning manipulation of weak-minded populist politicians like Masing and Moggie.

This is a sea change in voters’ sensibilities. It bears more similarities to the recent popular uprisings driven by youthful idealism, in the Philippines, the Middle East, Venezuela and Bolivia, than the cynical, manipulated Ming Court revolt of 1987, when one set of greedy racial manipulators wanted to replace another.

Umno tried and failed to stoke racial hatred with its support for anti-Hindu cow-head protests, inflammatory “pendatang” statements by servants like Najib’s aide Nasir Safar, Selangor Umno’s Noh Omar, Penang Umno’s Ahmad Ismail and Utusan Malaysia. Malaysians of all races have not risen to the bait.

Religious hatred trump card?

Umno and PBB now seem to hope religious hatred is their last trump card.

Umno servants, with the unflagging support of Sarawak BN, have imposed a ban on the use of the word ‘Allah’ by non-Muslims. They have allowed extremists to whip up religious fervour resulting in churches being torched. They spread ridiculous accusations that the DAP and Christians are working together to overthrow the government, and recently raided a Methodist church and even accused a tuition centre of converting Muslims to Christianity.

Umno, with the support of Sarawak BN, is trying everything possible to create anxiety among Muslims, when there is no reason for Muslims to fear Christians. They hope this will translate to more BN votes. Umno hopes to distract Muslims from the widespread anger over rising food prices and corruption, and from the revolutions by other Muslims against Middle Eastern tyrants.

It is, of course, impossible to separate religion completely from politics. As long as religion remains part of our humanity and our society, and can never be destroyed, there can never be such a creature as a truly secular government.

We can only hope that political arguments couched in religious terms are kept civil and open to criticism by all. John Rawls’s ideas in the theory of justice ought to be applied in any debate: any religious argument must not be made from a position of considering one’s own religious demands or self-interest.

Rawls held that each of us must withdraw behind a ‘veil of ignorance’ when we engage in debate. Anyone embarking on any political argument, must first attempt to escape being aware of his or her own interests, instead of championing his or her own religious beliefs, when participating in a debate.

Exploiting religious prejudice and hatred to gain political support, as practised by Umno and carried out in Sarawak by the PBB, is an example of cynical awareness of how each of us can be moved by religious manipulation – the complete opposite of the ‘veil of ignorance’, and a sign of greed and injustice.

In the end, umno’s assault on respect for Malaysians’ religious diversity is likely, too, to fail, just as umno’s racist attacks have even eroded more urban support for the BN.

More and more Malayians have come to realise that religious posturing on umno’s part is fake, merely an act, just as Hosni Mubarak and Muammar Gaddafi’s portrayal of themselves as good Muslims came to nothing, when the poor rose up against the corrupt rich.

“Religion is what keeps the poor man from murdering the rich”, said Napoleon Bonaparte. But that was more than two centuries ago. Playing on religious feeling may not keep Malaysians today from rejecting the corruption of umno and PBB for much longer.

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