“A politician, a man engaged in party contests, must be an opportunist. Let us give up saying that word as if it contained a slur. If you want to win in party action, I take it for granted that you want to lure the majority to your side. I never heard of any man in his senses who was fishing for a minority.”
- Woodrow Wilson
As someone who has had a few public spats with Rafizi Ramli, the honourable representative from Pandan, I was gratified to read that a prominent Malay opposition leader was entertaining the idea that the stratagems of opposition in wooing the Malay vote was not working. I say “entertaining” because until there is evidence that the opposition is moving away from its failing strategies of wooing the Malay vote and embarking on something different, that is all it will be.
I have spent a great many articles writing about the Malay community not because I view them as an electoral resource but because I have spent the greater part of my working life working with Malays under stressful situations and found them hardworking, creative and motivated just like any other Malaysians who chose to serve their country. While some may argue that this has changed, I think this points more to policy and institutional failures rather than “culture” as some would have us believe.
Let me be very clear. I do not think that the failure of the opposition in courting the Malay rests solely on Malay politicians. It is much deeper than that. In ‘Challenging Umno orthodoxy’, I wrote -
“If the so-called oppositional Malay leadership, aided and abetted by mendacious non-Malay powerbrokers, continue to shovel the same horse manure to the people who have not benefitted from these so-called privileges, then I would argue that Malay supremacy is not really about the oppression of the non-Malays but rather the continued oppression of the Malays.”
In other words, the non-Malay component of the oppositional front has been complicit in failing the demographic they claim will get them in the driver’s seat of this country. We are dealing with institutional and policy failures of the opposition when it comes to the issue of the ‘Malay’ vote.
I want to highlight two points that I have made over the years I have written about the Malay community. These two points are the reason why the opposition finds it difficult convincing the Malay polity that they are a credible alternative.
1. “Furthermore, the mainstream Muslim political landscape is devoid of any secular alternatives. In lieu of policies or discourse that enables the Malay, polity to discover sources other than their holy book or explore their spiritual impulses without sanctions from the state, all the community has is an Islam that restricts their intellectual growth and encourages conformity through Umno racial ideology and state-sponsored religion.
2. “The opposition meanwhile does nothing to counter this but reacts to the establishment’s dirty tricks to gain political mileage from their own racial bases that further erodes any sense of solidarity between the races. There is a big difference between solidarity and unity.”
The big question is, what strategies does Rafizi think is not working?
Let us be honest. Umno has only three strategies, which are deployed in tandem that has been extremely effective in securing the Malay vote. Those three are cash, race and religion. Well, there is a fourth, electoral malfeasances, but an overwhelmingly majority would neutralise this, so this is the least of the opposition’s problems.
Now that we know what the Umno strategy is, what is the opposition strategy to counter this? As far as I can tell, when it comes to race and religion, Malay oppositional leaders have been pandering to the Malay community in the hopes of appearing more Malay or more Islamic to this community. Cash, of course, is another issue.
The opposition does not have the resources to match Umno’s. This is however changing. The ‘cash is king’ mantra is not sustainable in the current economic climate. However, the opposition does its own ‘cash is king’ routine by attempting to appeal to the Malay vote by increasing funds to ‘Malay’ organisations, both public and private, and numerous opposition personalities are engaging in freebie programmes in the guise of elevating the burdens of the general public.
If the demographic that you wish to woo thinks you are not sincere, it could be because what you say and do are completely different. You cannot say that you are different from Umno, will run the country differently from Umno and claim to believe in certain principles, but then do the same thing Umno does except with less cash.
Rafizi said that contrary to popular perception, the Malay community can “count and understand national issue”. Then why is it after the gains made by the opposition in 2008, has the Malay vote abandoned the coalition? Why is it that the majority of the Malay community which Rafizi claims understands national issues, would rather vote for a kleptocratic, incompetent, theocratic-leaninghegemon rather than the opposition?
Forget about Sabah and Sarawak for a moment, which as far as I am concerned, has been screwed over in different ways by the peninsular political establishment (which includes the opposition) - or as I call them the West Malaysian Mafia - for decades. Either the majority of the Malays on the peninsula really do not care about corruption or it is just that they do not think the alternative is any better or could in some ways be worse.
Rafizi said that the strategy involved “talking down” to them, which is probably means as I wrote in another piece that the opposition was coasting on its electoral gains. The people I have spoken to, young Malay activists and opposition Malay politicians who do not get as much play as those Malay operatives who cater to the urban demographic, agree with Rafizi, that the opposition is out of touch, with the average Malay voter.
In fact, I said the very same thing in the beginning of the year - “All politics is local and the opposition has yet to figure out what affects voters ‘outside the cities’ beyond pushing the narrative that they are ignorant and living off Umno handouts. There really is no excuse for this type of political laziness.”
Indeed, when Rafizi says that “We (the opposition) must honestly accept failings and offer solutions that may be controversial”, it becomes clear that for some Malay politicians, mainstream Malay political dogma is failing the opposition but not Umno. What does putting forth controversial solutions mean?
As someone who has written about controversial solutions and come against the brick wall of pragmatism, I do not have much faith that the opposition has the will or the intent to make such proposals.
Controversial solutions involve slaying sacred cows and nobody, certainly not Malay opposition leaders, are willing to put themselves out there in case they run into the cottage industry of Malay aggrandisement that Umno funds or even the backlash from their own fractured political alliance(s).
In addition, forget about non-Malay opposition politicians. With exception of a few outlier voices who challenge conventional opposition political wisdom, openly challenge the excess of Malaysian Islam, nobody wants to address issues that could make a difference in how politics is played in this country. These people normally find themselves on the receiving end of criticism on social media as not being team players, idealists, Trojan horses or worse.
As it happens, Rafizi’s moment on self-reflection was met with qualified acceptance. While I agree with DAP’s Howard Lee that we should not view the landscape as a monolith, I would argue that if your strategies are failing with the demographic you need to assume federal power, then it is pointless claiming that your strategies work with the demographic already in your political tent.
Meanwhile Amanah’s Salahuddin Ayub said that rural Malays are very concerned that the Chinese are attempting to subvert Malay political power. I wonder what strategy is employed to counter this notion?
In the end, there will be no more Malay dilemma. The Malay dilemma only works when there is a sizable non-Malay minority to play off on. The non-Malay demographic is shifting. Soon the points of conflict will be between the Malays - constitutionally-created Malays and the diverse foreign communities who will compete for resources while the political elite of the Malay community war amongst themselves for relevance.
The Malay community may not gain confidence in the opposition but they can be confident that in the end, whatever non-Malay bogeymen they believe scares them will no longer plague their social and political landscapes. The only enemy left standing are the enemies within.
S THAYAPARAN is Commander (Rtd) of the Royal Malaysian Navy.- Mkini