Mahathir can’t help opposition woo Malays

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Salor asssemblyman Husam Musa was probably not thinking clearly when he said that prime minister Mahathir Mohamad’s leadership of the Malay-based Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (PPBM) had neutralised Malay suspicion that the Chinese-led DAP will dominate the opposition.

Yes, politics should be colour blind, as we are constantly told by politicians from both sides.

To make that a reality, however, one must dispel the notion that the opposition is dismissive of the Malay community. To be considered a racially unbiased coalition, the opposition must be able to demonstrate that it has sway with the majority of the Malay population in the country. It has not done so yet.

Consider the current situation. PAS, an Islamist party that has a large say in the Malay community, has been out of the coalition for more than a year. It now sits on the fence between Barisan Nasional and the opposition, its loyalties to either side erratic at best. The past year has seen Pakatan Harapan being led mainly by PKR, a party with a largely urban Malay membership, and DAP, a primarily Chinese party famous for its racially insensitive approach to politics.

The first problem here is with Husam’s framing of the matter. The opposition does not face a binary Chinese-versus-Malay problem. The second problem is that Mahathir isn’t going to be changing that anytime soon.

Ignoring the tired joke about the perennially-ignored Indian community, the opposition has long faced a racial and socio-economic problem. The problem here is that the rural Malay and urban Malay are two very different creatures. Much of the opposition’s rhetoric centres on largely urban concerns and fails to address rural concerns.

This is precisely how insidious Barisan Nasional’s “divide and conquer” strategy has been thus far: allow urban Malays, less fettered by “cari makan” concerns, to be swayed by the opposition’s mostly 1MDB-based rhetoric while Umno sweeps the rural areas with its promise to always put food on the table.

The Chinese, on the other hand, have always been largely an economically independent community, one that Barisan has been content so far to leave alone while it allows the Malay fear-mongering game to continue.

To look less Chinese-centric, the opposition should have its veteran Malay politicians seriously start looking into ways to replace BN’s role as champion of the rural communities. DAP and PKR need to deal with the notion that “the Chinese are taking all our jobs” and Amanah needs to find a way to either work with PAS or replace it completely as the Malay community’s religious champions. To do this, Amanah will have to find some way to speak over DAP’s largely liberal, secular voices.

There’s a major problem with Husam’s argument that Mahathir’s leading of the PPBM charge will help dispel Malay suspicions. How sure is he that Mahathir, now pushing 91, has divested himself of all ambitions of controlling Umno’s leadership? Unless that happens, he isn’t going to be a complete opposition man anytime soon.

Calling Mahathir an Umno relic is putting it nicely. For one, the public will not easily forget his famous animosity in the 90s against opposition stalwarts such as Lim Kit Siang and Anwar Ibrahim, no matter how much he attempts to mend bridges. This history does not help with concerns of whether he really has the opposition’s interests at heart. What if his ultimate goal is to rejoin Umno?

Compounding the problem is his obsession with ousting Prime Minister Najib Razak. Although this falls nicely in line with the opposition’s goals, it marks the second time that he, as a retired prime minister, has chosen to involve himself in matters of the nation’s leadership.

In other words, there are too many parallels between him and late Singaporean kingmaker Lee Kuan Yew. This is not going to be something that the rest of the opposition will be fully comfortable with.

As things stand, the responsibility of erasing racial lines falls squarely on DAP and PKR’s shoulders, and they need to clean up their act.