Race + religion + recession = trouble

I don’t know how many people are celebrating Merdeka – I mean really celebrating, not just going through the motions. And I don’t know how many will really celebrate Malaysia Day on Sept 16. It appears as if a pall of despondency is descending on the nation.

From what I hear and what I read, people are losing faith in politicians, both those in the opposition and those in Pakatan Harapan. Many are losing faith in the professionalism of civil servants too.

People are worried that religious and racial fault lines are widening.

Even those who thought Mahathir 2.0 would rise up to reset the clock and clean up his legacy are losing faith in the prime minister. Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s remarks are not always unambiguous; he may indicate something today and two weeks down the line say something opposite.

Some are wondering if Mahathir may be more concerned about the longevity of PPBM than, for instance, in nipping the rise of racial and religious bigots and restructuring the bureaucracy to not only act in a professional manner but to open it up to diversity.

Others are wondering if the recent hoo-hah over the sudden introduction of khat to vernacular schools and Zakir Naik being treated as a hero by PAS is part of a bigger agenda crafted by one or two crafty politicians.

But this fear, this distrust, is not a new phenomenon.

The decline in trust started in the 1990s, during Mahathir’s first stint as chief executive of the nation. It accelerated rapidly under former prime minister Najib Razak who vacillated when faced with racists and religious bigots, allowing the situation to deteriorate in order to stay in power. It cost Najib dearly.

Today, people are worried that the Pakatan Harapan government also, like its predecessor, seems impotent in tackling racism and religious extremism. People are concerned that action appears to be selective, certain individuals or groups seem to be protected, and half-baked policies are being announced.

Others are worried that the pairing of a wounded Umno and an ambitious PAS could spell trouble as both Malay-Muslim parties will plan strategies to appeal to the emotions of Malay-Muslims to win in the next general election, and in the process further divide the nation.

As I said earlier, this is not a new phenomenon. Periodically, we have been going through such pain and fear since after May 13, especially with certain developments following the accelerated implementation of the New Economic Policy and the Islamisation of the administration in the 1980s and 1990s.

But we have survived – primarily because ordinary people of various races and religions still work, eat and laugh together. Most Malaysians still act decently, and are kind even to strangers. And the number of moderate Malaysians who are speaking up is increasing.

However, this grassroots unity could be shaken and the race-religion rhetoric worsen if the economy stumbles.

No doubt Bank Negara Malaysia (BNM) data show that the second-quarter GDP grew 4.9% year-on-year and Malaysia outperformed most other Asean countries in this period, but as BNM governor Nur Shamsiah Mohd Yunus said, “clear downside risks remain on the immediate horizon”, especially from external factors.

The external factors include, of course, the protracted trade war between the US and China. Although, as some say, it may benefit Malaysia, the benefits will be limited to certain sectors. In the long run it will most likely have a deleterious effect.

Also, the economies of several nations are sputtering. Argentina is already in recession. The German economy, the backbone of the European economy, shrank 0.1% in the second quarter of 2019 while the economy of Britain contracted by 0.2%. And Italy’s growth was flat between April and June after growing 0.1% in the first three months.

Mexico’s economy shrank 0.2% in the first quarter of the year but grew 0.1% in the second quarter to escape a technical recession by a whisker. Brazil too escaped recession by showing a second quarter growth of 0.4% after having contracted by 0.2% between January and March.

A technical recession happens when there is negative growth over two consecutive quarters.

Nearer to home, Singapore’s economy contracted 3.3% in the second quarter, after a positive 3% in the first three months of the year.

No one can say for certain when and if a global recession will happen, although most economic pundits say it is only a question of when. Some say it could happen by the end of the year, others by the end of next year.

Recessions, although normal in the economic cycle, are always bad news, but more so for a nation which is struggling with race and religious issues and which has, in reality, an all-Malay opposition (as Umno’s BN partners the MCA and MIC hardly figure in the big picture). This is because an economic problem can be twisted and given racial or religious shape by the intellectually-challenged, the willfully blind and the power hungry. And we have quite a number in our midst today.

If the number of people out of jobs rises and if the cost of living, especially food prices, spirals upwards; if more and more people have less and less real money, it will trigger frustration which could turn into anger against the government, or migrant workers, or fellow Malaysians of other races.

A recession could exacerbate an already difficult situation.

It, therefore, becomes even more important for the Pakatan Harapan government to focus on the economy. Healthy domestic consumption can help avert a recession, so the government has to think of ways to boost domestic demand, and take other measures to ensure the economic health of the nation.

A Kathirasen is an executive editor at FMT.

The views expressed by the writer do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.