It is significant that as we celebrate 56 years of being Malaysia and 62 years of Merdeka, a significant political shift is taking shape.
Umno and PAS, which have been bitter rivals most of their political lives but which have also formally cooperated in 1974, have once again entered the love phase of their love-hate relationship.
The two parties signed a pact on Sept 14 to unite and work for the betterment of the Malays and Muslims in multi-racial, multi-religious Malaysia, although they were politically savvy enough to add that non-Malays and non-Muslims won’t be left out of their version of Malaysia.
It is normal for political parties to sign cooperation pacts in an attempt to win power or retain power, and there is nothing wrong with it. We cannot fault the two parties for this move.
In fact, the coming together of Umno and PAS is a good political strategy. Umno knows it is unlikely to win power on its own. The Barisan Nasional is as good as dead as all its components, except for the MCA and MIC, have abandoned Umno. And it will be a miracle if the MCA and MIC ever regain their strength.
So Umno has decided to take a different route to return to power, one that gels with PAS’ thinking. PAS knows that on its own it will never be able to form the government and that non-Muslims and urban Malays will always be wary of it. The best bet for its goal of a Muslim nation is to team up with Umno.
Of course, whether the pact will last remains to be seen; for this cooperation will be tested, and may even evaporate, when the reality of who should wield more power arises at the next general election.
But however you look at it, this coming together of powerful Malay-Muslim forces is a politically expedient move, one that may bring both parties closer to power as the electorate is largely Malay-Muslim. Indubitably, their cooperation will pose a major threat to Pakatan Harapan (PH), the ruling multi-racial coalition.
But it has wider, and damaging, ramifications.
In my column of June 19, 2018 I spoke of the danger to the nation of the multi-racial coalition of Barisan Nasional disbanding and Umno going it alone. I added: “There may come a time when we have a fully Malay race-based party and a Malay-religious based party, PAS, or they could team up. If that happens, the country’s social fabric will be even more sorely tested, perhaps even ravaged.”
Umno and PAS say their pact will not just benefit Malays and Muslims but all Malaysians. Umno president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi said: “The cooperation is the best formula towards creating a harmonious country for generations to come.” Non-Muslims have nothing to fear, the two parties assure.
The leaders of Umno and PAS may say that this will not harm the multi-racial, multi-religious nation; they may even work towards ensuring this but the message that will seep into the minds of the grassroots is “Malay-Muslim first and foremost”. It won’t be “Malaysian first”, or even just “Malaysians”.
Instead of making Malaysians aware of their Malaysian-ness, of their similarities, it is going to make them feel they are different. The “other” will get accentuated in this political power play. The “Ketuanan Melayu” concept will receive more fuel.
My fear is, more Malays may start thinking we are “Malay-Muslim” and consider the non-Malays as “others” who should be grateful they had been granted citizenship. It may trigger a similar reaction from the non-Malays who may begin to think of the Malay-Muslim as the “other”.
Based on the reported remarks of PAS president Abdul Hadi Awang at the pact signing gathering, it is likely that non-Malays will begin to think like this. Hadi said the forefathers of the Malay-Muslims were the original inhabitants of the country and had initiated the fight for independence. The inference is that non-Muslims are the “other” and it downplays the role of non-Muslims in the fight for independence.
He also insisted that the country be governed by Muslims. It is already an accepted fact, but stressing it again and again will only make the non-Muslims feel things may get worse and that they may not have a place in the nation in future.
The Umno-PAS narrative, and those of groups aligned to them, is that Malay rights are being eroded under the PH government. The Umno-PAS “national unity charter” also speaks of restoring the confidence of the people in the “leadership of Islam, the Malays and the Bumiputeras”.
The question is: Aren’t the Malay-Muslims in charge of, or running, the government, the civil service, the armed forces, the police, the banking system, the multi-billion ringgit government-linked companies, sports bodies, and the local entertainment industry? Isn’t the current situation reflective of the leadership of the Malays and Islam?
So, what is the real aim of Umno, PAS and others in pushing this argument?
It makes me wonder. What if the Chinese political parties or all the non-Malay political parties in the country were to decide to sign a pact to work together for the betterment of the non-Malays?
What if the DAP, MCA, MIC, and non-Muslim parties in Sabah and Sarawak were to come together to form a pact to win more seats in the next general election?
What if they were to say: “Once we were holding many senior positions in government and the civil service, the first governor of Melaka was a Chinese, the banks were under our control, etc etc. We have lost so much. We need to unite and protect our rights to ensure a more harmonious Malaysia. We need to restore the confidence of the people in the leadership of non-Malay parties.”
What would Umno and PAS, or NGOs aligned to them, say to this? We’ll never know of course, because non-Malay parties know the ground reality and would never venture into this territory. But PAS and Umno have.
The formalisation of the pact between the two parties will almost certainly result in worsening racial and religious relations in the nation, even if the leaders of Umno and PAS do not intend it.
My fear is that we may see the dangerous emergence of two Malaysias.
Unless, of course Umno and PAS get non-Malay parties, including from Sabah and Sarawak, actively involved in their pact and become a voice for all Malaysians, not just Malay-Muslims.
Unless, of course, ordinary Malaysians ignore the politicians and the political play in motion and continue to think of themselves as Malaysians first and cooperate with fellow Malaysians using the Federal Constitution as their pact.
A Kathirasen is executive editor at FMT
The views expressed by the writer do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.