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As former law minister Nazri Aziz’s racist outburst in Semenyih continues to reverberate across the political landscape, the way racism and religious extremism are being used to stymie the reform agenda of Malaysia Baru is also getting the attention it deserves.

Genuine reform has always been viewed with hostility by Ketuanan Melayu politicians and their followers. For them, anything that limits their ability to manipulate people, institutions and situations to their advantage is quickly projected as existential threats to “bangsa, agama dan negara.”

Threats & intimidation

And if they don’t get their way, they resort to threats and intimidation. As Nazri put it, “Malays must be the priority in our struggle because if racial issues are not taken care of, there will definitely be riots.” PAS leaders, for their part, invoked the imagery of the 1950 ‘Nadrah’ riots (in which 18 people were killed and 173 injured) in calling for Malay unity to defend the Malay race and Islam.

They know their arguments are intellectually unsustainable so they avoid real dialogue and discussion and focus instead on stirring up raw emotion with innuendoes, half-truths and outright lies.

They also know that in the current political climate, they can make the most outrageous claims – DAP working with Israel to set up a military base in the country or Christian evangelists appearing on national television or the AG a communist sympathiser – and get away with it because, after more than 60 years of UMNO rule, truth is no longer held in high esteem in our culture. Even a so-called religious party like PAS now legitimizes lying as “sharia-compliant.”

Using racism to stymie reform

It is no surprise then, that every time the Pakatan Harapan (PH) government talks about reform, Ketuanan Melayu propagandists quickly turn it into a racial or religious issue to block change.

ICERD is perhaps the best example, but it is not the only one.

The ministry of education mulls much-needed changes to the curriculum and rumours immediately surface about a DAP team working within the ministry to hijack the curriculum for its own purposes. The ministry quickly clarifies that the “the national curriculum will continue to be maintained….”

Minister Gobind Singh Deo talks about reforming his ministry and UMNO insinuates that it is a prelude to reducing Islamic programming and allowing Christian evangelists on national television.

Cabinet decides to place Tabung Haji under Bank Negara to improve its governance (and this after several financial irregularities were discovered) and UMNO and PAS warn that the DAP is meddling in Islamic matters and threaten mass demonstrations.

Mahathir says our bloated and inefficient civil service needs to be trimmed and at once the word goes out that it is nothing but a sinister move to undermine the interests of the Malays.

When the issue of the Unified Examination Certificate (UEC) is raised, UMNO (which promised UEC recognition in its manifesto) insists it threatens everything including Malay civilization. Even though their arguments are utterly absurd the government backs down, abandoning yet another of its manifesto promises.

The silence of PH leaders

The reluctance of many Malay PH leaders to counter the blatant racism of UMNO and PAS is troubling to say the least. Instead of standing up to the racists and extremists, they merely mumble a few general platitudes about the importance of national unity.

Lim Kit Siang was right to take UMNO to task for not rebuking Nazri but he should also be concerned about the attitude of some of those from within the very ranks of Bersatu and PKR itself.

Rais Yatim (Bersatu Negeri Sembilan chief), for example, blamed his party’s defeat in Semenyih on the DAP and demanded that PH “rein in” the DAP. And, in yet another stunning display of convoluted Ketuanan Melayu logic, he opined that the DAP’s actions were “similar in gravity to the corruption scandals involving UMNO leaders.” Tellingly, apart from Entrepreneur Development Minister Redzuan Yusof, no Bersatu leader has seen fit to come to the defence of the DAP.

Bersatu had no problem working with the DAP to win power; indeed, they sung its praises and lamented how unfairly the DAP was demonized in the past. Now that they are in office, however, they treat the DAP worse than UMNO and PAS. With leaders like Rais, one has to wonder whether there’s any real difference between Bersatu and UMNO. They are, after all, cut from the same cloth, dyed in the wool UMNO men now posing as centurions of a new order. 

What hope for reform?

It’s hard not to conclude that the PH leadership appears to lack the courage of their convictions (assuming they have any) to stand up to UMNO and PAS. The way they folded on the ICERD issue, caved in on the UEC or backed away from the promise of local council elections suggests a troubling lack of both conviction and resolve.

And, every time they back down, they only empower the racists yet further; no wonder PH is in retreat on so many fronts.

And now we have Syed Saddiq (who is quickly learning that in politics it is easier to pander to the gallery than to actually debate issues) implying that the reform agenda shouldn’t be rushed because it might upset the Malays. Was all that talk about “berani kerana benar” just empty posturing?

What hope can there be for reform if even PH ministers are not convinced that the reform agenda is vital to our nation’s future? What hope is there for the reform agenda if the cabinet itself will not stand up and fight the racists and bigots in UMNO and PAS? What future can there be for Malaysia Baru if Bersatu leaders themselves start parroting the racist invective of UMNO and PAS?

[Dennis Ignatius | Kuala Lumpur | 6th March 2019]

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