Dennis Ignatius

A Ketuanan Melayu cabinet

Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin now has a cabinet. For non-Malays, it represents the most regressive cabinet we’ve ever had, a cabinet premised upon the idea that non-Malays don’t count, don’t deserve to participate in the governance of this nation. Muhyiddin used his coup to nullify the non-Malay vote; now he has used his cabinet to silence their voice.

His cabinet is the ultimate Ketuanan Melayu cabinet. Out of 70 ministers and deputy ministers, there are only two non-bumiputra ministers and five deputy ministers, the lowest representation in terms of percentage we’ve ever seen. Every other prime minister, whatever their own prejudices, felt obliged to take into account the fact that Chinese and Indians are a significant minority in Malaysia and must be acknowledged via adequate representation in cabinet. Muhyiddin has now dispensed with this.

Right-wing Malay politicians have long been unhappy with the post-independence construct that shared power with all of Malaysia’s ethnic groups. After GE14, when for the first time, a fairer political representation emerged, they were determined to stop any move towards shared governance.

The narrative that Malaysia is for Malays and that Islam does not permit non-Muslims to hold senior positions in the administration of the country took on a life of its own. It also found expression in rumblings that the DAP was controlling the government and undermining Malay institutions like Felda and Tabong Haji, that Christians were trying to change the official religion of the country and that non-Malay terrorist groups like the communist and LTTE were trying to subvert the nation. It was all rubbish, of course, but it served its purpose.

The message was clear: other than a token representation, non-Malays should have no political role in the governance of the nation. They are interlopers and pendatangs, here by an accident of history, less Malaysian than Malays.

Muhyiddin – who in Trumpian fashion once described himself as Malay first, Malaysian second – has now given the Ketuanan Melayu crowd what they’ve always wanted, a cabinet overwhelmingly dominated by Malays.

Of course, the likes of Wee Ka Siong and Saravanan and a small clutch of other MCA and MIC members are part of the cabinet but let’s face it, they are there as window-dressing, a ruse to mislead the public into believing that this is somehow a multiracial cabinet.

In any case, how can two political parties which were overwhelmingly rejected by the electorate speak for them?

No doubt the MCA and MIC are hoping that their return to cabinet would usher in a new beginning. With scraps from Muhyiddin’s table perhaps they think they can rebuild their political fortunes. They should have no illusions as to just how despised they are. By going along with Muhyiddin’s fake multiracial government, they have once again betrayed the aspirations of Malaysians; sooner or later they will feel the wrath of the people.

In the meantime, don’t expect much from this cabinet especially given the huge economic uncertainties we now face – the coronavirus pandemic, falling oil prices (and government revenue), declining investments, and a prolonged global slowdown.  All we’ll get from them is more of the same failed old policies that have kept us trapped within the wells of racism and religious extremism.

Most of their political energy will be spent on keeping each other from becoming too powerful. This is, after all, an unholy alliance of politicians united not by a common agenda or some grand vision but by political expediency and convenience. Their loyalty is to themselves and their respective parties, not to the empty and meaningless entity they call Perikatan Nasional.

Muhyiddin’s decision to leave the DPM’s post vacant says it all. While some hail it as an innovative method of improving cabinet efficiency, it is, in fact, a clever way to hide the divisions with the coalition and stymie the ambitious men with sharp knives who keep company with Muhyiddin.

After all, if they could stab even the venerable old man of Malay politics without a second thought, what will they do to him given the chance.

Azmin, in particular, has been effectively hemmed in; he has the nice title of “senior minister” (along with three others) but with little real power. And if he accomplished nothing of any significance as Mahathir’s economic tsar, you can be sure he’ll do even less at the international trade and industry ministry. He’ll quickly become restless and start plotting again.

About the only thing we can be sure of is that they will not be thinking about the future of the nation but the next election when the mother of all political battles will take place. It will be a fratricidal battle to see who will sit astride the Malay power structure and, of course, reap the economic benefits of power.

But Malaysians should not lose heart or hope. Muhyiddin’s government will, sooner or later, expose the utter bankruptcy of the Ketuanan Melayu ideology and its leaders. Bigotry and extremism will only get them so far. They had it easy before because they could blame everything on the DAP; now they have power, they will have to demonstrate that they can govern, that they have the capability to innovate and come up with new ideas to get the country moving again. They are not up to the task.

The good thing though is that after a couple of years of Muhyiddin’s government, the clamour for real change will grow exponentially. A new generation of younger leaders, unencumbered by the baggage of the past, untainted by corruption and with a passion for justice and good governance will rise and gain support. It is already happening. It might take ten years or more but one day, we will awake to that better Malaysia of our dreams.

[Dennis Ignatius |Kuala Lumpur |10th March 2020]