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Malaysians danced in the streets on Thursday evening when Anwar Ibrahim took the oath of office and become our 10th prime minister. They had good reason to celebrate. It won’t be an easy journey, however, given all the challenges we face.

Perhaps, the biggest of all these challenges is that our nation is hopelessly and perhaps irrevocably divided. The popular vote reflects the fragmented state of the nation – Pakatan Harapan (PH) 38%, Perikatan Nasional (PN) 30.13%, Barisan Nasional (BN) 22.16% and Gabungan Parti Sarawak (GPS) 4.16%. 

For the first time in our history, no party emerged with even a simple majority in parliament. What’s worse, the four main coalitions are so bitterly divided that without the intervention of the King, a government might not even have been formed.

While a resolution of the post-GE 15 political impasse has brough relief and hope, political stability is still far from certain. PAS-dominated PN will almost certainly go out of its way to destabilize the government. Every issue will be made into a racial and religious one. 

It’s not just the usual noisy political jousting intrinsic to most democracies; behind it all is something far more distressing: the complete breakdown of societal consensus on key issues. 

Sadly, despite more than half a century of nation building, we have failed to cohere as a nation. We’ve had lots of aspirational statements – Bangsa Malaysia, Keluarga Malaysia, and the like – but a common identity and a common vision of what Malaysia should look like remains as elusive as ever. 

Increasingly, we are distinct ethnic, religious and cultural communities hiding behind our own walls, trapped within the confines of a common geography.

Religion, in particular, has proven terribly divisive. Malay-Muslims, for example, generally want to see everything about the nation defined by Islam; non-Muslims cannot relate to, and are deeply uncomfortable with, such a construct. Indeed, they see themselves as having no part of anything that is framed exclusively in Islamic terms.

Calls for non-Muslims to be excluded from senior government positions, for Shariah law to supersede the civil code or demands for non-Muslims to conform to Islamic social mores may seem reasonable to many Muslims given that Islam is the religion of the Federation; but it is profoundly alarming to non-Muslims who value a more secular society. 

The same can be said about race relations. “Malay rights” is hugely important to Malays; non-Malays feel bitter and resentful that half a century after independence, they are still treated as second-class citizens, blocked from availing themselves of the full benefits of citizenship. 

Only now do we see the full folly of the politics of race and religion that has been so recklessly perpetuated over the last 60 years. We are fracturing at an alarming rate – the differences are becoming more and more pronounced and more and more difficult to bridge. We are pulling apart, going in different directions. Our hopes and expectations are different. Common ground is becoming harder and harder to find.

We have a new government lead by Anwar Ibrahim. He will have his hands full. So much needs to be set right. So many things will require his immediate attention. National unity, rebuilding consensus and restoring inter-ethnic trust may not be seen as a high priority.

Nevertheless, until we find a way to bridge our differences and find some common ground, the centrifugal forces of race and religion that is tearing us apart will make Malaysia more and more difficult to govern.  We’ve survived GE15; if we keep on ignoring the issues that divide us, we may not be so fortunate when GE16 comes around.

What we need now is an honest and frank national dialogue on the kind of nation to build going forward. Can Malaysia be truly democratic and truly Islamic at the same time? Will we be a secular democracy or an Islamic theocracy? Are non-Malays going to be full and equal citizens or will they remain ‘pendatang’ in the land of their birth?  Should non-Malays participate as co-equals in the governance of the nation or is that the sole preserve of Malays? 

Can we overcome our differences? Can we make the compromises necessary to build an enduring national consensus that all can associate with and support with equal enthusiasm and commitment? What do you think? 

[Dennis Ignatius | Kuala Lumpur | 26th November 2022]