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Newly minted deputy prime minister Zahid Hamidi gave one of the most noteworthy speeches of his long political career a few days ago in Padang Serai. Speaking at a mega by-election ‘ceramah’ alongside Rafizi Ramli, Mat Sabu and others, an apparently contrite Zahid said he had learned from his mistakes and was ready to work together with Pakatan Harapan to build a more tolerant and inclusive nation. 

Breaking into Mandarin from time to time, he pleaded for greater respect for all Malaysians irrespective of race or religion. He went on to express the hope that the new unity government would work together even beyond its current term to forge “a glorious government to lead the country forward”.

Such was the change that had come over the man that he even lauded his long-time adversary – the DAP – for the huge sacrifices it had made to make Anwar’s unity government possible and called on Perikatan Nasional to emulate the DAP. Too bad he himself didn’t see the need to emulate Lim Guan Eng and step aside in favour of someone less controversial, but that’s another story.

Honestly, I never thought I’d hear all that from Zahid, a man who in the past had exploited race and religion and frequently indulged in race-baiting to ride to the top of UMNO. He also employed the race and religion narrative as justification for plotting the collapse of one of the most multiracial governments we’ve ever had.

Nevertheless, we must ask of him the same question we once asked of Dr Mahathir Mohamad in the days before GE14: is he for real? Mahathir, you might remember, woke up one morning to discover what a decent party the DAP was after all. At speech after speech, he praised the DAP and expressed admiration for the contribution of Malaysian Chinese in nation-building. Once prime minister, however, he reverted to his old ways, complaining that the Malays had lost power and begrudging all the appointments he had given to non-Malays. 

Perhaps Zahid has had a Damascus Road experience after being drubbed at the polls and now sees Malaysia in a whole new light. If he has indeed changed and is now truly committed to building a Malaysia where all, irrespective of race or religion, will be accepted and respected, it might well be a game changer, a sign that we are finally beginning to move away from the destructive cycle of racism and religious extremism. That alone would be something to shout about.

But excuse me if I don’t immediately break out into song or dance in celebration of Zahid’s chrysalis-like transformation. The last few years have turned me into a cynic. Besides, politicians are notorious chameleons; they can be whatever we want them to be at any given time. Words are important but actions matter more. 

Let’s see if Zahid will now take it upon himself to champion a more inclusive approach to politics and seek to convince his own base that it is time to turn a new page in our nation’s chequered history of race relations. If he does, maybe there’s some hope for Malaysia after all. 

[Dennis Ignatius | Kuala Lumpur | 7th December 2022]