by John Lee, The Malaysian Insider
AUG 29 — As the Permatang Pauh by-election fades into the recesses of our memories, there is talk of it being a turning point in our country's history. Unfortunately, this talk habitually and routinely focuses on the possibility of changing the government by Sept 16.
It ignores a simple reality: Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim has already made history by being the first Malay politician to ever actually win more political support through an explicitly non-racial platform. It is practically impossible to underestimate how Anwar bucked the trend; he has completely turned our understanding of politics in this country on its head.
History has already made it crystal-clear; Malay politicians who try to unite the country by appealing to a common sense of Malaysian-ness inevitably wind up heading into political oblivion. Dato Onn Ja'afar's political career went up in flames the moment he founded the first multiracial political party in the country, in spite of it having every conceivable advantage — it was literally the incumbent party of the time because of Onn's towering status in Malayan politics. And it, of course, foundered completely.
Since then nobody has even tried to unite the Malays as Malaysians. Unite the Malays as Malays, of course; Syed Jaafar Albar famously proclaimed in the 1960s that he was a Malay first and a Malaysian second. Syed Hussein Alatas made an admirable attempt to change Malaysian politics through Gerakan, and we all know how that turned out. Literally every Malay leader who has tried to be Malaysian first ever since has risked being branded as a sell-out, a puppet of the non-Malays and a stooge of Lee Kuan Yew.
The one exception was Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, who experienced some brief success with his Bangsa Malaysia idea. This only makes sense, considering Dr Mahathir's iron-fisted handling of anyone who dared to oppose him; it is thus a pity that he never took this policy beyond mere words.
The moment Dr Mahathir handed over the reins to his successor, Malay politicians were up in arms criticising Bangsa Malaysia as a "nebulous" and untenable concept for daring to acknowledge that the non-Malays have a place in this country too.
So here we are today: 51 years after independence, the easiest way to tar a Malay politician next to calling him a Jew-lover is to accuse him of saying this country belongs to the Chinese and Indians too. That is simply how Malaysian politics works; to win the support of the Malays, you need to denounce the non-Malays as foreign squatters, who are only here as a matter of privilege rather than right, a privilege revocable at any time.
And what a coincidence it is — that is exactly how the Malaysian government works too. If you're not an Indonesian who can be counted as a Malay, your application for permanent residency or citizenship can never hope to see the light of day. If you're not a Malay, you can expect to hear your fair share of racist remarks in a public national school — and not from students, mind you, but teachers. As a student you can expect a syllabus which teaches you about the meaning of ketuanan Melayu rather than bangsa Malaysia. As an employee you can expect a civil service where you're not welcome unless they need you to fulfil their minuscule quota of non-Malay recruits. As an entrepreneur you can expect a government — and many government-linked companies — which will not give you any business unless you are a Malay. Half a century after independence, and that's what 40% of this country has to look forward to.
And since this is how the government works, up-and-coming politicians and political activists realise this is how politics works too. That is why even though you will never hear the typical Malaysian voicing such sentiments, political activists will readily denounce the non-Malays as foreign squatters here at the behest of a social contract which gives them the privilege, not right, to stay and live here.
Since this is how politics and government have worked since time immemorial, we owe Anwar an incredible debt for nearly single-handedly turning all this — everything — completely on its head. For the past half century, to be a good Malay leader, you have either had to publicly proclaim your support for ketuanan Melayu — and not the mild ketuanan as in strong leadership, but ketuanan as in "blood will run in the streets if our demands are not met" — or you have had to simply avoid commenting on the issue and just hope you can be all things to all people. Anwar ran on a platform, not of vague meaningless nice-sounding platitudes, but a platform explicitly against everything ketuanan Melayu stands for.
This is a man, mind you, who celebrated the end of his ban on active politics by damning ketuanan Melayu and consigning it to the dust heap of history. This is a man who has publicly and repeatedly proclaimed that his commitment is to the sovereignty of the people — ketuanan rakyat — rather than the dominance of the Malays.
This is a man who has never wavered from his stand that the philosophy of government assistance based on racial origin, rather than economic status, is fundamentally and morally wrong. This is a man who has repeatedly, wherever he goes, whoever he speaks to, driven home the same point, again and again: "Anak Melayu, anak saya. Anak Cina, anak saya. Anak India, anak saya."
And this is a man who has had everything in the traditional playbook of Malaysian politics thrown at him. He's been labelled a heretic, a sodomite, a liar, a hypocrite, a traitor willing to sell the Malays and Malaysians out at a moment's notice. The ruling coalition has done everything in their power to make it known far and wide that this is a man committed to non-racialism; committed to a Malaysia where everyone belongs.
Regardless of whether you think he deserves it, or if he was just lucky, credit is due to Anwar: where so many brave Malay leaders have fallen and failed, he has won an incredible victory. Onn Ja'afar was vilified simply for opening up his political party to Malayans of all creeds and colours; Anwar has gone above and beyond, explicitly declaring that this is a country for all Malaysians, whoever they might be. And he has won a resounding victory.
It would be one thing if he scraped through with a majority of less than 5,000 votes in the recent by-election, but the fact is, it was not even close — not with a landslide majority of 15,000, larger even than the majority his wife won before he explicitly condemned ketuanan Melayu. Anwar has succeeded where everyone else has failed; he has carved out a broad base of political support, not on a platform of rights or privileges for one community, but a platform of justice and equality of opportunity for all communities.
Criticise Anwar all you like for his inconsistent and wishy-washy stands on other issues. Criticise his coalition for its internal dissension and strange hypocrisy all you want. You can even say you have no intention of trusting a man who might just stab you in the back the moment he gains power.
The fact of the matter is, you do not have a choice between Anwar and your ideal, committed, consistent, sincere Malaysian leader. Your choice, in the here and now, is between Anwar and a regime built on racism, built on stoking the flames of mistrust and hatred. This regime of hatred has delivered its promise of ketuanan Melayu; why should we expect things to be any worse under a regime promising ketuanan rakyat? At the worst, it's the same old shit under a different government; at best, we might finally have a government and a political system which works for all Malaysians rather than whoever yells the loudest and threatens the most blood.
As far as taking power is concerned, this is still a long shot. Anwar may yet turn out to be a flop on delivering if he ever gets the chance to govern. But the simple and stark reality is, as far as we who live in the present are concerned, he is our best and only chance to put a stop to this insanity.
Anwar is not the perfect vessel for uniting the country, but there is a reason he scares the powers that be: he is the first real chance we have ever had to unite the country against the demons of racialism and parochialism. And for now, he is our only chance. He is the only one who can cross ethnic barriers to proclaim a commitment to a Malaysia where Malaysians, not Malays, are sovereign, and actually win more support than before.
I am no huge fan of Anwar, but I recognise what he has done, and how far he has come. I support him, not because I like him as a person, but because I believe in the cause he champions, and because I believe that if there is any person in this country who can make that dream a reality, it is Anwar Ibrahim.
John Lee is a second-year student of economics at Dartmouth College in the United States. He has been thinking aloud since 2005 at infernalramblings.com.
5 years ago