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Tuesday July 27, 2010

The politics of football jerseys

We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty. Demanding that all alternative views be silenced in the name of unity is the last thing we need.

WHEN is a football jersey just a football jersey? And when is it something satanic and evil?

The controversy over Manchester United (and other) football jerseys may appear silly and frivolous — something cooked up by senior muftis in the aftermath of the World Cup.

It is not. Indeed, the issue is deeply serious.

Moreover, it highlights a fundamental difference within the Malay community — striking dead the idea of Malay unity.

The core issue is straightforward: Malaysian Malays need to decide where to draw the line on the power and authority of the ulama.

It’s becoming clear that many Malays — predominantly those who support PAS — are willing and ready to submit totally to the ulama.

Interestingly, there are even Malays in PAS — principally the “Erdogan clique” — who question the infallibility of the ulama.

On the other hand, many non-PAS Malays want clear limitations on the temporal authority of these religious figures.

It is arguable that this difference — let’s call it a split between the Masjid and the Istana — lies at the heart of the tussle between PAS and Umno.

In the same vein, Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim’s PKR represents another alternative view on the order of power within the Malay community — placing the rakyat as the source of political sovereignty.

Indeed, there have been times when Umno — especially in the earlier years of the Mahathir administration — was more egalitarian and wary of the feudal influence of the Royal houses.

However, Putrajaya’s lavish exultation of the power and office of the Prime Minister returned Umno firmly to the bangsawan ethos it enjoyed in Tunku Abdul Rahman’s day.

So, while personality plays a critical role in Malay politics, there are ideological differences underpinning the three main Malay parties.

Indeed, the outcry over the football jerseys reveals the spectrum of Malay thought.

Some Malays came out in support of a ban whereas a large number rejected the idea altogether.

However, what is striking is not so much the controversy itself but the varied responses of the community.

These responses show in turn how diverse the Malay community truly is.

Moreover, it reinforces how difficult, indeed impossible, it is for “Malay unity”, or more specifically Umno-PAS co-operation, to be realised.

The community has become simply too diverse for any single socio-political model to be applied to it.

In fact, this has been the case throughout the ages.

Malaysian Malays comprise many sub-groups like Minangkabaus, Javanese and Bugis.

Indeed, in Indonesia, people from these communities would not even be considered “Malay”.

The calls for Umno and PAS to work together (interestingly, they always exclude PKR or any of the Sabah and Sarawak bumiputra parties) stem from a fundamental misunderstanding of ethnicity and politics.

It is also mostly motivated out of fear and mistrust of the non-Malays.

It’s disturbing, therefore, to see Malays who are opposed to Umno and PAS coming together or who are against the conservative Malay worldview labelled as “traitors” to the race.

We must not, as Edward R. Murrow said, confuse dissent with disloyalty.

Demanding that all alternative views be silenced in the name of unity is the last thing we need.

Furthermore, we owe a larger loyalty to Malaysia as a whole and this transcends ethnic boundaries.

What sort of message are we giving to the non-Malays when we prioritise our own ethnic group over the larger, national project?

This initiative may well end up destroying Umno in the long run.

The DNA of the two parties is fundamentally different and while Umno may be able to remain in power for the short run, co-operation with PAS would come at a great cost.

If Umno wants to retain power, it has to stop listening to conservative voices like Malay rights group Perkasa president Datuk Ibrahim Ali and the Mufti of Perak (who was both a prime mover in the calls for Malay unity as well as the ban on Man U football jerseys).

Umno has to realise that differences of opinion are inevitable within the Malay community.

Indeed, these differences will multiply and grow as demographic trends continue to favour the Malays.

They need to be respected rather than suppressed.

Umno, furthermore, must acknowledge that its power stems from its wise and principled leadership of all Malaysians, and that its policies and actions have to be tailored to the national project.

The party must do more to strengthen the reformists in their ranks and not leave them hanging as previously.

This will do more to ensure that Umno will stay in government, rather than misguided notions of “Malay unity”.

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