A new Malaysia in distress


While Pakatan Harapan may want to stay true to its liberal and cosmopolitan base, one must understand that when one is in power compromises are sine qua non.

Some weeks after the 14th General Election (GE14), I was asked by a group of close friends to attend a “yum cha” session.

Some argued that GE14 was a repudiation of the ethnocentric and religious politics that were unabashedly propagated by Umno, PAS and their ilk; I took a contrarian view.

In my 10 years in active politics with Gerakan and Barisan Nasional, I forged a close working relationship with colleagues from other political parties within Barisan.

My relationship with Umno leaders was always cordial, even though I was very vocal on issues such as inflammatory and racial remarks by Umno leaders, PAS’ push for hudud in Kelantan, the use of the Sedition Act to silence critics and others.

My only regret is that I never made any of my concerns public, but then again, being part of government, one is constrained by conventions and the concept of collective responsibility.

Nonetheless, there was a healthy dose of mutual respect in the spirit of “agree to disagree.”

So, with that background and an intimate understanding with how Malay politics worked, I would say that the consolidation of Malay political power and the fightback by rural Malaysia was inevitable.

Many in the spirit of Malaysia Baru have dismissed Umno and PAS as fringe and racist voices. While a lot of what they say is filled with vitriol, one must ask: Why do they have such a following, and why do so many Malays agree with what they say?

First of all, Pasir Salak and Petaling Jaya are two very different places.The problem with the urban elite is that they expect the whole country to think like them.

The concerns of the rural folks, who are mostly Malay, tend to be very different from the urbanised cosmopolitan Malaysians that propelled Pakatan Harapan to power.

According to a Merdeka Centre survey, Pakatan only received between 25% - 30% of the Malay vote with the balance 75%-70% split between Umno and PAS. The lack of Malay primacy is a going challenge Pakatan, and Prime Minister, Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamed, certainly understands this.

The efforts by Dr Mahathir’s party, Bersatu, to poach as many Malay members of Parliament (MPs) as possible is driven by necessity and the need to ensure that the Malays feel comfortable with a new Malaysia that is very different from the old Malaysia.

Pakatan cannot rely on their wily coalition that has supported it thus far because they will surely shed some support from its core base in the next general election, so they need to ensure they gain popular acceptance with Malay voters to remain in power.

However, Bersatu seems to have paused its attempt to swell its ranks especially after the shock resignation of Nurul Izzah Anwar as PKR vice president.

However, the New Malaysia is in distress.

Rafizi Ramli put it best when he said many Malay voters, especially those in rural areas, voted for Pakatan because they felt Pakatan could better handle Malaysia’s perennial cost-of-living problem.

The drop in the price of palm oil and rubber has created a lot of economic hardship for rural Malaysians who rely on commodities. The lack of cohesive action on the part of the government to address this and the removal of aid programmess designed to help them cope in a low commodity price cycle has exacerbated the feelings of anger and distrust.

Also, the rationalisation of the many welfare schemes for farmers and fishermen have deprived them of a source of income which, though not ideal, that they have become accustomed to.

Many rural folks, who are very price sensitive, were taken in by the promise of lower prices post-GST and abolishment of tolls. Many of their children have PTPTN debts that they cannot pay.

The non-materialisation of all these promises has also contributed to the unease they have about the new government.

The final straw for many – and what galvanised the anti-Pakatan Malay forces –was the intention to ratify the International Convention of the Elimination of all forms of Racial Discrimination (Icerd).

The lack of understanding and the confused debate surrounding the Icerd is really unfortunate. I think it will be in Malaysia’s best interest to ratify it. However, the adage “learn to walk before you run” comes to mind.

The Dec 8, 2018 anti-Icerd rally sent shockwaves through the political establishment. Despite attempts to downplay its impact, clearly, despite the plethora of criminal charges facing Umno’s top leadership, together with PAS, they can still mobilise a crowd.

It's not wise to simply write off all those attending the rally as bigots. It's important to understand why are they doing so.

The Pakatan administration is very new; it is only six months old. I believe their immediate task should be to clean up the administration, enact important institutional reforms, repeal oppressive laws and put the economy on the right footing.

These are low-lying fruits, and there is no racial or ethnic dimension to any of this.

The more controversial measures can be taken up later as understanding and goodwill is promoted and fostered.

The fact that some Pakatan leaders have been so consumed with the overthrow of Barisan that arrogance has set in within a mere six months gives the impression that the new Malaysia is just old wine in a new bottle.

While it is understandable that Pakatan wants to stay true to its liberal and cosmopolitan base, one must understand that when one is in power compromises are sine qua non. So, they need to broaden their horizons and understand that they now represent Malaysia with its plethora of complexities.

Absolutes and ideological purity must give way to compromises and conciliation; only then the new Malaysia can work, and it must work for all Malaysians.

In opposition, the norm is to be critical without having to back that criticism up with actual implementation, but in government, it is the total opposite.

In government, one finds oneself doing things that one does not like, but that is the reality.

Ivanpal Singh Grewal

Ivanpal Singh Grewal is an Advocate & Solicitor. He was formerly Political Secretary to the Minister of Plantation Industries & Commodities.