Camerons, race and the New Malaysia

IT promised to be an interesting by-election, and Cameron Highlands did not disappoint.

The hilly settlement has to be one of the most scenic places in Malaysia. The long and windy road that takes you to this hill station will always conjure great memories. The verdant green hills stand testimony to this fertile and rich land that provides Malaysians with a bounty of fruits and vegetables.

Datuk Sivarraajh of MIC fought a hard battle in the 14th General Election and won by just over 500 votes.

However, his victory was nullified when the Election Court ruled that he used money to curry for votes.

Pakatan Harapan’s candidate, M. Manogaran, the former MP of Teluk Intan in Perak, had battled valiantly in the past two general elections, and with him coming into this by-election on the tides of a new Malaysia, many thought he was a shoo-in.

However, Barisan Nasional crafted a political masterstroke by fielding Ramli Mohd Nor a former police officer and an orang asli from the Semai tribe. The BN consensus was re-written as MIC made way for a direct Barisan candidate.

I think there are lessons to be learned. Also both sides of the political divide must do much more to adjust to the post one-party rule era.

Relying on the post-election analysis of a reputable local think tank, I would say it was evident that there is a clear and obvious divide that must be bridged.

Nine out of 10 Malays and eight out of 10 orang asli voters opted for Barisan. Eight out of 10

Chinese and seven out of 10 Indians opted for Pakatan. The racial divide, despite the denials, is very much alive in the New Malaysia.

The Malays are still very uncomfortable with the tenets and tone of the new Malaysia. The perception that the DAP is a chauvinistic party also does not seem to have lessened, and the fact that some DAP leaders, especially those in government, continue to use their offices of state as a bullying pulpit further entrenches the dislike and distrust.

Second, Pakatan’s failure to keep to its manifesto, especially on lowering the prices of goods and services, hit them hard amongst the Malays, especially those in rural areas as they are a very price-sensitive demographic.

Third, the euphoria of Malaysia Baru has dissipated considerably. The political high drama has to be replaced by real and concrete action to better the livelihoods of Malaysians.

Nothing much is being done besides shifting the decks, and restlessness has set in.

Fourth, rural Malays depend heavily on palm oil and rubber for their income. The problems plaguing Felda, Felcra and the like has resulted in many settlers seeing a reduced income and in some cases no income at all.

The low commodity cycle is not helping the government as just over a year ago, settlers and small farmers were enjoying record incomes as palm oil and rubber prices were buoyant. Immediate steps must be taken to address this problem.

The orang asli voters remained staunchly with Barisan, even though some inroads were made by Pakatan in certain polling districts. However, the driving thrust of their support for Barisan, I am told, was because they wanted to see the first orang asli MP, and Ramli was their man.

Pakatan also scored numerous own goals during the election cycle. Despite saying they did not want to use government machinery during the election, a Deputy Minister was caught red-handed, on video, doing just that.

Secondly, the image of a lady handing out money to Pakatan supporters just after nomination cast a pall over Pakatan’s entire campaign because Barisan’s win in GE14 was nullified because of money politics.

The flimsy justifications offered after did nothing to help but merely reinforce the perception, that once in power, one can do as one likes.

Also, the candidacy of M. Manoharan from DAP was less than inspiring.

Manoharan had lost twice before and, even though he succeeded in his election petition, in the greater interest of his party and coalition, he should have made way for someone more dynamic and acceptable to Cameron Highlands at large.

Drawing from all this, one would say that the divide and fault lines in Malaysia Baru continues and that the government must do all that it can to overcome it.

Those in power must assess the situation empirically and, instead of dishing out platitudes and pronouncements, real action is needed to arrest the myriad problems facing the country.

Umno and PAS, with their public and uncloaked political cooperation, has caused significant political ripples. Some months before GE14, I took part in a discussion between public and private sector stakeholders and the topic of discussion was what if Barisan were to lose the election.

Of course, some took an extreme view and said Barisan would not go on its own volition if it lost and that a state of emergency would be declared. That did not happen, of course, and the transfer of power to Pakatan was seamless.

I propounded that naturally, if Pakatan won but did not garner a plurality of Malay votes and had more non-Malay MPs, then the Malay political forces would coalesce under the spirit of Malay unity and Islam. I said this would be regressive for a nation like ours because we needed leaders who were inclusive and not exclusive.

However, as Umno and PAS are now fighting for their political survival and Umno is no longer constrained by the ambit of cooperation that was required first in the Alliance and later Barisan, they are free to work on Malay-Muslim unity and cooperation with PAS.

Pakatan has been unable to endear itself to the Malay populace and, in fact, is bleeding Malay support.

Bersatu's efforts to defenestrate Umno has been unsuccessful, and with Malay support consolidating around Umno and PAS, the urge of some MPs to abandon Umno has abated considerably. Hence, Pakatan’s Malay problem persists.

The Semenyih by-election will now be the cynosure for all politicos in Malaysia. If Umno is victorious in that by-election, then clearly the political playbook has to be re-written.

However, I have to state that having racial and religious issues played up for political

gain will be our country’s undoing. It is up to those in power to prevent it from happening.

Ivanpal Singh Grewal

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