‘Change will have to come from the Malays’

A conversation with political analyst James Chin on the country's largest ethnic group being the lynchpin for change, flashpoints in Borneo and more.

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Malaysian politics has been noisier than usual but going nowhere fast, despite a pandemic-induced economic recession with thousands being left unemployed in its wake.

Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin continues to hold on to power despite commanding a razor-thin lead while opposition chief Anwar Ibrahim is still trying to prove that he has a “strong, formidable, convincing” majority.

In between the desire of one man to hold on to the levers of government and another's ambition to wrest that away, the cogs in the political machine keep turning.

Bersatu's Ahmad Faizal Azumu was ousted as Perak menteri besar yesterday after losing a confidence motion while, at the federal level, Anwar has yet to clinch a victory in a series of bloc votes as Budget 2021 is being debated at the committee stage.

Where or to whom should the jaded Malaysian look to amid all the ruckus? Maybe the best place to start is to get a feel of the situation, a bird’s eye view of the mess we are in.

For that, I turned to someone who not only has seen it all but makes a living commenting and writing about Asian, including Malaysian, affairs: James Chin, director of the Asia Institute, University of Tasmania.

While he is known as a veteran academic, with a number of books and journal articles to his name, to some of us in the press corps, James is always that guy, easily accessible to the weary journalist in need of a comment to meet deadline.

And he didn’t disappoint. In this lengthy, wide-ranging interview conducted before the recent goings-on in parliament and in Perak, we talked about political change, elections and the state of play in Putrajaya.

Our lightly-edited conversation below:


EMMANUEL: Let’s begin with your interpretation of shifts in federal power from the 14th general election on May 9, 2018, that saw a change in government with Pakatan Harapan (PH) taking over Putrajaya, only to be ousted by Muhyiddin and Perikatan Nasional (PN) in late February this year.

JAMES: We need to start with 2018 during that dramatic downfall of the Barisan Nasional (BN) government. For the first two years, or less than two years, when PH was in power, I think they did try very hard to create a new political norm. When I talk about a new political norm, what I mean is trying to move to the middle ground.

As you know, especially from the year 2000 onward, the BN government was becoming more and more Malay-centric or what Malaysians call ketuanan Melayu. And, in recent years, they moved to ketuanan Melayu Islam because of the strong push by PAS.

But PH tried very much moving to the middle ground. For example, some of the major policies, the coalition tried to introduce a non-racial approach. That, however, opened up a leeway for Umno and PAS to come together to start the narrative that the Malays were losing power.

And through a series of by-elections, it was quite clear that the rural Malays, particularly the rural Malays, found that narrative compelling. That’s why Umno and PAS won those by-elections.

Then there were internal discussions within PH itself, especially Bersatu which were in direct competition with Umno. Many forget Bersatu’s DNA is essentially Umno’s. After all, it is a breakaway party.

But PH embarked on a search for a new political order and, interestingly, that quest ended up in the February incident, where Dr Mahathir Mohamad suddenly resigned as prime minister and on March 1, Muhyiddin replaced him.

When Muhyiddin clocked in, what was made very clear was that rather than search for a new political order, they reverted to the old order, which is a very Malay- and Islam-centric government. So, we’re going back to the end of the BN days in 2018, which is basically ketuanan Melayu Islam.

That’s how I interpret this: that we have gone almost a complete circle. I’ve always argued consistently that what happened in March this year is very much the Malay community, especially those in the rural areas, sending a very strong signal that, “We want the old political order.” In other words, “We like the way the government was ruling during the Umno days”, when the Malays were in charge.

And I think the reason for this is that they were spooked very badly by this Umno-PAS combo. It’s not by accident that the duo is called Muafakat Nasional (MN) — which is a narrative to tell the Malays they were losing out under PH.

EMMANUEL: Despite the easy access to information these days, particularly social media, couldn’t PH counter that narrative?

JAMES: What happened to PH was by design, not accident. You have to remember the fundamental change to Malaysia was in the 1970s when the New Economic Policy (NEP) was introduced.

Most people focus only on the economic aspects of the NEP, but that's just one part.

The real impact of the NEP, I’d argue, is changing the mindset of the entire Malay community, telling them that they are the chosen ones. That’s why one of the things that came up very strongly in the NEP was the dividing of the population between what they call the Bumiputera and the non-Bumiputera.

It was made very clear that the government would first serve the needs of the Bumiputera, which in everyday language means a Malay-first policy. This has been there since the 1970s and the Malays had grown up with this idea that they must, at least, be politically in charge.

So, they certainly felt they were under threat, especially with PAS and Umno caricaturing DAP and then finance minister Lim Guan Eng as the bogeymen.

PAS and Umno were claiming that Lim was going to take away their privileges. Under PH, however, it was understood that the finance minister was just collecting money while the person actually in charge of spending the money was then Economic Affairs Minister Azmin Ali.

But like most things in politics, people don’t accept reality. Instead they accept a certain narrative.

Also, as a journalist, you'd know that during PH’s time, a constant complaint against the coalition was that they didn’t have a media strategy. They were all over the place.

So, PH really had no narrative at hand to counter this argument put up by PAS and Umno, which is very a simple one — “That you Malays are losing out. You used to be the boss at one time, but now under Pakatan, you have been relegated to second-class citizens.” So, this was something immediately understood.

EMMANUEL: A remark I come usually come across is how the Malay vote is divided across a number of political parties. But now under Muafakat, are we actually seeing Malay unity of sorts?

JAMES: No, we are not. There has never been such a thing as Malay unity. The Malays have always been split among themselves. Part of it, again history is reflective of reality, is that there is no such thing as a common Malay political culture.

The sultans guide their individual states with each one having their own quirkiness, with a lot of emphasis on local ideology and culture.

For example, when we talk about Malayan politics, we talk about the Kelantanese and how they are very different. Even among the Malays, they will complain about the Kelantanese and it is the same with how some Malays in other states complain about their Johor counterparts.

This phenomenon is basically shaped by what we call local ideology or local culture, hence there’s no such thing as Malay unity. I have always argued that it is a myth.

EMMANUEL: But that’s what we are seeing right now, I think, with three major Malay parties — Umno, PAS and Bersatu — under one pact...

JAMES: What you have here are the Malays coming together to fight off the so-called non-Malay threat, if they perceive they are under threat.

Right now, as we speak, they don’t think they are under threat. There’s more leeway to fight among themselves. I’d argue this rift will actually get worse until Bersatu, Umno and PAS come to a very clear settlement about the division of lines, that is who gets what.

Muhyiddin’s biggest headache, if he were to move a general election soon, is how is he going to divide the seats? Essentially, we are talking about roughly 120 seats in rural Malay areas and all three parties are chasing the same seats.

Bersatu does not stand a chance in urban areas, as they stand to gain very little in mixed seats. So, their rice bowl will have to be the core Malay areas. Guess what? Umno is also after the same demographics.

This is the reason Muhyiddin is under tremendous pressure in terms of trying to get a general election going. It’s very difficult to draw the line, because for every seat that goes to Bersatu, Umno will lose out. And if you talk about the northern Malay states, Umno and PAS will both be chasing the same seats as well.

This is a difficult model because, remember, back under the old BN framework, whatever Umno says, Umno does. Ironically, back then, the Umno supreme council was more important than the Cabinet because it was the former that decided, only for the latter to endorse.

EMMANUEL: Under this ketuanan Melayu Islam banner, where do outfits such as multiracial, youth-led Muda fit in?

JAMES: They can only be an agent of change if they win seats in parliament. Among the things the British really hammered into the Malaysian psyche is that you can only be a political leader if you are part of parliament. But if you are outside parliament, no one takes you seriously.

I argue that if you want change in Malaysia, two things must happen: Firstly, the people bringing change must be in the Dewan Rakyat and these people must be of some standing.

Secondly, and much more importantly, change will have to come from the Malays. It cannot come from the non-Malays. The non-Malay NGOs out there trying to promote reform, unfortunately, are not going anywhere.

Change will have to come from the Malays themselves and they must be very clear in their minds that Malaysia, whether they like it or not, is a multiracial country.

Increasingly in my discussions with various stakeholders, they opine that Malaysia is becoming more and more Malay because the demography is changing rapidly.

But what most of them whom I talk to do not understand is that underneath this demographic transition is the rapid pace of urbanisation. You are talking about a Malay population that is going to not only become bigger, but increasingly urban.

EMMANUEL: So, where will the battle be for the Malay vote?

JAMES: It will be ideological. One of the things that the Malays have to resolve is what sort of country do they want Malaysia to be.

Do they want it to be under the old Umno model which is ketuanan Melayu, or do they want it under the current model of ketuanan Melayu Islam, or do they want the model promoted by PKR for a while, instead of ketuanan, it is kepimpinan Melayu or Malay leadership?

And, they need to come up with an idea of what the country’s vision will be. Because if you look at successful countries around the world, they have a clear identity, a clear idea of how they are and what they want to be.

In Malaysia, we never had this. All this while, since the 1970s, we kept arguing about this terminal tension between the Malays and non-Malays. And this conflict has taken a life of its own and covered every other issue.

Anytime people want to engage in serious political discourse, the racial card will come up, and we can’t move forward because of this tension.

EMMANUEL: Any of these Malay-centric, Malay-dominant parties we are talking about that can be an agent of change?

JAMES: Right now, their number one thinking is not defining Malaysia’s identity. The number one thinking is how to win the next general election and, for Umno, how to get rid of Bersatu.

Because I can tell you, a lot of Umno people are really unhappy because the party is seen as one of the three. All this while, they wanted Umno to be, at the very least, clearly marketed as No.2. That’s the reason they have been pushing so hard on the deputy prime minister issue.

Umno also thinks it can make a big comeback in the next general election, so they are really, really plotting to kill off Bersatu.

EMMANUEL: Given these dynamics in Muhyiddin's government, what will Sabah and Sarawak do? They are bent on asserting their rights. Sabah is now in the hands of Gabungan Rakyat Sabah and the state's new chief minister, Hajiji Mohd Noor, is from Muhyiddin's party.

JAMES: The first point in understanding Sabah and Sarawak is that there is set of historical grievances called Malaysia Agreement 1963 (MA63).

Although it has always been there, it blew up in 2008. What happened was that, that year when BN won government, the coalition realised without the Sabah and Sarawak MPs, the coalition would have lost power.

And, ever since, Sabah and Sarawak governments have increasingly been asserting themselves for more autonomy or what they call the rights under MA63.

Now, those grievances in my view will get worse in the coming years for the very simple reason that Putrajaya is not giving up controls over certain federal-state issues.

Then again, what I suspect is that the political class in Sabah and Sarawak will increasingly be more “state nationalist” where they’ll demand more and more from the federal government.

That’s what they are doing right now as they know Muhyiddin is weak. So long as Putrajaya remains weak, this tension will be high. If Putrajaya was led by a strong leader like Mahathir, these people won’t be pushing hard. Issues like oil and gas royalties — Mahathir just refused to budge.

EMMANUEL: What happens if these negotiations fail? There have been pockets of so-called secessionists who have made the headlines from time to time.

JAMES: If Putrajaya refuses to give up control, then the people in Sabah and Sarawak may think the whole Malaysia experiment, maybe it is a failure, and maybe they might look at certain extreme positions.

As you know, there are small secessionist groups in Sabah and Sarawak that claim Malaysia as a failed experiment and that both states need to leave. My understanding is that this movement will gain ground if the three — Putrajaya, Kota Kinabalu and Kuching — cannot come together, resulting in Putrajaya failing to devolve more power.

EMMANUEL: Why is that?

JAMES: Putrajaya must acknowledge these historical grievances: that we made a series of mistakes after Malaysia was formed. The major one being not taking the political promises or safeguards made to Sabahans and Sarawakians seriously.

Putrajaya has concentrated too much power. The irony is that the guy who really centralised power is actually Mahathir. On one hand, we have Mahathir who centralised power and, on the other hand, is this political setup which is basically his baby. So how are we going to change the system when the old man is still there?

Don’t forget, as you and I speak right now, he is still plotting to be the next prime minister. I always tell people never bet against an old horse, so never bet against the old man.

EMMANUEL: We have been talking quite a lot about the Malays and their role in shaping the country’s political discourse. Where does this leave the non-Malays though, people like you and me?

JAMES: I would argue the non-Malays are increasingly being marginalised in the system. Even in today’s cabinet, there’s only one Chinese minister, and the problem with him is he can’t get any respect because, obviously, MCA did not get the Chinese vote. It’s quite clear his colleagues can ignore him.

And because the Bersatu-Umno-PAS government will have to project themselves as a Malay-centric government, they’ll need to make sure most of the government benefits go to the Bumiputera community because they got in on such support. So, they’ll have to show that they can deliver.

You have to remember that when these guys got into power, the first thing they were thinking about is not how to kickstart the economy but on winning the next election, because they didn’t get in on that ticket.

The first line of thinking was, “How do we win the next election?” That’s why after they got into government in March, initial discussions were about who will lead the government into the next GE.

That’s why Budget 2021 is also very much like a BN budget, where the bulk of the government spending will be for the Malays, because their No. 1 narrative, when they got into power, is that this is a Malay government. So, they (PN) have to buck up on that narrative with real policies towards the Malays.

EMMANUEL: If a general election is called early, say next year, what’s your take?

JAMES: My take is that if it’s called around that time, say next year, that PH, especially DAP, will still do well.

DAP will keep all the 42 seats and maybe gain one or two additional mixed seats. Amanah will do very badly. But it’s PKR that will suffer to the point of losing half of their present seats.

My thinking is that the Malay ground has shifted so much to the right that PKR’s message of a moderate Malaysia or moderate Malay leadership — those are not selling anymore.

This idea, of moderation, is dead at the present moment. It may come back in the future, but for now it’s all about ketuanan Melayu and ketuanan Melayu Islam.

EMMANUEL: But there’s Anwar, Mr “Strong, Convincing, Formidable”, who might have Umno to help him shore up the numbers.

JAMES: The rumour of Umno supporting Anwar is based on the assumption that Umno cannot reach a deal with Muhyiddin. This unhappiness would then spill towards Anwar, in his favour.

My take is that Muhyiddin understands politics very well. You are talking about a guy who has been in politics for 40 years, so he knows how to play the game. He will cut a deal with Umno to make sure he stays in power.

Although there are unhappy people in Umno, and they may move to Anwar, reality is a lot of senior Umno members don't like Anwar for a variety of reasons. They don’t trust him.

So even if this group moves to Anwar’s side, it'll only be to depose Muhyiddin. We will definitely be witnessing something unstable, if this really happens.

EMMANUEL: Why are you confident that DAP will retain its support base? That party’s grassroots have had quite the rollercoaster ride, from the effects of working with Mahathir to party secretary-general Lim Guan Eng’s graft charges to the possibility of having ally PKR working with Umno.

JAMES: Because the non-Malay — mostly Chinese and Indian — votes will still go to them.

The Chinese community especially, you have to remember that increasingly towards the end of the PH government, they were quite disappointed with DAP, because of the things the party promised to do but didn’t. The perception was that DAP had been compromised just like MCA and Gerakan when both were in government.

But DAP is now back in the opposition and, here, from the perspective of the old DAP, they can constantly criticise the government, talk up Chinese issues, for example. So, I wager the Chinese will continue to support DAP because it’s back to the original DAP.

EMMANUEL: Curious, why would non-Malays join Bersatu as associate members?

JAMES: Because there will always be a section of the non-Malay population who will always join parties like Bersatu, just like there is a small number of Chinese who became associate members of PAS.

This is simply because some non-Malays want to be associated with those in power. If you look at the structure of PAS’ associate members, most of them come from Terengganu and Kelantan, where PAS is in power.

There will be some Chinese, Indians and other non-Malays who would join Bersatu willingly because they want to be closer to power.

Reality is, as an associate, you are basically second class. You might not be allowed to take part in major policy debates and can only influence from the sidelines, meaning you can't change the direction of the party.

EMMANUEL: And what will become of Muhyiddin and his “grand” strategy, if any?

JAMES: Muhyiddin will need to divvy up the rural seats between his party, PAS and Umno. The three parties might resort to a “minimum deal” where if you’re an existing Umno MP there, you will stand again. But the other seats are free for all.

What’s really interesting for me is that while a lot of people talk about Muhyiddin having a long political career, I argue otherwise. I suspect if he is going to lead the government in the next general election, that will probably be his last.

EMMANUEL: But that’s not typical of Malaysian prime ministers… Mahathir and Najib Razak?

JAMES: I sincerely believe that this guy does not want to repeat the practice of Mahathir or Najib who want to stay on forever. The most he’ll stay will be for one-and-a-half terms. The half-term is now. Then you have one more term.

Even then, I am suspicious as to whether he’ll actually stay on to complete that extra term, partly because of his health, also because he is not enjoying the job as much as he does. I think he didn’t expect his so-called partners to start pressuring him immediately after the government was formed.

People talk about PN as if it has been around for a long time. But, good gracious, they have only been around since March. The reason people think they have been around forever is primarily because Muhyiddin has been a minister forever, first as Johor menteri besar and then moving on to becoming a federal minister, other than that short period when he was kicked out of Umno.

What’s certain is that these political players are trying to create a new game. But can they? More importantly, do they have an idea of what Malaysia is and can they move Malaysia forward?

Because today if you were to ask the senior politicians in the country what is Malaysia, I seriously doubt you'll get a common answer.

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