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Friday, April 2, 2010

Muhyiddin mirrors Umno’s dilemma — Ooi Kee Beng

APRIL 2 — The shocking and defiant statement made recently by Malaysian Deputy Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin that he identified himself more with his race than his nationality reveals the difficulties that the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) faces.

He was responding to opposition stalwart Lim Kit Siang’s challenge to him to state whether he was Malay first or Malaysian first.
First, Muhyiddin was making a public statement with both eyes on his own effective audience, which was not the imaginary Malaysian, but the imaginary Malay. This is clear from his fearful caveat that if he said he was Malaysian first and Malay second, “All the Malays will shun me … and it’s not proper”. He was hinting that his statement was not an honest one; just a politically expedient one.
Here lies the crux of the matter. Many leaders of the United Malays National Organisation (Umno) have for decades been appealing to their own low opinion of what the Malay ground feels.
This perception is kept alive partly by Umno’s need to convince the Malay community that it is basically a helpless lot that needs eternal party protection, and partly by the gap that has opened up between the Umno leadership and the changing Malay community.
The notion that the Malays are in danger of disappearing is the bogeyman that Umno’s leadership seems to have trouble discarding. Despite — perhaps because of — the fact that young Malay voters are showing increasing support for opposition Malay-led parties that avoid mention of racial exclusivism, some leaders in Umno are moving to fill the vacuum opening up at the other end.
Ever since Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad put into words his understanding of the historical, political, social and even genetic weaknesses that faced the Malay community at large in his 1970 book, “The Malay Dilemma”, and followed throughout his period in power by regular criticism of Malay shortcomings as he saw them, a convention of orientalising “the Malay community” has been sustained as a basic part of Umno rhetoric.
So in that sense, Muhyiddin, having lived his whole life within that tradition, was merely responding as an archaic Umno leader imagines he has to, given the orientalised Malay his party has entertained as its perceived and eternal audience.
The deputy prime minister had understandably also forgotten that Umno controls only a third of the Parliament. It holds power because it has non-Malay allies from the peninsula and northern Borneo. The BN’s raison d’être — often forgotten by its own members — is after all the creation of a Malaysian identity through participation of all races represented through its own members.
That is what Vision 2020 is.
Why the BN suffered bad losses two years ago was of course exactly the growing impunity with which Umno ignored its non-Malay allies and the sentiments of the non-Malay Malaysians.
And the reason why the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) is having such trouble trying to regain relevance is because it had for too long publicly avoided challenging Umno’s public show of Malay ethnocentrism.
By stating that he is Malay first, Muhyiddin has basically disqualified himself from the agenda that Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak has adopted to revive himself, his party and his coalition. This is the notion of 1 Malaysia.
His recently-announced aspirations for Malaysia, couched in admirable words in the first part of his New Economic Model (NEM), are aimed exactly away from the conceptual world that his deputy still inhabits.
Indeed, the choice of words was so well done that opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim is accusing Mr Najib of stealing ideas from Pakatan Rakyat. The national discourse is obviously moving away from parochialism and racialism.
In the case of the NEM, all eyes are now on how the prime minister intends to translate those beautiful words into effective action that must meet strong resistance within Umno and BN.
If nation building in Malaysia is to succeed, it does not matter where progressive ideas originate from, as long as the goal is to create a harmonious Malaysia that places nationality before race.
I would aim higher. Malaysia can best realise its pluralistic potential if its people can think of themselves, first as sapient humans, then as nationalists, and only after that as narrow parochial beings. — TODAY
* The writer is a Fellow at the Institute of South-east Asian Studies.
* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication. The Malaysian Insider does not endorse the view unless specified.


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