So long as there is a Bersatu, there will be an Umno - By Commander S THAYAPARAN (Retired) Royal Malaysian Navy
Monday, June 25, 2018
Malaysiakini : “We belong to a plural society and in this society, the Malay-bumiputera agenda must be carried out.” - Umno acting president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi
COMMENT | Since I fancy myself as
a sort of political Cassandra as opposed to a political Pollyanna, I am
always interested in what former political prisoner Anwar Ibrahim has
to say about Malay politics. His recent comments about how Umno is not
completely destroyed and has to reinvent itself has become a political
Rorschach test for people who voted for Pakatan Harapan.
about this when prime minister (then) Najib Abdul Razak visited Anwar
when he was recovering from surgery last year – “Despite establishment
narratives that non-Malays – the Chinese specifically – seek to supplant
Malay/Muslim power in Malaysia, the reality is that this could never
happen. Why this is the case is beyond the scope of this article, but
since Malay powerbrokers hold the keys to Putrajaya, the sight of Malay
political opponents meeting always arouses speculation and yes,
insecurity amongst the non-Malay demographic, especially those invested
in regime change.”
Add to this, Najib’s telephone conversations with Anwar on the night
of May 9, the seemingly never-ending public squabbles of PKR, the
narratives of how Anwar “can’t be trusted”, the perception that PKR’s
schism is the foundation for collusion with Umno or PAS, and anything
Anwar says is an invitation to vilify the former political operative who
laid the foundation for the eventual takeover of Putrajaya.
I have always cautioned that this idea that Umno and all it stands
for is a relic of bygone Malaysia is foolish. Race and religious
politics are sown into the fabric of Harapan with materials provided by
the former Umno regime. Umno and PAS, and those that voted for them –
comprising about 52 percent of the popular votes in GE14 - are a
formidable base which is currently being ignored by the numerous changes
taking place in this country. Let us forget about the narratives of a possible collusion by
elements in Harapan and Umno for a moment. Some folks have said that the
people are the opposition. Great, but who do Malaysians vote for if
Harapan does not live up to expectations in the peninsular?
I doubt Chinese support for DAP will end anytime soon and since the
“running dog” narratives take some time take root, it’s all good on
their front. But if you are Malay, you got a “reformed Umno” and PAS to
choose from and this is where things get dicey real fast. By “reformed”,
I mean an Umno that is still entrenched in its ideology but with a new
coat of paint to regain support from the Malays who voted against Najib.
Bridgebetween Bersatu and DAP
In all these think pieces I read online, it is PKR that is described
as the bridge between Bersatu and DAP. In other words, the bridge
between the so-called rural Malays and the urban Chinese. This, of
course, is often portrayed as a class issue, but public comments from
various Harapan leaders betray the reality that this is a race issue.
Bersatu was supposed to be the Umno of Harapan - the linchpin for the
new deal that would ensure that the races would cooperate in the old
alliance way before the dark times of Umno ‘ketuanan’ hegemony. It did
not work out that way. Umno still commands the Malay base and now PAS is
slowly demonstrating that its outlier status is a political advantage
in this new Malaysia.
Public comments from certain Umno leaders – Khairy Jamaluddin for
instance – of turning Umno into a multiracial party could be
post-traumatic stress from the recent elections. However, what he does
represent even though the old guard of Umno may not like it, is a leader
who balances ‘ketuanan’ ideology with the pragmatism of compromise that
is needed to win the cash cows which are the so-called “urban centres”
that PKR is supposedly a bridge to. The Umno meet-up will determine
which forces in the party hold sway, of course.
It remains to be seen how exactly Bersatu handles the challenge of
reforming the rural polities which was needed to take Putrajaya, or so
we are told. And this also involves the greater need to reform the
system where dominant race-based Malay power structures rely on to
This is important because dismantling the architecture that enables
the propagandising of race and religion is needed for the survival of
non-Malay power structures in the long run. Bersatu didn’t win this
election for Harapan; it was a former Umno grand poobah, Dr Mahathir
Mohamad, who did. Systemic reforms without any thought or consideration
to reforming structures that enable race and religious imperatives are
Take this lowering the voting age to 18 for instance. Great idea but I
really hope Harapan strategists are discovering how deep the
radicalisation process is when it comes to religious schools and the
like. Young Muslims from these types of schools have to wait a few years
before voting but 18 is just about the right age when the propaganda
and religious delusions are still fresh in their minds and they want an
avenue to express them. Not to mention, the years of indoctrination by a
system created by the very person who has gained messianic status by
This is where Umno or PAS could benefit more than a regime which has
to compromise on its racial and religious imperatives – Bersatu – for
the sake of the multiracial power-sharing formula that BN never paid
much attention to. This, of course, is but one example of the fault
lines that exist when making policy.
In all cases, deradicalisation should be central even in the more
obvious of policy shifts. Is the Harapan regime up to this? Only time
will tell, and there is only a small window of opportunity because
personalities are old and the young blood is waiting in the wings. So how do we combat the grand narratives of Malay supremacy in
Harapan and Umno/PAS? How do we ensure that these narratives are
weakened over time? Here are some points to consider.
Another Malaysiakini columnist Nathaniel Tan
talks about regionalism. That’s is an important starting point I think.
Federal power should be decentralised. This halts grander narratives of
Malay and Islamic hegemony with local issues that could be dealt with
state power. When people have a sense that their state governments can
solve their immediate needs, there is no need to kowtow to federal power
which brings with it forms of subservience that is detrimental to the
This also should extend to local council elections. This brings
communities together on issues of needs rather than wants. If all
politics are local, then people from communities rather than political
parties determine what is important to them and this also safeguards
against political interference.
More importantly, the media should be regional as well. Mainstream
media news outlets shape the news often ignoring state level and local
community level issues. This creates the impression that federal
narratives - those that involve race and religion - are monolithic. This
really isn't the case. This is not something that the state governments
or the federal governments should be involved with but rather
independent regional media outlets, discussing local issues and ensuring
that local politics remains in the forefront without all the
propagandising of the alternative now mainstream press.
If you are really serious about people being the opposition -
whatever that means - this is a good way to do it, further weakening the
grand narratives of race and religion by concentrating on local issues
which sometimes have nothing to do with what goes on in the urban
polities of this country.
In order to weaken racial and religious hegemony, it is important to
diffuse power. The question has always been, is there a coalition
willing to do this? When people ask me who the clear winners are in this election, my
answer is always PAS. What PAS has demonstrated is that it can survive
definitely without BN and time will tell if it can survive without the
Harapan regime. Mind you, the relationship between PAS and Harapan has
not been as fraught as it has been with Umno.
Umno and PAS, and once the former get their acts together, could turn
out to be a formidable opposition, especially considering that sooner
rather than later, Harapan will have to tackle issues concerning race
and religion. We have witnessed a distinct lack of commitment among
Malay power structures to buck the Islamic and Malay trend when it comes
to voting on major issues involving race and religion. Will this change
now that Harapan has taken federal power?
It is nonsensical to make the argument that Umno needs to reform –
become multiracial – when the there is a Malay power structure like
Bersatu in Harapan chasing the same base. The great fear of Umno has
materialised - that is, the Malays are divided.
What people should be concerned with is the interactions between
diffused Malay power structures in this new political terrain, and
concomitant to this, the shape these interactions coalesce into.