COMMENT Race and religion have always played a key dimension in Malaysian politics since Merdeka as politicians and political parties have been about championing the interest of their communities.

The historical struggle of the Malays through Umno, the Chinese through MCA and Indians through the MIC also recognised the need for a collective networking and therefore the Alliance and later the BN provided the framework of consensus building. PAS from the beginning championed Islamic concerns and the vision of establishing an Islamic state in Malaysia

The historical reality is that while political parties championed their community interest they had to find other parties in order to win and also form the government at the state and federal levels.

barisan nasional bn 181110In the past, except for the Alliance and later the BN, no other grouping served to provide the alternative at the federal level. However in the 12th general election (GE12), an alternative coalition of ethnic and religious interest operating within a democratic framework denied the BN the two-thirds majority and also capture state governments.

This was only possible as PAS with a very strong Malay and Muslim base, PKR with a multi-ethnic group and DAP while being multi-ethnic but predominantly supported by the Chinese community, has for the first time created an alternative team to the BN and thereby creating the environment for a two-party system

barisan rakyat pas pkr dapIn the light of this, Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s analysis that GE13 will be fought on the basis of race is not very accurate. All the previous elections between GE1 to GE11 had race as a key factor but since GE12 or March 8, 2008 it is a struggle for two groupings of political parties - the BN and Pakatan - both comprising political parties championing community interests (race and religion) but also raising national concerns.

The critical concerns for GE13 are not so much race or religion but about good governance and responsible government. Which of the two groupings ie BN or Pakatan is able to serve the interests of the people better, which is more accountable and transparent, which will ensure justice, fairness and human rights for all the citizens, which is address corruption, which will ensure political stability for economic and social well-being of all the people.

It is not one group against the other as every vote counts and winning the hearts and minds of every voter is critical.

The Malaysian electorate in the post GE12 dynamics of March 8, 2008 is more matured in their political readings. Times have changed and therefore political veterans like Mahathir must recognise this new reality. GE12 showed how sections of the Indian and Chinese communities including Hindus, Buddhists and Christians supported the Pakatan with PAS as a strong component.

In the time of my parents who voted in the earlier years this was unthinkable. People are changing and people’s confidence in who will best lead is being contested especially in the light of many abuses of power and issues pertaining to good governance. 

Politicians and political parties know that they have to work with all communities whether majority or minority as groups are not homogeneous and their political allegiances transcend religion and ethnicity.

A national issues perspective

Rather than whipping up racial or religious, minority or majority contestation, it is more relevant to analyse the concerns from a national issues perspective. The call for a clean and free elections, or to address abuse of power such as corrupt practices are concerns of good governance which transcends ethnicity and religion.

NONEIn this context the grassroots struggles pertaining to improved quality of life, access to better jobs, income, safety including ensuring good health care, education and employment opportunities are more essential.

The priority is to convince the people of policies and programmes that can effectively address these rather than just ‘political talk’ on the topic of one ethnic groups trying to ‘outdo’ another. The focus must be on instilling greater confidence into who can better manage the public resources for the common good.

The challenge is can BN or Pakatan do a better job? Both are groupings of politicians and political parties comprising people from majority-minority communities, people from various ethnic and religious groupings. There is contestation in this matter and our society is really divided on this matter. The indications are that one coaliation is now able to capture a sizeable majority.

Therefore the essentail focus for GE13 must be a clear presentation of what was promised in GE12 and how it was delivered at federal or state and local levels? What were the promises, what was delivered, what was not delivered and what were the gaps? There has to be a relalistic review of what was said and done what were the gaps and why. There must be some intellectual honesty about these.

Therefore for the GE13 what are the new promises based on the manifesto? What are these? How will they be delivered in creating a better Malaysia for all Malaysians especially in the light of the current financial crisis and the Rio +20 sustainable development outcomes for the future (economic, social and environment committments for balanced socio-economic growth)

We must shift from the current politicisation and racialising of the political discourse. This is a challenge for both BN and Pakatan. Shift talks, debates towards policies and deliverables. Move away from low-down politicial talk and focus on what political parties can do based on based sucess and failures.

There is therefore an urgent need also to resist the temptation of focusing on issues from just racial and religious perspectives. Let GE13 be a real battle for the hearts and minds of all Malaysians.

DR DENISON JAYASOORIA is the Principal Research Fellow at the Institute of Ethnic Studies, UKM and the secretary-general of Proham (Association for the Promotion of Human Rights). Views expressed here are his own and not necessarily that of the institutions with which he is associated.