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Identity politics, here to stay?

Umno doesn’t need to abandon its ethnic identity, but it must reshape its political narrative based on a national ideology.

Jason Loh Seong Wei
5 minute read

It seems as if identity politics will never be erased from Malaysia, realistically speaking.

There’s a difference, though, between complete and final eradication on the one hand and some semblance of withering away of the toxic and combustible mix of race and religion.

The recently concluded Umno general assembly, known colloquially as PAU, is once again a gloomy reminder that identity politics is such an allurement and addiction to the proponents and peddlers of ethno-religious centrism.

There are some who try to be fair and balanced and moderate in their approach and rhetoric, such as Umno deputy president and erstwhile menteri besar of Negeri Sembilan Mohamad Hasan, affectionately known as Tok Mat. Deputy youth leader and party information chief Shahril Hamdan is also a moderating force in the party.

Khairy Jamaluddin is, of course, the one in whom hopes can be pinned to embody the future of Umno someday.

But the fact remains that on the whole, stereotypically speaking, Umno remains trapped in its archaic and narrow sectarian mindset of identity politics that reeks of a combination of deep-seated fear/insecurity and conceit.

One could perhaps add that, in turn, this is born out of an unconscious or subconscious inferiority complex or better still self-denigration – ironically and paradoxically, for a party that claims to be the most avowed or pre-eminent champion of Malay dignity (martabat).

Such an astounding claim would surprise many, but if we were to analyse the political pathology of Umno, we would come right to the conclusion that the party never shook off the shackles of mental colonialism.

As it is, the party prefers to be known according to its English acronym rather than Malay, the national language, with Umno standing for the United Malays National Organisation.

Umno is also deeply feudalistic, that’s to say hierarchical, whereby status (darjat) is the be-all and end-all so that privileged persons holding positions of power are accorded an almost infallible aura as encapsulated in that maxim, “my leader, right or wrong”.

This in turn explains why despite the charges of corruption that have resulted in conviction, for example, a certain top Umno leader remains deeply popular among the Malay grassroots.

This is why despite the mountain of charges, unprecedented in the history of prosecution of political leaders for abuse of power, another top leader remains in his current position and is opposed by internal detractors only for taking the party in an unfavourable direction (towards possible political realignment via rapprochement with traditional foes) and nothing more.

Should the same top leader be found guilty of embezzlement, he would still not be seen within the party as betraying the trust of rank-and-file members, and the Malay community and the nation as a whole.

All this because of unquestioned loyalty, obedience and deference to the top leadership which has been so ingrained within Umno Malays that it’s virtually sacrilege to question the narrative of the “party line” of identity politics, even if the logic takes one to ridiculous and risible conclusions.

For example, the objectification of the ethno-religious minorities has been a consistent rhetoric and theme of Umno – that the Malays are automatically and by default under threat when minorities (naturally) assume the position of political equality. This conveniently “forgets” the fact that the institutions of the nation are Malay-dominated or as in the case of the monarchy, it’s the sultanate (which can only imply a Malay-Muslim character).

But, of course, the accusation boomerangs right back to the accuser.

Are the Malays that weak, politically and socially, that once the non-Malays are given greater prominence in the government and administration of our beloved land, it would ring the death knell of Malay dominance (or to quote Tok Mat, keindukan Melayu) and by extension, Malay leadership (kepimpinan Melayu), or even the sovereignty of the Malay-Muslim rulers (kedaulatan Raja-Raja Melayu) – which by the way is very different from Malay supremacy (ketuanan Melayu)?

Isn’t this an eminent or classic example of the Malay inferiority complex and self-denigration, unconsciously/subconsciously, stemming from socio-political (or political culture) conditioning over the decades that seeks to bind the Malay psyche to the ever-lurking and eternally recurring fear and insecurity over the loss of constitutional privileges which, again by the way, has to be distinguished from political privileges which by right don’t exist?

Malay leadership is a constitutional – but not necessarily political – privilege. Politically, Malay leadership is a duty or responsibility conferred and bestowed as a form of trust (amanah).

Umno has it backwards, actually.

The special position of the Malays, the Orang Asli and the natives of Sabah and Sarawak as eternally and irrevocably enshrined in Article 153 of the Federal Constitution as the supreme law of the land was never meant to be used as a sword but a shield, against economic disadvantages and so on.

On the other hand, Umno should have been at the forefront in breaking the Malay psyche free of any lingering fear and insecurity or any sense of entitlement to cling on to the same (i.e. fear and insecurity as the basis for identity politics).

In other words, instead of using the special position as sword to lord over the non-Malay Bumiputeras and minorities or at their expense, it should have been wielded to cut loose the mental bondage of the Malays to self-doubt and, indeed, self-denigration.

The special position of the Malays has been abused to create, heighten and entrench a siege mentality.

Ironically, this undermines self-confidence and subtly reinforces self-denigration even if ever so unintended and overlooked.

Now, just look across the causeway at the Singaporean Malays who have succeeded in breaching their psychological handicap. They overcame barriers and adopted a different mindset despite being culturally, linguistically and religiously no different than the Malaysian Malays.

It’s also no wonder that many Malaysians, irrespective of race and religion, don’t feel quite Malaysian at the end of the day even after six decades of independence.

Umno could well be at a crossroads. The party has a choice: to continue its accustomed and habitual politics of race and religion that divides and is exclusive instead of uniting and being meaningfully inclusive – or to advance and articulate a national and patriotic agenda which stops all pretence of “protecting” the dignity of the Malays.

Umno can do this by focusing and prioritising policy-based issues that cut across ethno-religious lines while upholding the fundamental tenets of the Federal Constitution, both in spirit and in letter.

Umno doesn’t need to abandon its ethnic identity.

But it must refashion and reshape its political narrative based on a national ideology – one that sheds narrow sectarianism in favour of something, which ironically, is more realistic and of course in tune with the spirit and letter of the Federal Constitution.

In short, a political narrative based on Malay dominance/core-ness (that’s based on demographic reality) and leadership (inherited from historical legacy) which even Pakatan Harapan unequivocally accepts.

Of course, East Malaysia is a slightly different story in which “Malay” is to be substituted by Sabah and Sarawak Bumiputeras, respectively. This requires different attention and treatment.

In fact, Umno president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi’s policy speech at PAU proposing “the new economic model based on the economic patriotism, which is aimed at giving economic justice to all the people while building a stable nation” is the way forward.

Let the politicians who continue to insist on rigid and narrow identity politics never forget that we are all indebted to one another, irrespective of race and religion, for the contributions, toil, sweat and sacrifices.

Identity politics is a reality, at least for the foreseeable future, but must not be rooted in a siege mentality.

It’s actually at the end of the day and in the long term, an intensely defeatist position.

It’s based on the opposites of hope and optimism and, ultimately, on inferiority complex and self-denigration.

Jason Loh Seong Wei is head of social, law & human rights at independent think tank Emir Research.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of MalaysiaNow.