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Grassroots empowerment key to national unity

Malaysians don’t have to be divided along racial and religious lines post-GE15.

Denison Jayasooria
4 minute read

The results of the 15th general election (GE15) have shown that there is no one Malaysia but many, with voters having different aspirations and expectations about building a post-GE15 nation.

We can recognise that there is a very Malay-Muslim Malaysia with Perikatan Nasional (PN) securing 73 seats and PAS with the largest number (49). PAS swept the east coast, the north and made inroads to become not a regional but a mainstream political force. Jocelyn Tan calls this the "green tsunami". James Chin articulates this as a "sea change in Malaysian politics".

At the same time, with Pakatan Harapan (PH) securing 82 seats, the coalition is seen as providing an alternative narrative of Malaysia – more multi-ethnic and multi-religious with two dominant multiracial parties, DAP and PKR. This group is branded as progressive and secularist.

Then there are Gabungan Parti Sarawak, Gabungan Rakyat Sabah and Warisan, with strong regional appeal which campaigned on restoring regional positions so that there would be balanced development across Malaysia.

GE15 fears and mudslinging 

There have been various accusations against political leaders and parties on the messaging used during the election because of their racial, religious and ideological tones. Name-calling and labelling, such as communist, racist, Taliban, extremist, Zionist, Christianisation, neo-colonist and more, were rife. These appeared in YouTube, TikTok, Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp.
These short clips dominated the Malaysian narrative with their simplistic views which instilled fear and widened distrust among the different racial and religious groups. It is of utmost importance that there should be stronger guidelines on this matter, including monitoring and reviews to call out unacceptable practices that demonise one community. 

Now that GE15 is over, there is a need to ensure that political coalitions put aside their differences to seek some solutions so that the nation can be governed.

Building bridges 

Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim’s first press conference after his appointment on Nov 24 was reassuring. He said that "every Malaysian regardless of ethnicity, religious belief, or region, particularly Sabah and Sarawak, should not be left to feel they are ignored in any way. None should be marginalised under my administration." 

He also reiterated the Federal Constitutional position on Islam, the special position of the Malays, the Malay language and the position of the rulers.

The phase "every Malaysian" includes the Malay-Muslim Malaysia, the multiracial and religious Malaysia, and Sabahans and Sarawakians as equal citizens of the land. This is not just a slogan, but must be translated into action (deliverables) to increase the level of trust.

The national unity policy (NUP), launched on Feb 15, 2021, provides a useful framework for building a stronger appreciation of our diversity and strengthening our understanding of each other’s aspirations and expectations. It is noted that the NUP must be strengthened with a clearer commitment to Article 8 of the constitution.

Article 8 (1): "All persons are equal before the law and entitled to the equal protection of the law." Article 8 (2): "There shall be no discrimination against citizens on the ground only of religion, race, descent, place of birth or gender."

There is a need for constitutional literacy so that we have a good understanding of all the parts of the constitution, so that we read it as a whole and not selectively. 

There is also a need to revisit the national unity consultative report (2015), which made several significant recommendations not included in the NUP or the national unity blueprint – specifically, the Harmony Act and the establishment of a national unity commission and community mediation centre (CMC). The CMC was to be an alternative to the judicial process in resolving differences of opinion and points of conflict through mediation.

Grassroots communities 

The theme of "leaving no one or community behind" is the 2030 agenda for sustainable development. The localising of SDGs adopted by the government and the All Party Parliamentary Group Malaysia on SDGs is a major implementor with a presence in 57 parliamentary constituencies.

Over the past three years (2020-2022), I have had the opportunity to visit grassroots communities and neighbourhoods like Teluk Renjuna (Tumpat), Kg Pangi (Tenom), Kg Sg Betul Bawah (Parit Buntar) and  Rumah Panjang Bunga Raya (Sg Buloh). 

The communities can be distinguished by their ethnicity and religion and socio-economic status but are all in the bottom 40% of the economic divide. However, while ethnicity, religion and political affiliations might differ, they have one thing in common: all of them face unresolved issues at the grassroots and they are powerless to bring about change.

There is, therefore, space to work with local communities, in both the rural and urban areas, in a decentralised way in partnership with them by empowering them to identify local priorities and devise approaches to resolve local needs and issues. 

These communities will stop feeling like they're second-class citizens because of their economic and political position. They can empower themselves for resilience and sustainability. The government must create an enabling environment for the local community to take control of their own destiny. 

Strengthening grassroots democracy, and holding dialogues and conversations on national policies will empower them to think through global, national and local concerns in a more reflective way. Policies and programmes which foster an appreciation of diversity and enhance constitutional literacy and dialogue on national and local development agendas, including budgets, will empower and enlighten them. Open and transparent discussions will neutralise exclusive and insular national-building conversations. 

Citizen empowerment is key, and MPs must hold regular conversations at the constituency level.

Denison Jayasooria is a senior fellow at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies Malaysia.

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

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