Monday, March 10, 2008

The end of the politics of race?

If Malaysia’s 12th general elections marked the end of the politics of fear, what about the politics of race?

Malaysiakini ran a very optimistic piece today, headlined ‘Polls shatter race-based politics’ (subscription only). That would be a great dream come true if it were completely true.

The ruling coalition’s formula – mono-ethnic parties coming together to champion mono-ethnic policies at the (somewhat uneven) bargaining table – is still alive (if not well), as the Barisan Nasional still won the election, garnering 51% of the popular vote, and is forming the federal government. Yet, as this article in the New Straits Times points out, that 51% takes into account Sabah and Sarawak (in which the BN did very well); in the Peninsula, BN secured only 48.1% of the popular vote.

I would suggest that the polarizing politics of race as practiced by Peninsula BN is not the main feature of our north Borneo cousins. That Sabah and Sarawak BN won handily is in no way an affirmation of the entrenched peninsula-driven ethnic politics that BN says is the right formula to bring peace and prosperity to the country, but which did not bring in more than half the votes cast on March 8.

The swing to the opposition, though, was not entirely a swing towards multi-ethnic or non-ethnic politics. Of the three components of the loose opposition coalition, PAS continues to draw mainly from the religious/Islamic/Malay Malaysian vote. The DAP still draws a good portion of its support from the Chinese Malaysian community and has seen its small but important Indian representation and support grow. Its best move, however, was the roping in, especially for urban areas like Petaling Jaya, of NGO activists, community leaders and professionals, who do not reflexively see the world through the lens of race.

And finally, there is the rise of the PKR, which initially was almost solely a vehicle for the promotion of Anwar Ibrahim after his fall from grace. Encouragingly, the party has broadened its scope (and personalities), and is evolving into a credible multi-ethnic party, the likes of which have never been seen on the Malaysian political landscape. It won 31 parliamentary seats, up from one the last time, and is set to be part of five state governments (in coalition), leading one (Selangor).

Whether its multi-racialism has legs remains to be seen; it is still very much a work in progress. Critical to PKR’s survival, and probably the survival of this iteration of multi-racialism in Malaysia, is whether its ideology is resilient, or whether the party lapses into its original intention.

So, no, March 8, 2008 did not mark the end of the politics of race. But we’re getting there, hopefully.

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