RIP unity unicorn, killed by racially-inclined politics
From Ibrahim M Ahmad
A sense of unity among Malaysians has been elusive in recent years, with the experience of genuine unifying national moments increasingly rare.
Sports gave us many such moments in the past. Unity was especially apparent in team sports, seen both in the makeup of the teams doing battle and spectators urging them on from the stands.
Malaysia’s football, hockey and badminton teams gave us many memorable moments between the 1960s and the early 1990s.
Who could ever forget the hockey World Cup squad of 1975, the football team qualifying for the Moscow Olympics in 1980, and badminton heroes bringing home the Thomas Cup 30 years ago in 1992? Sadly, I struggle to remember anything more recent than those.
National schools, universities and colleges of that era formed the backbone of that unity, as reflected both in their teaching and student populations.
These days, however, sports and educational institutions have themselves become breeding grounds for racial and religious tensions and intolerance, joining the political arena, the business community and workplaces as venues of divisive racial politicking.
Unity appears to be like the mythical unicorn, something so highly desirable, but which seems to have vanished completely from our national conscience.
Malaysians of different ethnicities and religions have retreated into their respective communes, with communities co-existing in tenuous relationships.
The blame for this unfortunate state of affairs must fall squarely on our leaders, most of whom secured their positions in government along racial and religious lines and have gone on to govern by perpetrating “divide-and-rule” policies.
The latest, no doubt, has been the reaction which followed the KL Mufti’s edict telling Muslims that Islam prohibited them from extending their condolences to non-Muslims using that ubiquitous phrase, “rest in peace.”
That advice was immediately defended by the religious affairs minister without consideration as to what impact it would have on national unity.
Many similar instances of intolerance have cropped up over the years. There is no need to list them here. Suffice to say that they arise because those in authority invariably respond only in a way that resonates with their base.
The reality is that modern Malaysia is shorn of statesmen. There is no one with any ability or desire to rise above partisan politics and offer himself as leader of all Malaysians, irrespective of race, colour or creed.
Instead, we have political parties and leaders more interested in preserving their positions of power.
Umno was once the bulwark that held Malaysia together; nowadays it cannot even find a leader to hold the party together, with the rift between president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi and prime minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob widening with each passing day.
The two have been at loggerheads as to when the 15th general election should be called, with Ismail doggedly resisting Zahid’s push for early polls.
Ismail is likely to continue holding out, having told the party’s supreme council that pollsters’ forecasts point towards a hung parliament. The prime minister can now also claim that a majority in his cabinet opposes holding the elections before year end, repelling relentless pressure from Zahid’s faction to hold one immediately.
Despite his “Keluarga Malaysia” slogan, Ismail will struggle to position himself as leader of all Malaysians. He cannot even claim to be leader of Umno.
On top of that, neither MCA nor MIC can guarantee him enough support from the Chinese and Indian communities to ensure that Barisan Nasional sweeps to power, as it used to do almost effortlessly prior to 2008.
Neither is Ismail assured of support from his present governing coalition partners post GE 15.
With multi-cornered fights expected for Malay votes, tensions are already brewing between Umno and Muhyiddin Yassin’s Bersatu as well as Hadi Awang’s PAS. Both Bersatu and PAS are expected to wage war with Umno in the lead up to the elections
Whether scars from those battles will heal sufficiently, allowing them to govern jointly again, remains to be seen.
Another scenario may see Ismail cozying up to a more unlikely ally in Loke Siew Fook’s DAP.
That alliance will undoubtedly face resistance from both sides. Umno has a long-standing “No Anwar, No DAP” policy hurdle which Ismail will need to overcome. It seems that a similar internal conflict is simmering within DAP at the prospect.
As it stands, Umno will have to massively over-achieve to improve on the 38 seats it currently holds in the 222-seat Dewan Rakyat. Even if it secures sizeable support from the 56 seats on offer in East Malaysia, Umno faces an almighty struggle to ensure that BN collects at least 112 seats for control of the lower house.
Although currently boasting 90 seats, enough to make PKR president Anwar Ibrahim a candidate for prime minister, the opposition Pakatan Harapan coalition is still caught in a tight spot.
Once thought capable of uniting Malaysia, Anwar’s allure has waned considerably within the coalition and even in his party.
Recent events also mean former prime ministers Dr Mahathir Mohamed and Muhyiddin can no longer expect widespread support from Malay voters let alone the rest of the electorate.
With existing coalitions expected to fall short of the required majority and given multiple internal conflicts, leaders of the posses of elected members of parliament will once again resort to horse-trading to secure enough support to form the next government.
That means Malaysians can expect behind-the-scenes shenanigans among political parties, unlikely pacts and possibly even undesirable partnerships.
More memoranda of understanding are likely to follow. Some will be willingly disclosed to the public while others may be locked away only to see the light of day as and when disputes arise.
That is the cloak and dagger world of 21st century Malaysian politics.
Sadly, what all of this means is that the long unsighted Unity Unicorn may have already died. If so, then rest in peace, dear Unity Unicorn.
We can expect it to be same old, same old, after the general election.
Ibrahim M Ahmad is a FMT Reader.