A sharpening of racial language from Malaysia’s largest ruling party may put at risk Prime Minister Najib Razak’s efforts to win back support from ethnic minorities and dampen his economic reform plans.
Najib’s United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), the country’s main ruling party, has ramped up language designed to to appeal to majority Malays who make up 55 percent of the Southeast Asian country’s 27 million population.
The move comes after the National Front coalition made a surprisingly strong showing in a state by-election last month in a Malay seat and ahead of another state seat vote on Aug. 25.
Senior UMNO leaders have described the rainbow three-party opposition group led by Anwar Ibrahim, which offers itself as a less racial alternative to the ruling coalition, as being traitors to the Malay race.
“If there are trouble makers who create controversy and racial issues, we regard them as traitors to our race who need to be fought to the end,” Deputy Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin said on Sunday.
His views are echoed by the country’s pro-government Malay language newspapers, which have portrayed the opposition and Anwar as being anti-Malay.
“What the Chinese, Indians and PAS (Pan Malaysian Islamic Party, an opposition party) want right now is larger political and administrative powers. Not justice and democracy,” read a column in the UMNO owned Malay daily Utusan Malaysia on August 4.
UMNO has led the government for 51 years and is engaged in a battle with the Islamist PAS for Malay votes and its interests sometimes run counter to the other 12 race-based parties that represent ethnic Chinese and Indians in the National Front.
The coalition stumbled to its worst showing in national and state elections in parliament in 2008 and Najib took office in April this year pledging a more inclusive approach to ethnic Chinese and Indian minorities.
He has liberalised financial services and ended some rules binding companies to 30 percent Malay ownership, partly dismantling a 40 year old policy introduced by his father, Malaysia’s second Prime Minister Abdul Razak Hussein.
These measures, Najib argued, would create wealth by attracting foreign money and boosting domestic investment so the Malays would become richer and more competitive.
But at the same time, Najib has introduced populist measures like toll road price cuts and cabinet voted down electricity price rises that would have hit poorer, Malay voters.
His economic reforms haven’t yet touched on the controversial system of handing out government contracts to what critics say are UMNO cronies, the heart of Malaysia’s patronage system which analysts say is an impediment to Malaysia’s competitiveness.
“UMNO has to follow through on the government’s economic liberalisation policy but it still needs to keep its Malay base loyal,” said Ibrahim Suffian, director the Merdeka Center, an independent pollster.
As well as creating a class of Malay millionaires, government contracts are the lifeblood for more than 30,000 contractors. Among the most influential among them is a group of 17,000 mostly Malay contractors under the lowest classification of “Class F”.
Allowed to bid for jobs worth up to 200,000 ringgit ($56,560), many Class F contractors are grassroots UMNO officials whose support is widely sought after by party leaders.
Ibrahim said if the government were to adopt a greater pro-Malay emphasis, then “certain parts of the continuing economic liberalisation that would impact the Malays, such as the restructuring of government contracts, could turn out to be problematic”.
MALAYSIA OR MALAY HUE AND CRY?
The opposition gains in last year’s elections were partly fuelled by anger over UMNO’s patronage system that many see benefitting mainly a small group of party-linked businessmen.
Malays as well as Chinese and Indians deserted the ruling coalition in record numbers to vote for the opposition People’s Alliance.
In his efforts to boost appeal across races, Najib launched 1Malaysia (www.1Malaysia.com), a programme that promotes inclusion and “Malaysian” values.
Najib also freed Hindu activists and earlier this month visited Batu Caves near Kuala Lumpur, the site of the country’s largest Hindu temple. It was the first official visit by a prime minister since 1970 when his father visited.
But in order to rouse the Malay vote, UMNO needs to ensure that it is seen as defending its constituency.
If that strategy gains traction in the Aug. 25 by-election, it will make it difficult to rebuild the National Front’s smaller parties ahead of elections that must be held by 2013.
One option for UMNO may be to go for broke for the Malay vote in peninsular Malaysia and rely on the states of Sabah and Sarawak to deliver a workable, albeit smaller, majority in parliament.
At the same time UMNO can continue working to prise the Islamists out of Anwar’s alliance.
The problems facing the National Front are to some extent mirrored in Anwar’s alliance and spats have broken out between the Islamists and mainly ethnic Chinese secularists, most recently over a ban on alcohol for Muslims in the opposition-run state of Selangor.
“Knowing perhaps that the non-Malay vote would be difficult to get back, by calling into question People’s Alliance’s commitment to protect Malay interests, the government is using what I would see as a defensive strategy to stem the loss of the Malay vote,” said political analyst Ong Kian Ming. — REUTERS