KUALA LUMPUR, March 22 — Parti Warisan Sabah and Malaysian United Democratic Alliance (Muda) are among the newer parties that have vowed to move on beyond ethno-religious issues, but political analysts were sceptical that the playing field will change much.
Speaking to Malay Mail, the analysts polled said the issues of race and religion will likely remain centrestage in the run up to the 15th general election (GE15) and may even stay in Malaysian politics beyond then.
“If you trace back since the 1960s, race and religion have always been the issue,” said senior fellow with the National Professors Council, Jeniri Amir.
He pointed to legacy political parties that were formed to represent a specific ethnic group or dominated by one, such as Barisan Nasional components: Malay nationalist party Umno, ethnic Chinese-majority MCA and ethnic Indian-majority MIC.
Even Umno’s on-off archrival PAS is an Islamist party that remains largely Malay despite its non-Malay wing. Most recently, Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia that aimed to replace Umno also touted its Bumiputera identity as its main cornerstone.
Jeniri also said that this perception has even carried over to Opposition parties, despite them not being ethnic-based and offering multi-ethnic election candidates, such as PKR that is perceived to be Malay-majority, and DAP which cannot seem to shake off a Chinese perception.
“You need to bear in mind that the majority of [Parliamentary] seats in Peninsular Malaysia have a majority Malay-Muslim population.
“For any Malay-Muslim [based] party, it is impossible for them to escape this [race-religion narrative]. This is their best bet to win votes,” he said.
In December last year, Warisan president Datuk Seri Mohd Shafie Apdal had touted the party’s ambition to transition from race or religion-based politics for its expansion to Peninsular Malaysia.
A similar intention was announced a few months prior by Muda president Syed Saddiq Syed Abdul Rahman when launching the youth-focused party.
Azmi Hassan, a senior fellow at Nusantara Academy for Strategic Research, said that although many Malaysian voters may wish to see political parties move away from race and religion, the issues still hold sway over a majority of the public.
“If you look at how Pakatan Harapan (PH) era, race and religion played a very important role in their downfall.
“In Sabah and Sarawak, a very similar line, which is tribal issues or which part of the community you are from (is played up),” he said.
During its short-lived administration, PH had faced intense race and religion-baiting from then Opposition Umno and PAS, including accusations that it was sidelining Malay rulers with its intention to ratify the Rome Statute and anti-Islam allegations with the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (Icerd).
Bridget Welsh, an honorary research fellow of the University of Nottingham Malaysia's Asia Research Institute, agreed with Azmi, saying that surveys consistently showed that religion and race are less important than other issues such as the economy, social security and governance.
“Many voters in Malaysia are able to see through identity politics and want a more sophisticated discourse,” she proposed.
“However, as race and religion have imprinted political mobilisation for decades since the 1960s, it is difficult to move away from these approaches, especially among older leaders.
“These will remain prominent as they are entrenched patterns of mobilisation and political parties have yet been able to fundamentally change narratives away from these issues,” she added.
Welsh also suggested that the “reform” narrative of PKR has lost traction, saying that the narrative that may replace it among the Opposition is still evolving and has yet to coalesce.
Azmi said that although it was possible for Malaysia’s political scene to make the transition towards focusing on matters more important than race and religion, there is still a long way to go.
“It all depends on the parties. We need more parties to emerge that do not tie themselves to these two factors,” he said.
Yesterday, human rights group Pusat Komas reported that Malaysia has seen a rise in publicised incidents of racial discrimination with 53 such incidents reported on online news media last year.
In a separate survey last month, the group also found that the topics of race and religion made up a huge percentage of the three main coalition’s communication strategies during the Melaka polls last November.
The group said that in its research, it found that Barisan Nasional (BN) ranked the highest on the topic of race — particularly in terms of race-based policies — where it pushed the narrative of Bumiputera rights and privileges and the need to uphold the national language.
Pusat Komas added that some messages were also linked to PAS and Muafakat Nasional, Umno’s coalition with the Islamist party, claiming that this was in line with Umno’s stance that it had not neglected the rights and benefits of other races and religions and to treat everyone with respect.
* A previous version of this story contained an error which has since been corrected.