Identity politics’ appeal dwindles as unemployment grows

NOVEMBER 5 — February’s euphoric rhetoric about the restoring of “Malay rule” has somewhat died over these past months.

Some might wonder where it went.

After all, what was drummed up for two years since the general election cascaded into a public relations nightmare for Pakatan Harapan. The shuddering cry for Malay power was felt by enough Malay MPs who then gave up on their government, they walked literally into the opposition’s hotel camp. Critics accused it as powered purely by self-interest.

Both agree, however, that identity politics overwhelmed the situation.

So, why has it died down, this kompang beat to defend Malays?

Two things, one expected and the other strange, unfolded and shapes our present reality, nine months later.

Firstly, the perceived gain. Ethnic Malaysian Chinese are no more on top — it does not matter whether it is true or not, DAP’s absence from Cabinet equates to that in the eyes of right wing Malay nationalists. In the absence of a clear contrarian narrative, that view dominates online Malay language content too.

But, when the government is made up of half of Mahathir Mohamad’s Pribumi Bersatu and Anwar Ibrahim’s PKR Malay spine; joined by all of Umno and PAS; Perikatan Nasional (PN) can’t go on shouting “protect our rights” all day and night.

What could they do next?

The script was to initially celebrate a Malay-led government, and thereafter as proof of benevolence exhibit inclusivity for others — Chinese, Indians, Kadazans, Ibans, Dusuns, Bidayuhs and the rest — as long as they acquiesce to Malay rule. PN positions its people as Malaysians first in administration, even if they are Malays first in politics.

It’s pinhead reasoning but works very well here. And it has been standard play, since the time of Tunku Abdul Rahman.

Guaranteed to succeed, except the other thing unfolded. And it turned the game on its head.

So the ethnic Chinese is out of government, but in comes the virus, originally from China.

While in Malaysia, government blaming Malaysian Chinese is par for the course, the same government won’t blame mainland China for anything, even incursions into our waters.

Anyways, the second development, Covid-19 startled the government. This Cabinet did not expect the situation — business shutdowns, borders closed and trade down — to extend till November with an end uncertain.

The economy is the biggest challenge for this government bar none. It is set to be the challenge for any Malaysian government for the foreseeable future.

Smack centre is jobs.

When 2020 started, more than half of our new graduates were unemployed for a year, and overall youth unemployment above 10 per cent. Imagine how it looks now?

There is a short-sightedness in using power to alter the country’s structure. Like a parent who would rather buy his kids candy to procure silence and love, than encourage them to study maths or science.

Malaysian governments, including Pakatan’s fallen administration, spend to gain support. Way too much into populist sinkholes, but that does not matter to the government if enough goes out to create a climate of gratitude or syukur.

But more about jobs. The economy has long been warned that it is not structured to grow adequate new jobs for Malaysians or replace disappearing jobs. To reduce business costs, owners continue to rely on cheap foreign labour.

Wage deflation goes on, there are fewer jobs, and many who have jobs find themselves with low pay.

Covid-19 did not create this, but it sure has accentuated the fault lines.

And the Malaysians alive today are different. They don’t accept the outcome. But we used to.

Stages of nation

Malaysia went through two stages before 2009, the start of the Najib administration.

First, from independence to the early years of the New Economic Policy, from 1957 to Razak Hussain’s death in 1976, early Malaysia. The second spell, from the start of the Hussein Onn era to the end of the Abdullah Ahmad Badawi era in 2009, with a fat 22 years of Mahathir Mohamad in the middle.

In the first phase, the rakyat was glad just to be strife-free, when compared to our neighbours. In the second phase, natural resources (oil, gas, timber and palm oil) together with FDI driven manufacturing, fed a nation’s appetite even if unequally — everyone can survive or cari makan.

The structural problems remained, and the Najib administration since 2009 wanted to change the game. From liberalising the economy, kicking off a daring consumption tax while redistributing cash handouts or nominal universal basic income and backing infrastructure projects (MRT 1 & 2, LRT extensions, East Coast Rail Link).

The corruption claims stand separate even if the above were compromised by personal interests.

For, we need to compare apples with apples. Rahman, Razak, Hussein, Mahathir, Pak Lah, Najib, Mahathir and now Muhyiddin.

Covid-19 has not given the present PM breathing space, and if he has a replacement, the problems are transferred, regardless. 

After stage one and two, now in medium-income trapped Malaysia, expectations have skyrocketed.

Look at Malaysians as a whole.

Not a backward people, education has come to fruition, even if too many Malaysians pick their facts online. They’ve arrived at the intersection, where engagement and not control matters.

Government realises it can’t spend its way out, instead it has to increase collections from the rakyat. An increasingly impatient and fickle rakyat.

In summary, the race card may win parliamentary constituencies but not a free pass to administer just because they tick the race box.

Failure to create jobs for Malaysians can be terminal.

Soon, just selling race won’t be enough. Over time, job creation or the promise of it, is going to help parties to win elections.

Then, they won’t care how the people who deliver Malaysian jobs look like.

All political parties should look beyond the next general election if they are interested in sustained power. Because, the medium-term vote-winner is jobs, not race.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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