Should Malaysia ban campaigns based on race and religion?

JANUARY 6 — India’s Supreme Court ruled Monday that candidates running for political office cannot appeal to voters in elections based on religion, race, caste, community or language.

The 4-3 majority ruling held that an election would be declared null and void if campaigns were made not only in the name of the candidate’s religion, but also if votes were sought based on the faith of the voters or of anyone else. Indian law even considers such campaigns based on identity politics to be “corrupt.”

“The State being secular in character will not identify itself with any one of the religions or religious denominations. This necessarily implies that religion will not play any role in the governance of the country which must at all times be secular in nature. The elections to the State legislature or to the Parliament or for that matter or any other body in the State is a secular exercise just as the functions of the elected representatives must be secular in both outlook and practise,” the Chief Justice of India, T. S. Thakur, was quoted saying.

I won’t talk about whether Malaysia is a secular or Islamic state; the debate is old and unnecessary in the argument on whether this country would be better off if political candidates were barred from campaigning based on race and religion.

The three major parties in Barisan Nasional (BN), which has governed Malaysia since independence, are race-based: Umno for the Malays, MCA for the Chinese and MIC for the Indians. Even as we inch closer to our supposed vision of achieving developed nation status by 2020, the dominant political coalition doesn’t look like they want to eradicate their racial structure.

The race-based structure doesn’t work, of course, contrary to their claims of representing all Malaysians fairly through the three parties.

A simple example is hudud. While Umno politicians generally support it, MCA and MIC are vehemently against the Islamic penal code. How can different parties running one government have opposing stands on an issue? It doesn’t make sense.

Instead of trying to force reluctant political parties to open up their membership, perhaps one way of tackling race politics is to ban race— and religious-based election campaigns.

In a multi-ethnic and multi-religious country like Malaysia, politicians and political parties shouldn’t be campaigning based on race and religion because no matter how large a particular ethnic group is in a certain constituency, there will always be constituents of other races that must be taken into account.

Banning such campaigns will force candidates to appeal to voters based on more substantive issues, like the economy (this doesn’t mean just handing out “goodies” during the election), crime, education, reproductive health, civil liberties, transparency in governance, climate change etc. These issues affect everyone regardless of their ethnicity and faith.

Politicians are free to champion conservativism or liberalism and convince voters why their particular style of governance will work best, without having to raise racial or religious issues.

Then we won’t see things like hudud being bandied about in elections anymore.

PAS, Umno and Amanah will have to figure out how to appeal to voters across race and creed without bringing up Islamic laws or their purported Islamic credentials (as if there is a single interpretation or measurement on the validity of their religious philosophy).

MCA and DAP will have to find more substantive issues to talk about, instead of the hudud bogeyman or Chinese vernacular schools.

We may even see the end of racist attacks and claims that a certain candidate or party shouldn’t be voted in because they’re anti-Malay/ anti-Chinese/ anti-Muslim/ anti-Christian etc.

Politicians and parties will no longer have bragging rights over who can best protect a certain ethnic group. That question shouldn’t even arise in the first place because all Malaysians are equal.

While race— and religious-based campaigning may not be as prominent in Sabah and Sarawak compared to the peninsula, perhaps banning appeals to voters based on community might go some way in alleviating the “Malaya” vs Sabah/ Sarawak sentiment.

As much as Sabahans and Sarawakians pride themselves on being above the petty racial politics that dominate Semenanjung, issue-based campaigning could help both candidates and voters see themselves as Malaysians, instead of as Sabahan/ Sarawakian/ Johorean etc.

Identity politics are surface at best and toxic at worst.

The governance of a country should have nothing to do with one’s ethnicity, place of birth or religion. The first two are things that we can’t choose, while the latter has the potential to screw up a country if it’s used to discriminate against those of other faiths (which has happened and continues to occur around the world).

How can there be an equal playing field if elections are decided based on factors beyond our control, things that we were born with like our skin colour?

Of course, the downside to banning identity politics is the inability to highlight real issues faced by minority groups.

What if candidates campaigning in Kelantan wanted to highlight the plight of the Orang Asli who are losing their land due to deforestation?

However, I believe there are more advantages than disadvantages to banning race — and religious-based election campaigns.

Perhaps when politicians and parties get used to putting forth their credentials without appealing to race and religion, they’ll be comfortable contesting in constituencies where the voters are mostly of another ethnicity.

They will then see that there’s no need to restrict party membership based on race or to have members predominantly of a certain ethnic group.

All political parties should reflect the Malaysian population. And maybe, just maybe, we’ll begin to see the end of race politics in Malaysia.

This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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