Is the Malay or Malaysian tsunami that has just swept the Barisan Nasional out of power across the Causeway after 61 years more than just a rejection of the long ruling coalition in favour of another government?
The answer lies in the hands of the country’s two political giants – the just re-installed Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad and PM-in-waiting Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim.
But before we get into that, what was the question again, you might ask? I’ll rephrase it: Are there real winds of change trying to blow away some of the thick cobwebs which have held back the resource-rich multi-racial country from realising its full potential?
What are these cobwebs? Two sets of phrases – Orang pendatang and Ketuanan Melayu. Orang pendatang and another phrase orang tumpangan are used to describe Malaysians who are non-bumiputra, even if they were born there. Pendatang means “just arrived” and tumpangan, “temporary stay”.
The orang phrases have already been around even before Dr Mahathir first came into power in 1981 in his first term as PM. He simply reinforced the pro-bumi policies, including those linked to Ketuanan Melayu (Malay Supremacy). Sometime in 2015, after he showed serious signs of joining the reformasi movement to oust incumbent Najib Razak, he was asked about Ketuanan Melayu. He said he never actually believed in the concept and had often credited the country’s success to the willingness of its multiracial communities to “share” and work with one another.
He added: “If anyone tries to take 100 per cent for themselves, this country will never grow. The success of our country comes from our willingness to share.”
I think many Malaysians – except for those in the peninsular east coast – have accepted his change of mind, the Chinese and Indians as well as the more progressive Malays who see their communities through more inclusive eyes AND other Malays who have just had enough of Najib and his 1MDB and Felda scandals, among other sins.
In the new top political arrangement, Dr Mahathir will be PM for two years. And he is already 92. Anything beyond this is asking too much of him. To help him get the country back in good shape, he has assembled a group of advisers who are apolitical but with enough credentials to set it in the right direction.
This in itself is innovative, should be an ongoing model and looks like part of the changing and more dynamic mindset which should propel Malaysia forward.
The dynamics of the very much interlinked relationship between Dr Mahathir and Datuk Seri Anwar will determine the future of our neighbour. Both know they cannot go back, or else it will be a betrayal of voters’ trust. For Dr Mahathir, his legacy will be at risk. For Anwar, all that he has worked and suffered for too will be for nothing if things do not work.
Not all Malays are on board on this multi-racial journey yet. Anwar said that the Pakatan Harapan government must be cautious and address issues of Malay insecurity especially in the Malay heartland states of Kelantan, Terengganu and Kedah. In GE14, PH won 97 seats in peninsular Malaysia, while BN and PAS respectively won 50 and 18 seats there.
This is a realistic hard view, coming from a hardened politician who knows his people well. But I also find Anwar and his family quite principled.
His daughter, Nurul Izzah, has declined to be considered for a Cabinet post.: “(As vice-president of Parti Keadilan Rakyat, one of the PH coalition partners), she is the most senior next to the Selangor Mentri Besar. Many in the party thought it was not a fair decision but we need to respect her decision because Wan Azizah is already Deputy Prime Minister.” In any case, his wife will step down as DPM when he takes over from Dr Mahathir. Now, if Nurul can act as the voice and conscience of young progressive Malaysians, she will be the reformist within the reformist group. Not that Dr Mahathir’s own daughter Marina Mahathir has been any less outspoken.
Finally, Anwar said he wants a diversified cabinet and not one run by his family.
He told a Straits Times reporter on Saturday that he is committed to this as one of his main reforms.
I cannot agree more. Cronyism is the graveyard of progress, equality and institutional integrity.
All this is a huge and tsunamic departure from what Malaysia was just less than two weeks ago!
Sense And Nonsense is a weekly series. Tan Bah Bah is a former senior leader writer with The Straits Times. He was also managing editor of a local magazine publishing company.