KUALA LUMPUR, Dec 3 — The ethnic gamesmanship that has dominated the political airwaves in recent weeks is exposing the deep strains in the Barisan Nasional government and highlights the dilemma the multi-racial coalition faces on how to deal with an increasingly sophisticated electorate.
Leaders from two of the coalition's most senior members, Umno and the MCA, have been locked in a shouting match on the touchy subject of “Malay supremacy”, while a junior member, the People's Progressive Party, has threatened to pull out of the coalition if the government does not repeal its tough security laws.
Adding to the mounting dissonance is this week's call by Datuk Mukhriz Mahathir, the son of former premier Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, for the closure of vernacular schools, which he blames for the growing polarisation in Malaysian society.
Government politicians have brushed off the debate as part of the coalition's competitive politics.
“I wouldn't read too much into all of this. Umno is heading into its own election and leaders vying for position are playing the race card, while MCA is responding to these noises because they feel they need to recover lost ground with the Chinese,” says a member of Umno's policymaking supreme council, who is also contesting in the party's internal elections in March.
But several political analysts and businessmen are not so sanguine.
“The statements are becoming very shrill and contrived,” says Khoo Boo Teik, who teaches political science in University Sains Malaysia in Penang.
He argues that tensions in the BN on the issue of race reflect the coalition's inability to confront and deal with the stunning setbacks it suffered during the March general election.
“The (BN) component parties have become more insular because they believe (it) will help them regain lost ground, which I think is misplaced and a dangerous trend,” he says.
The opposition alliance, led by former deputy premier Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim, wrested control of five state assemblies and raised its representation in Parliament to deny the BN its customary two-thirds majority in the Lower House.
Analysts believe that the stunning erosion of support was because Malaysians, including the country's ethnic Malays who have traditionally supported Umno, have grown tired of the BN's paternalistic brand of politics and are demanding greater transparency in government.
In an interview with Al Jazeera this week, Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak, who is set to take over the premiership in March, acknowledged that the BN was facing its most serious challenge after 50 years in power.
“I realise there is a new Malaysia that has evolved and changed. Malaysian society is now more mature and demands more openness,” he said, adding that “if we do not change or reform, then it is quite possible that the electorate will decide to end BN rule.”
But for the moment, Najib's concerns are not being shared by his colleagues in the BN.
In recent weeks, senior Umno leaders have chastised their counterparts in BN for raising questions over the community's special economic rights and their dominant role in national politics.
“It is better for BN component parties who continue to question history and established facts to join the opposition alliance,” Datuk Seri Hishamuddin Hussein, the country's Education Minister and leader of the Umno Youth wing, said over the weekend in apparent reference to the MCA.
MCA's newly elected deputy president Datuk Dr Chua Soi Lek, who has been at the centre of the debate, stressed yesterday that he was not questioning the special position Malays enjoy in society as guaranteed in the Constitution.
“We must change the power-sharing concept in the BN as the term 'Ketuanan Melayu' (Malay supremacy) gives the impression that other parties in the BN are slaves,” he said.
He added that the MCA accepts “the leadership of Malay leaders”.
“But it cannot be denied that certain parties exploit the term,” he told reporters. — The Straits Times