Prime Minister-designate Anwar Ibrahim recently warned that a new racist narrative was creeping into Malaysia not only among the Malays but the other races. If this were true we certainly haven’t heard of any leader of other religions proclaiming to be known as the defender of their religion or resorting to all sorts of actions in the name of the religion.
Not that they don’t do this sort of thing, but religion is not used as a political strategy to keep leaders in government. But, we hear Malay politicians again and again proclaiming their defence of Islam and their allegiance to race, religion and rulers, and, if recent statements by Anwar is anything to go by, it seems as if he is following in their footsteps.
Most Malay politicians rely on that strategy to win Malay support. Anwar’s statements may be well-intentioned, but they raise a red flag.
It is understandable that he wants to identify with the Malay majority and affirm their shared heritage which is Islam. To be the next prime minister he needs their support. But, to play the religion card to get that support is to continue the legacy of the past administration of politicising Islam for votes in exchange for jobs in the government service and government-linked companies (GLCs).
Hence, we have a bloated civil service, over-staffed GLCs and a religious work culture which has allowed for the rise of militant Islam in which hides the latent potential for Islamic terrorism. All of these work against the introduction of reforms.
Pakatan Harapan (PH) politicians — of which Anwar is one as the president of the largest Malay party in the coalition, Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR), which is committed to reforms — need to find a new way of reaching the large Malay voter base without playing the religion and race cards, if by playing them they risk the religious rights of other Malaysians.
PH politicians need to leave race and religion and rulers out of their rhetoric and create a new narrative that stresses economic progress based on honest work and opportunities for all. This can be achieved by developing a communication strategy to reach out to the largely Malay rural majority or through the media.
Right now, the two main Malay newspapers are Berita Harian and Utusan Melayu. Utusan is the bigger paper with a larger circulation of about 200,000 (Audit Bureau of Circulation Jan-June 2018 circulation figures) mostly among Malays. However, it is not making money and on the way to closing down.
These newspapers are Umno-owned and they aided in moulding the Malay mind to Umno’s bent. If independent-minded Malaysian businessmen buy over Utusan, trim it down to an efficiently-run, albeit small, newspaper for the Malay masses, the public debate in the Malay community will take on a more progressive approach to race, religion and rulers.
Politicians will have to work hard to be featured in the paper and the Malay readers will get more reliable information on which to make their decisions. This will force politicians to promise and deliver according to what the readers want and if they succeed in winning their support they would have earned it.
It would be a waste to let Utusan die but if it were regenerated by a non-partisan board, it will drive the debate for the advancement of the rural Malay community and by extension, the Malaysian public since the Malays form the dominant race. If the debate becomes more open and less parochial, it will surely attract non-Malay readers and the potential to become a leading Malaysian Malay paper becomes a very strong possibility.
Initially, there will be the problem of trimming the fat. Many people will have to be retrenched. But, if the economy is pushed to pick up with more businesses opening up the retrenched staff will eventually find other jobs. Such a market would improve the standard of work as people now learn to work hard to compete and keep their jobs or climb the corporate ladder.
There are many good people out there who can guide the newspaper with a fiercely independent mind. There are also many non-partisan businessmen who may be willing to invest in them. The trick is to find them.
To break away from the need to play the religion card which brings no good to anyone, a healthy, open Malay-medium media will provide the reach Malay politicians want to win support without the race, religion and rulers rhetoric. Readers will know what their leaders are doing and politicians will have no choice but to deliver up to people’s expectations.
It’s an idea worth thinking about.