Much disappointment has been expressed lately over the way the Pakatan Harapan leadership has handled some of the issues of the day. Many feel that the anticipated Malaysia Baru hasn’t arrived and it is still Malaysia Lama as usual.
The disappointment is understandable. After the 14th General Election (GE14), expectations were high that changes would come, but when they saw that changes were at the most only incremental, they felt let down. Yet, when I spoke to the people on the ground — the shopkeeper, the hairdresser, the teacher, the retiree — the response has always been, “It will take time before we see the changes! Maybe four or five years later.”
It seems to me that they are more realistic about what PH can deliver and are willing to patiently wait for the changes to come. Introducing new policies and submitting reforms must be well thought through and written out, which are time-consuming jobs, though work can start on them now.
What is of more importance and which will show results, in the long run, is a change of mindset. That is a very hard thing to achieve and that is what, I believe, is stalling the process of change.
This was clearly evident in the way the introduction of The International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (Icerd) for ratification was handled. Icerd would have evened out the playing field for those discriminated against while making allowances for the disadvantaged to benefit from affirmative action.
The reaction to Icerd was typically Malaysian. Many in the majority community — the Malays — saw it as trespassing on their constitutional rights when, in truth, Icerd doesn’t. But, they felt it was because it would now give rights to less advantaged minority groups.
In their minds, that meant depriving them, which, in truth, isn’t the case. This is not the point of view of all Malays. Urban Malays who have benefitted from the New Economic Policy and now form the bulwark of support for Pakatan Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) were not the ones who protested. They understood what Icerd meant.
It is mainly the supporters of Umno who largely represent the Malay rural heartland who felt threatened and vocalized their anger. They were reacting according to the mindset they were traditionally nurtured — that the Malays are the majority and poor and they need to be helped.
While that is a fact, it does not follow that helping less advantaged minority groups would deprive them. That is the slight shift in mindset that they have to learn in order to coexist with other just as poor if not poorer minority groups.
The Malay rural voters need to be educated that their constitutional rights are intact in Malaysia Baru. Those messages should be communicated to them to allay their fears. That has not been forthcoming.
PH’s coalition partner, Bersatu, whose chairman is the Prime Minister Tun Dr Mohamad Mahathir, was most affected by this mindset. Bersatu had successfully pulled former Umno supporters over to its side because Tun made a good case of the corruption issues surrounding 1MDB.
When PH won, the few benefits they had previously enjoyed were lost. This is what most of the rural Malay voters feel. Then, Icerd came along and now it seemed like the benefits they were used to may be given to others, and they kicked up a fuss and Tun gave in because Bersatu would be in a precarious position if the party lost its support base and if the rural Malay support it was wooing turned against it.
PKR is a solidly urban Malay party but it can’t reach the Malay heartland which Bersatu was able to penetrate. Right now that Malay majority is not represented in government and Tun, realising it did not want to estrange it any further.
This is the harsh reality. It was the same before and it is the same now. The question is how do you deal with it. Tun dealt with it in the old way — giving in to the Malay majority for fear of what they will do if they don’t have their way.
Couldn’t it have been dealt with in a new way? Couldn’t PH leaders have gone down to the rural Malay grassroots and explained to them that their rights are enshrined in the Constitution and are not threatened? That whatever fears they feel are imagined rather than real?
Malays today are not like the Malays of yesterday. Like all reasonable people, if the correct messages are sent to them, they will comprehend the new realities.
This is an area where the Malay PKR leaders could have helped Tun, advising him and receiving his input in engaging the Malay rural voters. But, the PKR leaders played no part in wanting to change the Malay rural mindset. They were more busy with party politics.
The Malay rural voters cannot be ignored. If they are, the risk is they will go back to Umno or worst still to PAS. To ensure they don’t, they need to be engaged.
PH leaders need to work with their prime minister, engaging him and earning his confidence and respect. Then, they will be in a position to give him good counsel to deal with the old issues in a new way.
When that happens, we may finally begin to feel like Malaysia Baru.