The coming general election in Malaysia will be a watershed no matter who wins. It will demonstrate how ethnicity and economics interact today, four decades after they threatened to tear the country apart.

That much was clear when Malaysian politician Shahrizat Abdul Jalil warned recently of a repeat of the 1969 racial riots if Malays lost political power. “The economic power is already not in the hands of Malays. Can we afford to lose political power as well’” she asked. “I fear this will bring about racial tensions which could re-invite the May 13, 1969 riots, and we don’t want that.”

Many have criticised the chief of the women’s wing of Umno for her remarks. Some believe that they betray a creeping sense of desperation in Umno, the leader of the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition, over the political inroads made by the opposition Pakatan Rakyat (PR) coalition.

The prospects of PR, led by the charismatic Mr Anwar Ibrahim, gaining power in the coming elections frighten those who were caught on the wrong foot by its heady success in the 2008 polls.

Although the Malay voice is represented in PR by Mr Anwar’s Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) and the Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS), the idea behind the warning is that a victory for the opposition coalition would be tantamount to Malays losing power because Umno has been identified historically with the protection of Malay rights.

In 1969, the Malays were largely impoverished, and therefore, had relatively little to lose from a riot. That is not the case now. “The Malays will be the biggest losers if there is another May 13 riot,” noted commentator Koon Yew Yin.

The throwback to the catastrophic 1969 riots reveals that race remains a fault line in Malaysian society.

However, there are other factors which dilute the agency of race. The foundations of the post-1969 system – based on the tacit acceptance of unwritten supremacy of the Malays – have been weakened considerably by corruption, cronyism and nepotism.

These have reached a point where they have incensed not just Chinese and middle-class Indians but also middle-income and lower-income Malays.

Indeed, income inequality among Malays has effectively created a two-class system within the community: rich Malays at the top who enjoy access to wealth and power because of Malaysia’s bumiputera policies, and poor Malays who struggle to make a living in spite of those policies. Poor bumiputeras have far less stake in the status quo than their rich ethnic brethren do.

In an allied development, a number of East Malaysian bumiputeras, many of whom are Christians, have moved away from BN, turned off by the growing Islamisation of Malaysian life as Umno made overtures to the Muslim ground to draw it away from PAS.

The ethnic and economic alienation of these Malay, Chinese and Indian Malaysians from BN in varying measures has boosted PR’s claims to be a viable multiracial alternative to the ruling coalition. To put it another way, PR has encroached into the middle ground of Malaysian politics, which was a BN preserve till recently.

On the economic front, Malaysia has moved from being a vibrant and competitive economy that attracted a disproportionate share of foreign direct investment to struggling to grow by 5 per cent a year.

To his credit, Prime Minister Najib Razak sought to counter this downturn by liberalising foreign investment and easing some of the strictures of the New Economic Policy (NEP). However, his pro-growth formula drew abrasive resistance from right-wing groups whose economic interests were endangered by the dilution of the NEP’s pro-Malay bias.

Notwithstanding his personal popularity – BN has won most by-elections since he became prime minister – Datuk Seri Najib has been unable to push through difficult but necessary reforms. The consequent perception that he is a weak leader has merely emboldened his detractors within Umno, including its fickle political warlords.

It is telling that Mr Najib seems to be more popular with the general electorate than within his own party.

However, BN’s problems do not mean that PR enjoys automatic purchase on the Malaysian political imagination.

At the heart of its troubles lies PAS. Its agenda, which is tied to syariah Islamic law, alienates the non-Muslim religious minorities deeply. Umno’s overtures to Muslims, no matter how politically expedient, do not have the terrifying image of a judicial system under PAS that could prescribe Islamic hudud laws, which mandate stoning to death for adultery and amputation of the limbs for theft.

The presence of PAS in PR is a double-edged sword for Mr Anwar and his Parti Keadilan Rakyat. PAS brings in the support of devout, rural Muslims in states such as Kelantan and Terengganu, but it also drives a wedge between this constituency and the wider Malaysian populace, including the Malay intelligentsia, which prefers a less religiously defined political and social agenda.

If PR comes to power, it will have to contend with these differences, and hope to overcome them. At the moment, it has the luxury of pointing out all that is wrong in BN’s order of things. If in power, it will have to recreate that order. That is when ideological differences between its constituents will come to the fore.

Even now, when a PR victory is hardly guaranteed, there are differences over who will become premier should it win. PAS members have pushed for their party president Abdul Hadi Awang, who is not known widely for his liberal sympathies. Others in PR see Mr Anwar as the natural inheritor of the premier’s mantle in the new Malaysia that he has striven to build during and after his incarceration.

PAS emphasises religion over race. But when the two overlap completely, as they do in the case of Malays, it is difficult to see how PAS can remain neutral if a reformist PR government chips away at Malay economic privileges in pursuit of a truly post-NEP Malaysia that creates opportunities and distributes rewards on the basis of merit. The coming general election in Malaysia will show how the chips fall if the status quo continues – or change comes

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