CMs, DPMs and PMs: Time to go beyond the old taboos

By Farish A. Noor

WHEN the opportunity presented itself for Malaysia to choose a Malaysian woman of South Asian origin to be made the country’s first astronaut, those responsible for the final decision stepped back before the seemingly-insurmountable wall of taboos and inherited petty wisdom. No, they opined, we should choose a Malaysian Male Muslim Malay instead, as this would reflect the demographic realities of the country. But by doing so, they not only reflected the demographic realities of the day, but also confirmed the hegemony of that reality and thus rendered it absolute and unquestionable.

Now think of the possible alternatives had the Malaysian-Indian woman be chosen instead: For a start it would point to the demographic realities many of us would have wanted to see; and it would have been such a powerful symbolic message sent to Malaysia and the world. Had the other candidate been chosen, we could have proudly proclaimed that this was a country where racial and ethnic divisions had been transcended, and where gender equality was within reach. It would also have been such an enormous boost to the pride and sense of self-worth of so many other marginalised minority groupings in the country, to see themselves mirrored in the national narrative and to be made to feel that they truly belonged to a Malaysia that was indeed a country for all races. But no: Sadly, once again, the powers that be did the familiar cop-out and conceded to their own misguided belief in the old taboos.

The debate over who should be made chief minister of Perak, which has been going on for a week now, points to the same sort of intellectual and psycho-social impasse that has kept Malaysia paralysed for so long. Despite winning the biggest number of state assembly seats in the state, the DAP was not allowed to nominate one of its own to the post. The grounds for this realpolitik consideration happens to be a legal provision in the Perak constitution that apparently precludes the possibility of a non-Malay and non-Muslim from assuming the post of chief minister, even if her/his party won all the seats in the state assembly.

That such a provision emerged in a specific historical context that was determined even before the struggle for independence got off the ground is known to historians and laymen alike. But the question is this: Are we forever to remain beholden to history and trapped by the circumstances of the past? Or are we finally going to admit to ourselves that this nation-state of ours – Malaysia – is an invented construct and as such is also open to deconstruction, revision, adaptation and subsequently evolution? Are we now ready to evolve a new Malaysian politics that will finally reflect the plural and multicultural reality of Malaysian society today?

The debate over who should be the Perak chief minister appeared archaic and totally out of touch with the realities of our time. Coming immediately after an election that demonstrated the possible emergence of a pan-Malaysian cross-racial electorate, the fact that the post of chief minister for Perak was determined not by merit, experience or acumen, but rather by the racial background of the potential candidate, was surreal to say the least.

But as the dust settles and as the country slowly regains its momentum in the wake of the results of the 12th general election, let us take this opportunity to stir up some other sleeping sacred cows and rattle some other popular taboos.

To begin with, let us ask the singular question that nobody seems to have raised thus far: If, as our politicians would lead us to believe, this is indeed a country for all Malaysians, then should it not be the case that Malaysian citizenship and the commitment to the ideal of a plural Malaysian Malaysia be the guiding principle and criteria for all appointments to high office? Should that premise be accepted, would it not be conceivable that one day this country may have as its prime minister or deputy prime minister a Malaysian of non-Malay, non-Muslim and non-Male background? In other words, can we even begin to imagine the day when we may have a prime minister who happens to be of Indian-Hindu background and a woman to boot? And if such a situation is deemed unthinkable by some at the moment, we need to ask: Why? What is holding us back from entertaining such contingencies and variables? Surely what matters most in the selection of any leader or administrator is the competence and sincerity of the individual concerned; and it’s not as if it is the colour of the person’s skin that is doing the governing! (We hope not at least.)

The following imponderable questions can be addressed to all the parties in the country today as well.

Umno considers itself the party that defends the interests of the Malays and bumiputeras, though as we all know, both of these ethnic-racial categories are artificial and were invented as part of the colonial census. Be that as it may, Umno still presents itself as the party of the Malays and bumiputeras, and so let us ask this question aloud: Can the Umno leadership and membership consider the possibility that one day the president of Umno may be of Kadazan, Bajau, Iban, Penan or Peranakan background? Could a Catholic Kadazan ever dream of rising to such a post, and if not, what does this say about the institutional and structural limitations of Umno itself that does not and will not open up such opportunity structures?

PAS on the other hand claims to have transcended the culture and praxis of race politics, and the elevation of its Chinese-Muslim leader (Datuk) Anuar Tan Abdullah in Kota Bharu is a case in point. Yet PAS still has a woefully small number of non-Malay Muslims in its ranks and it remains to be seen if the party can and will make that great leap to non-racialised politics by courting the support of non-Malay Muslims across the country. Now the leaders and members of PAS may wish to consider this imponderable question as well: Can and will a non-Malay Muslim ever become the president of PAS, chief minister of Kelantan or even assume the highest post of Murshid’ul Am (Spiritual Leader) of the party and its followers?

Both the DAP and Gerakan on the other hand are ideologically-defined parties that have foregrounded their ideologies in the course of their struggles. But with the demise of Ahmad Noor, it has become an imperative for the DAP in particular to expand the racial spectrum of its leadership and membership. Already efforts are being made to undermine the hard work that the DAP has put into winning back Penang and those crucial state assembly seats in Perak and Selangor. Barbed comments about the DAP being a Chinese-dominated party may upset the sensibilities of DAP stalwarts who have laboured for so long to fulfil their leftist ambitions, but the fact remains that this perception of the DAP as a Chinese party is real for many and resonates with others too. In the same way that PAS places Islam at the forefront of its struggle, so should the DAP keep its Democratic-Socialist course, but surely the time has come when we can and should imagine the possibility of the DAP being led by a leader who may be of Malay or Indian background?

In the wake of the election, many of us have celebrated what may well be the first signs of a nascent Malaysian nation where citizenship counts the most in defining ones identity. A rupture has been opened up at last in the collective mindset that determines the conduct of our politics, and perhaps for the first time since 1957, we are in a position to collectively redefine the terms of Malaysian politics.

We need a new Malaysian politics that would breathe new life and faith in the political system, and where all of us – mainly on the basis of our universal citizenship – can claim to be stakeholders in the nation-building process. But for this to be the case we have to be brave enough to think out of the box and to imagine what was once deemed unimaginable. Our sacrosanct taboos and sacred rites have held us back too long, and kept us in a state of limbo where political superstitions ruled the day. For so long, we assumed that Malaysians would not vote for change; that the Malays would never support the DAP; that non-Muslims would never vote for PAS. But these certainties have been shattered and we now see that we are a mature, adult nation after all.

So perhaps all we need to do is push the envelope a little further, set our targets a little higher, wish and work a little harder; and our dreams for a truly democratic Malaysia that is the nation for one and all may eventually come true. We failed to send a Malaysian-Indian woman to space, but that doesn’t mean we can’t send her to the Prime Minister’s Office in Putrajaya!

Dr. Farish A. Noor is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University of Singapore; and one of the founders of the research site.