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Malaysia is caught between Malay Dominance and National Integration

WHEN A NATION FORGETS its history, when the only acceptable view is of the Prime Minister of the day, when the old agreements not worth the paper on which it is written, when history is rewritten to reflect current political orthodoxy, with the view that the past is best forgotten, it has the combustible ingredients for disaster. Twelve years after independence, the 13 May racial riots broke out, one that on reflection was one waiting to happen, when two xenophobic communities, the Malays and the Chinese, fought for political supremacy. What caused it had to do with a typical Malay political quarrel: the deputy prime minister, Tun Abdul Razak, felt that it he did not become prime minister soon, some one else was waiting in the wings. The relationship between the prime minister, Tengku Abdul Rahman, and Tun Razak, had soured. The Chinese demand, backed by the hartal in Penang, in 1967, for English to continue as official language beyond the ten years guaranteed at independence, provided the spark.

The only serious political opposition to the Alliance, as the National Front (BN) was then known, was the opposition Chinese-Malay left wring coalition called the Socialist Front, which remained a political threat even after it was demonised for its left wing, and later, pro-Indonesian, sympathies. When the pro-Chinese Labour Party of Malaya decided it would not contest the 1969 general elections, but would instead urge the people not to vote, it was a threat the Alliance could not ignore. It was after all the Socialist Front, in parliament and the states, challenged the cosy pro-British views of the Alliance, often forcing changes in policy. Many of its leading lights were detained under the Internal Security Act, detained without trial. The Alliance's views on Indonesia's confrontation of Malaysia was challenged to a far higher degree than officially admitted by Malaysian Malays and Chinese. One cabinet minister was detained under the ISA for his pro-Indonesian views. This Chinese political astuteness and exuberance was a convenient foil for Tun Razak to make his move.

But to sustain a major political and cultural policy shift it must be nurtured and strengthened with time. This UMNO did not do. The consequent arrogance that it is lord of all it surveys in Malaysia, with no non-Malay leader in the BN daring to challenge the UMNO president on principle, and this ingrained belief that he is right even when he is wrong made this policy in time moot. The Malay ground cracked when in 1988 the High Court declared UMNO an illegal organisation, a decision the then prime minister and UMNO president, Tun (as he later became) Mahathir Mohamed, accepted. He formed a new UMNO and excluded his rivals, for he realised that in a future UMNO election, he could be defeated. But he cut the umbilical cord that linked UMNO to the Malay community, and UMNO's new found need for National Integration, a policy directly opposed to Malay Dominance, is for its own short-term survival. That it has to look to it upset many a Malay loyalist in UMNO, and the widespread allegations of electoral fraud, was a deliberate move callously taken to reduce this over-reliance on Chinese votes. And is caught in a mess of its own. The Malay ground is incensed, and is more alienated to UMNO than ever.

It now becomes clear that the 13 May 1969 is an UMNO coup against the Alliance, in which the non-Malay is deprived of his rights and dues and allowed to stay if he accepted uncritically and unconditionally the newly-thought out principle of Malay Dominance (Ketuanan Melayu). This country is unmistakeably Malay, the non-Malay accepts he is a second-class citizen, all policy making ministers were kept in Malay hands, and the non-Malay Alliance leaders told that their loyalties are to the UMNO president, not those who elected them. This Malay dominace was so forcefully implemented, with no opposition from within the Alliance non-Malay parties, all weak beyond belief when they did not stand up to their deliberate downgrading. But this Malay dominance presumed an annointed UMNO president who would not be challenged, that the Malay will remain faithful to UMNO as its political and cultural leader. That remains. But UMNO needs the non-Malay vote to sustain itself in power. It thought it could deflect this with support from the Muslim bumiputras of Sarawak and Sabah, and by co-opting them. It did not work. Few in the two Borneo states would want to be seen to be closely linked to Kuala Lumpur.

UMNO is in a dilemma. National Integration is now alleged official policy. This presumes that the national cake, in all its variations, would be split in the ratio of 6 Malays, 3 Chinese, 1 Indian. But when push comes to shove, it is a political statement of a Prime Minister still stuck in a quagmire and which his officials are disinclined to implement. He did not think it through. An informal civil service policy requires every head of department to make more Islamic than when he inherited it, and he gets brownie points when he sidelines the non-Malay and non-Muslim. So it is applied in piece-meal hopes: more headmasters that reflect NI goals, more policemen, soldiers, airmen and sailors, civil servants.

Malay Dominance squeezed out the non-Malay from all posts except the most basic, with the higher officers forced to crawl to a glass ceiling and retiring as deputies to those Malay officers who joined the services often a decade and more after him. The NI goal is unattainable without the Malay officers revolting. The BN and UMNO looks upon it as a crumb off the Malay Dominance table. But this alienates the Malay for offering too much and the non-Malay for offering too little. With the cultural and now the political Malay alienated, and the non-Malay offered a fair shake but which it cannot implement, UMNO must take firm decisions. But there is none in the present set up who can think far ahead, and take bold decisions, even if it annoys the Malay and the non-Malay in the short term, and make it stick. Until he can, Malay Dominance is a reality. National Integration is not a hope but a political concession offered for survival, and withdrawn when the crisis is past, as now.

M.G.G. Pillai
[email protected]

Terbitan : 6 Mei 2004

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