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Short of banning outright race or religion-based political parties, we may have to recognise that the old ways of organising ourselves politically may linger for a while yet in the New Malaysia.- NSTP/Saifulizan Tamadi

There is a sense pervading the body politic that the more things change, the more they stay the same; the post-election euphoria of little more than a year ago all but dissipated.

It may be fair to say that the disenchantment is not just among the governed but even at the very top of the governing hierarchy, if the latest lamentations of the prime minister’s top economic adviser Tun Daim Zainuddin are anything to go by.

What gives, exactly?

My sense is that there were all-round unrealistic popular expectations to begin with.

A new political dispensation was built on (or at least ascribed to) old politics.

To be sure, there was an inability or an unwillingness to move out of existing political paradigms.

With the benefit of hindsight, it may be reasonable to assert that the so-called New Malaysia was really no such thing.

It was probably little more than a popular reaction to (and rejection of) the alleged excesses heaped on a single individual: the then prime minister, Datuk Seri Najib Razak.

A quite abrupt upswing in costs of living (undoubtedly brought on by a depreciation of the ringgit in reaction to swirling hints of rather hair-raising economic scandals) naturally did not help the then ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) either.

As it turned out, Umno retained its position as the primus inter pares of political parties following the 2018 polls.

Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia which had hoped to displace Umno failed to do so although Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad likely convinced enough Malays (and most non-Malays) to abandon the BN ship. The rest is history.

Thus, there was really no rejection of our staple of race-based politics in 2018. Both Parti Keadilan Rakyat and DAP gained from the groundswell of opprobrium heaped on Najib and the government he led.

Any upsurge of support for both these parties because they are multi-racial may have been only incidental and marginal.

Understanding the continuation and persistence of our race-based political dynamics in 2018 and beyond may be crucial to finding the right way forward politically now.

Short of banning outright race or religion-based political parties, we may have to recognise that the old ways of organising ourselves politically may linger for a while yet in the New Malaysia.

Controversies such as that over learning khat in school or the far larger one over so-called “needs-based” as opposed to “race-based” economic policies may appear to be all very politically “old school” but we may have to live with them for at least a while longer.

What may be politically new and perhaps even promising is that once opposition parties are showing some signs of growing maturity and responsibility now that governing the country requires a very delicate balancing of various interests, largely categorised along racial lines whether anyone likes it or not.

Such parties in government now will increasingly need to come to terms with the reality of how politics has always been organised in the country and bring along their supporters to also accept such a seemingly immovable political fact.

This is perhaps the saving grace of having two coalitions of parties alternating in power: hopefully it injects political realism into everyone.

We are now happily close to the original political arrangements pre-BN wherein all the major racial groups have significant inputs into the country’s governance, in the spirit of real and active consultations among ruling coalition partners before major decisions affecting the people are taken. This must be safeguarded.

The concept of musyawarah has often been cited as our governing principle but too often, it seems to be exercised in the breach. Important decisions affecting the entire country will benefit immeasurably from genuine across-the-board consultations within the government before policies are promulgated or legislation crafted.

But as Daim mentioned in a recent speech, mutual respect and empathy are still sorely lacking among the various communities and standing in the way of forging true national unity.

It is worthwhile reflecting on some of the things the former finance minister said: “Is it moral to drill into students that other students are not entitled to certain privileges simply because they are not of a certain race, even if they are economically disadvantaged?”

“Is it right that you are taught to feel superior because the language you are taught in is also the language of an economically powerful nation?”

Honest answers to such searching questions will bring us a step closer to realising we are all in this together as a nation.

The writer views developments in the nation, the region and the wider world from his vantage point in Kuching, Sarawak

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