passes as 'Malay unity' card is played
Leaders of two of Malaysia's main opposition parties have reacted coolly to an invitation from the United Malays National Organization (Umno), the dominant party in the ruling coalition, to take part in "Malay unity" discussions.
PAS (Pan Malaysian Islamic Party) and Keadilan (National Justice Party) leaders have not shown much enthusiasm for the proposed talks, with some of them calling it a tactic to divert attention from corruption, abuse of power, and declining support for Umno. They are also aware that focusing on Malay unity rather than Malaysian unity would alienate their non-Malay supporters.
The national news agency, Bernama, however, reported that leaders of various Malay political organizations and political leaders on Thursday expressed full support for Umno's efforts to initiate talks on ethnic Malay unity.
Umno is concerned about declining support from its traditional support base, the ethnic Malays who make up more than half the country's 23 million population. Many Malays were deeply disturbed by the ouster of former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim, widely seen as a progressive Islamic leader.
In the last general election in November 1999, the Malay votes were split almost evenly between Umno and the opposition front. But strong support from the other ethnic groups helped the ruling Barisan Nasional (National Front) coalition retain its commanding two-thirds parliamentary majority. Umno has been the traditional backbone among the ruling coalition's ethnically based parties.
Since November 1999, however, Malay support for Umno has slipped further. "I estimate that Malay support for Umno has now fallen to around 35-40 percent from about 45 percent before," said a high-ranking state leader from the ruling coalition.
This was particularly evident in the recent Barisan Nasional (BN) by-election defeat in Lunas on November 29. Not only did ethnic Chinese-majority areas sway to the opposition, the Malay-majority areas also saw a similar swing from a year earlier, which means BN lost majority support among both ethnic groups in a constituency that has been a BN stronghold since independence.
The Lunas result has left the BN shaken; hence the calls for Malay unity. Attempts to stir up ethnic support from the Malays, using tired old communal issues have failed. Recently the Peninsula Malay Students Federation (GPMS), linked to several Umno leaders, protested against appeals by a grouping of Chinese organizations, Suqiu, which it said threatened the "special rights" of the Malays. The GPMS has vowed to press on with a series of public gatherings in various states beginning Saturday.
But it appears that many Malays and the leading opposition parties are not swallowing the bait. Many Malays simply do not see the Chinese as a threat anymore and are instead upset over Umno's lack of concern over their plight. Their anger has increasingly focused on Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, in power for 20 years. Mahathir is now in military-ruled Myanmar on a week-long working visit cum vacation.
"Saya geram (I'm really angry)," declares Maria, a Malay maid who once used to be active in the local women's wing of Umno. "The price of everything is soaring by the day: medical fees, bus fares, food."
Maria's husband has been in a government hospital for a week and his bill came to 75 ringgit (3.8 ringgit = US$1). "I told them, 'I'm poor; how can you charge so much?' I can only afford to pay 25 ringgit," she recounts. "I'm not going to pay the balance," she adds defiantly. "Let's see what they can do about it. If I pay up, they will expect other poor people to pay. It's not fair."
Maria says she now supports "Adil" - Keadilan, led by Anwar's wife Wan Azizah Wan Ismail - and adds that her son is now a strong supporter of the party.
Such defiance and dissatisfaction among the Malay grassroots has spread across the nation and it is worrying Umno leaders.
A survey just released reveals that an average Malaysian family spent 1,631 ringgit a month, with almost 80 percent of the total household expenditure going toward food. "This is more than a two-fold increase over 1999, largely brought about by higher inflation and more expensive food items in retail outlets," said Zainal Rampak, the president of the Malaysian Trades Union Congress.
The reality on the ground is that many low-wage earners like Maria take home less than 500 ringgit from jobs in smaller factories, plantations, fishing, and farming.
"Quite obviously, workers belonging to the lowest income group with household monthly income ranging from 300 to 500 ringgit will find it impossible to support a five-member family on such a paltry income as they have to pay for rent, power, transport, water supply, telephone, medical care and their children's education," pointed out Zainal.
To make matters worse, the Kuala Lumpur Stock Exhange has slumped after a bailout of Malaysia Airlines shareholder Tajudin Ramli. The government recently paid 8 ringgit per share for his 29 percent stake in the loss-making airline when the market price was just 3.68 ringgit.
It is this sort of deal that is fuelling discontent and providing a fertile breeding ground for the "reformasi" movement. The denial of petroleum royalties to opposition-held, oil-rich Terengganu, a predominantly Malay state, and police high-handedness toward peaceful demonstrators, have also added to the disquiet - not only among the poor but also among the middle class.
Analysts will now be closely watching a reformasi-organized "100,000 Raya (Festival Day) gathering" in central Selangor state on January 20 to see the extent of the discontent against the ruling coalition after a similar protest gathering on November 5 drew tens of thousands.
(Special to Asia