Monday, 18 February 2013

Malaysia's Najib eyes the Chinese Vote

In the run-up to Malaysia’s pivotal general elections, Prime Minister Najib Razak has put due emphasis on visiting opposition-held states in a bid to shore up support for his re-election. Appealing to the first time voter demographic, now consisting of over five million young people aged 20-29, most of whom with no clear political affiliations, appears to be a priority of the Najib administration. The appearance of South Korean K-pop star PSY at the Barisan Nasional Chinese New Year open house in Penang is seen by many analysts as an attempt by the government to latch onto pop culture rhythms to appease Malaysia’s youth. It is also another reminder of the Najib administration’s lenient and moderate interpretations of Islam, in stark contrast to the Islamist Party (PAS) who have advocated gender segregation, dress code requirements, and a ban on all concerts – a political program that would likely stifle expression and personal freedom to pursue lifestyle choices if the opposition found its way to power.

Najib recently made a landmark visit to the Chinese New Year Open House hosted by Chinese education group Dong Zhong (United Chinese School Committees Association of Malaysia). The visit is significant because Najib is the first Prime Minister to attend the annual celebration; additionally, capturing the hearts and minds of the Chinese community is a major necessity if Najib is keen to retake Putrajaya in the coming general elections. Dong Zhong has been perceived by many as being somewhat critical of the Malaysian government’s education policy in the past through their outspoken views toward promoting Chinese-language education. The Prime Minister’s appearance was clearly aimed at building better ties between the government and the Chinese community, and Najib will be perceived in a positive light after agreeing to address the grievances of the minority community.

PM in CNY kajang

Najib agreed to reassess the government’s position on allowing recognition of Unified Examination Certificates that are offered in 60 independent Chinese high schools throughout the country, in addition to the building of more Chinese independent schools. “We are sincere in our efforts to improve Chinese education and our relationship with the government is becoming stronger. They are working well to resolve issues,” Dong Zhong deputy chairman Chow Siew Hon was quoted as saying. Najib was photographed with Dong Zhong leaders ceremonially tossing yee sang to top off the appearance. Najib’s effort to extend support to the Chinese education community is a move that will undoubtedly resonate well with Malaysia’s Chinese minority, who view access to educate as a key priority in the coming elections. 

Under Najib’s administration, Malaysia’s relationship with China has expanded tenfold and cooperation has never been better. Following the global economic crisis of 2008, Najib looked to Beijing to revive Malaysia's export oriented economy, emphasizing increased Chinese investment into Malaysia and expanding the base of Sino-Malaysian trade in areas like education and student exchange, finance, infrastructure development, science and technology, yielding lucrative and mutually beneficial results. China has been Malaysia's largest trade partner, with trade figures reaching US$90 billion in 2011; Malaysia is China’s largest trading partner among ASEAN nations. It was Najib’s father, Malaysia's second Prime Minister Tun Abdul Razak, who made the landmark visit to Beijing to establish diplomatic relations in 1974. The children of both Prime Minister Najib Razak and Foreign Minister Anifah Aman are Mandarin-educated, reflecting the importance that Malaysia has placed on Chinese-education and toward China as an emerging world power.

Some of the Prime Minister’s comments given in a speech at a separate location created a negative backlash among social media users. Najib was quoted as stating, “The Chinese community’s success is also because the government has created an environment that enables the Chinese to make a good living. If not for the success of BN leaders in maintaining harmony and implementing good policies, even if we were hardworking and had good business skills, we would never have been successful.” Many vocal social media users lashed out at the Prime Minister for downplaying the plight and struggles of the Chinese community in Malaysia’s Muslim-majority climate that grants preferential treatment to ethnically Malay Muslims. One web user commented, “We have done well because we are hard working and taking whatever opportunities available. We do not only look at local environment but also the global opportunities and that is why we do well. It is utter nonsense that we Chinese are successful due to your discriminatory policies.” 

Another social media user stated, “BN [Barisan Nasional] has always been asking us to be grateful for ensuring harmony and implement good policies. In my honest opinion, these are basic responsibilities of a government. We don't owe it to BN, and don’t forget there are unquestionable restrictions in place in our constitution.” Its clear that the Najib administration is pulling out all the stops to appease minority communities and voters in opposition-held states – but is he ready to deconstruct the indigenous-non-indigenous dichotomy that has long been the framework of the ruling party’s ethno-communal policies? Malaysia’s longstanding New Economic Policy (NEP), which grants economic incentives to Malay Muslims, is a sensitive subject and has been consistently perceived by non-Malays to be a discriminatory policy that alienates economically disadvantaged minority communities who struggle to penetrate into circles of higher education and good employment.

PN in CNY kajang

Najib has campaigned on promoting national unity under the auspices of his 1Malaysia platform. To more effectively meet the needs of the citizenry, and to win their support in the process, the ruling party must reassess its support for the kind of policy that reinforces ethnic distinctions rather than doing away with them. Najib’s remarks have been critically interpreted by many, however the point the Prime Minister was attempting to emphasis was that under the ruling party, the Chinese community have been able to practice their culture and religion without hindrance, and pursue their business interests with minimum intervention from the state. Despite the discontent voiced by social media users, it’s difficult to imagine how the Chinese community could fair any better under a hypothetical alternative Malay ethno-nationalist regime, or an Islamist regime. The ongoing perpetuation of Malaysia’s relatively secular and tolerant foundation is a perquisite for any ethnically and religiously diverse state – Malaysians have long recognized this. The incoming leadership must work to phase out ethno-communal policies in favor of a more representative platform to adhere with the current administration’s drive toward national unity.

Nile Bowie is an independent political commentator and photographer based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. He can be reached at