What do Malays want?

DECEMBER 1 — It haunts me at night. This prized question.

The last general election — on May 5, 2013 — was alleged as proof of insatiable Chinese community gone amok, but the aspersion was never directed at the dwindling race. It was to the Malays, to suggest, “Hey look, look what they Chinese have done. We are next.”

It was about inflating the bogeyman as a large menacing Zeppelin hovering over the population’s soon to implode sanity, and in reaction hope they ignore a shocking electoral process and result. It worked.

How else to maintain the fear of an existential threat in Malay minds unless it is framed and reframed relentlessly? In this week of the Umno General Assembly, retuning is ongoing big-time.

So since that election and its accompanying backlashes, in corridors and mamak stalls where opposition strategists meet, the killer question is asked over and over, what do Malays want? The answers are multi-variant, rant-filled and ultimately unsatisfying.

Because to poll-predictors, getting the pulse reading right and reacting commensurately is the key to a win, an unprecedented win. For the unchallenged wisdom is, understand the Malay and the results will follow.

Barisan Nasional (BN), or Umno more specifically, couches itself as the only choice to retain Malays as the true political masters of the country.

Therefore Pakatan — in any shape or name — endeavours to match Umno’s Coke with their own Pepsi, unaware that the cola war has long ended.

By presenting a presumptively more progressive view of power, globalisation, administration and race relations. While in the same breath, championing a version of Malay hegemony within what they feel are the fringes of what is acceptable to those at home and beyond our shores.

Let’s compare.

Without weighing into the premises and relative merits, BN’s idea is a clear proposition, and Pakatan’s a bit of this and that, positing a better idea somewhere in the middle of the old and new.

Likely result?

A series of fresh takes of a tired idea chained to a nation’s psyche. It’s Groundhog Day for them, they never seem to be able to leave 1948.

Using the clarity test, it’s easier to sell BN’s value proposition. Sellers — Umno operatives — are comfortable explaining and buyers — the voters — are not confused about the equation. How it sits in the larger canvass of efficient public service delivery, sound economic planning — balancing trade relations, business liberalisation, SME help and workers’ advocacy/protection — and social integration to coalesce an authentic identity is often ignored.

Umno can choose to continue in this vein because the counter narrative predictably is courting Malay support through partial duplication.

This explains the muck, where the positioning of parties in terms of communal interests bypasses the need to prioritise mundane acts like governing.

Therefore, the strategic inquiry remains, what do Malays want?

Flustered I am, but I offer this, why not ask it in another way.

Would Malays want by definition different things from everyone else on the planet? Have they become exempt from humanity’s shared experience and therefore story?

Will they when they flock to “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” playing cinemas this month, see the story of a struggling rebellion seeking to upset the odds in the face of overwhelming adversity opposite to how a global audience does?

Will they go like, “Yes Empire, very bad and only interested in power for their own self-interest, but, but they are the galactic overlords, it is only right they win.”

Not intending to overextend an analogy of sorts from a Hollywood movie but there are universal constants, and sometimes we have to trust people to be able to tell substance from fluff.

Perhaps those desiring to lead are not explaining their ideas better. Perhaps they fall into the same trap of assuming themselves infallible. There are enough examples of how grown adults attempt to present their side as flawless and the other without exception evil. I am convinced if opposition members force their own to own up to mistakes, misjudgements and blind grabs for power window-dressed as political manoeuvres or managing an ill-informed public, that they would get more sympathy than they do now.

Malays understand what sorry means, just like the rest of us.

And second, Malays are not homogenous. They never were. There are spiritually minded, music loving, video game addicted, football fanatics, dotting husbands, female bankers, hamster radio enthusiasts, social observers and even sad, sad writers.

And more, and more and more.

There are friends who find the BR1M hand-outs offensive. There are those who do believe in the insatiable Chinese and loathe them — and invariably those who love dating the insatiable Chinese. There are those who prefer anarchy over any man or woman, Malay or not, governing them.

Maybe the question is, which Malay’s support do you want? Any promise will get you that many Chinese and Malays, and also lose a fair number of Chinese and Malays.

Not all white Americans voted for Trump, and no promise can Trump or any American make deliver them all white votes. The same here.

Maybe the real question is, how much are Malays voting based on perception of themselves being under attack thanks to state control? And if perception is the game, why not attack the perception instead of pandering to it?

Leadership is about raising above the dredge, not saying we will sink to that level so much so the voter — who cares if they are Malay or not? — can’t see the difference anymore between the sides.

The lines blur and on this count, it is not the government of the day doing this to them, it is themselves.

They have to stop treating Malays as a singular and challenge paradigms because that’s what it’s going to take. To stand up to wrong ideas and poor characterisation of people. To convince a nation, a country has to be about a people and when people are the objective, then Malays won’t be handicapped because they are also people.

I don’t think the people, Malays included, can’t get it. It is that the opposition cannot sell it. Maybe they need better salesmen. That might be the better answer. Because Malaysians are in the mood to buy.

(This column appeared first in http://www.themalaymailonline.com/opinion/praba-ganesan/article/winning-the-vote . This is the unedited version)

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