Politicians playing on sentiments

“IS there a religious war on in Malaysia?” a 40-something friend I recently visited in Iloilo City in the Philippines asked me.

“Why do you say that?” I asked.

“That’s what I read in the news,” he said.

I explained to him that the religious and racial noises turning up in headlines are being made by politicians from both sides of the Malaysian political divide.

“Malaysians of all religions and races live in harmony, and their main worry in life is the rising cost of living. They just want to make a living,” I said.

I explained that some Malaysian politicians are ratcheting up fearmongering religious and racial rhetoric as Malaysia is facing crucial polls in six states on Aug 12, which could also affect the Federal Government.

“Will Anwar last as Prime Minister?” asked my friend, who is as updated on Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim as he is on the politics of Philippine President Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr.

“It all depends on the results of the six state polls. Let’s see where the Malay votes go,” I said.

We talked about how Bong-bong won the Philippines presidential elections last year.

My friend voted for unsuccessful candidate Leni Robredo, who was vice president from 2016 to 2022; he blames social media, especially TikTok, for Bongbong successfully managing to rewrite the history of his dictator father, Ferdinand Marcos Sr, who was president from 1965 to 1986.

“Social media wiped out the well-documented history of Marcos’ [senior] human rights abuses and corruption,” he said.

I told him that if he lived in the Malaysian political TikTok bubble, he would think that the 3R (race, religion and royalty) issues dominate the country’s conversation.

Arguably, Malaysia’s 15th General Election in November 2022 was shaped by the dominance that current Opposition bloc Perikatan Nasional had over TikTok, especially among young Malay voters.

The social media platform owned by ByteDance might disagree, of course.

Sentiment and not issues will determine which coalition – Pakatan Harapan/Barisan Nasional or Perikatan – voters in Kedah, Kelantan, Negri Sembilan, Penang, Selangor, and Terengganu will support.

“Malaysian voters, as much as they think they are rational, are not. They are driven by emotion,” I told my Filipino friend.

“I know. I’ve spoken to voters from both sides of the political divide, and you can’t talk to them rationally.”

Arguably, I said, the sentiment that Perikatan – though which Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia, PAS, and Gerakan will be contesting in the state polls – will play on is that Malays and Muslims are under threat.

Pakatan – though which PKR, DAP and Amanah will be fielding candidates – will rah-rah its supporters, especially non-Malays, with the feeling that their lifestyle will be threatened if Perikatan wrests the Federal Government from it.

It is all about the fear factor.

As for Barisan, which will be represented by Umno only in the Aug 12 polls (component parties MCA and MIC are not contesting), I am curious to know what sentiment it can play on.

Its role as “defender” of the 3Rs was compromised when it embraced Pakatan as component party DAP was previously the bogeyman it used to frighten Malay voters with. Now that Umno is in the Federal Govern-ment with DAP, that role has been necessarily taken over by Bersatu and PAS. And both Malay parties are outdoing Umno in playing the fear card.

The political chat with my Filipino friend veered to Thailand. As scripted by the powers-that-be in the kingdom, Pita Limjaroenrat’s bid for the prime minister’s job failed when military junta-appointed Sena-tors voted against him.

My friend believes to cause a political reset and eliminate political oligarchs who have controlled his country for decades, the Philippines needs a movement like Pita’s young Move Forward Party had sparked in Thailand.

Which led to him wondering about a similar party in Malay-sia: “How will that party of young people do in the state elections?” he asked, referring to Muda, headed by 30-year-old Muar MP Syed Saddiq Syed Abdul Rahman.

I said that Muda will be squeezed by the two giants: Pakatan/Barisan and Perikatan. Most voters have to choose between the two. The parties in the middle, like Muda and PSM, that have an electoral deal will be sidelines.

According to Syed Saddiq, Muda will campaign for a new type of politics and a new Malaysia in all six states holding elections.

After the party was not given “face” by Pakatan in its request to contest as part of the unity government coalition, Muda decided to go solo.

From the statements made by Syed Saddiq and other Muda leaders, being ignored by Pakatan stung, and they have been questioning the extent to which the unity government has implemented promised reforms.

The Muda president has listed what he calls “false promises”: “GLC [government-linked corporation] positions are still being treated as political rewards for obedient political elites. There is no Political Funding Act, no two-term limit for the prime minister, no separation between the prime minister’s portfolio and the finance minister,” he has said (though he forgot to include the fact that the PM today also holds the portfolio of Federal Territories Minister and sits on the Pardons Board).

“There are no equal allocations for MPs. Major monopolies and concessions are still being extended. Oppressive laws are still in place, and worse, they are even proposed to be strengthened by this government. The list of false promises is neverending.”

Will the voters buy into Muda’s argument?

But its unlikely that Muda’s constituents – mostly Pakatan supporters – will listen to reason, though. For them, fear triumphs over “false promises”. They fear the possible takeover of the Federal Government by Perikatan more than Pakatan breaking its election promises.

The latest 3Rs issue to blow up is Matty Healy, the frontman of British band The 1975, slamming Malaysia’s LGBT+ laws and kissing his male bandmate, Ross MacDonald, on stage during their performance at the Good Vibes Festival at Sepang Inter-national Circuit on Friday.

(In response, Communi-cations and Digital Minister Fahmi Fadzil cancelled the rest of the event and summoned the organisers for an explanation yesterday.)

For Perikatan, this controversy is probably a godsend. Pakatan/Barisan, on the other, will have to scramble to do damage control over an explosive event beyond its control.

But – to paraphrase Mark Twain – politicians will never let the truth get in the way of a good story to “prove” racial and religious fear factors in a false religious “war”.  ANN

Unity first

THE campaigns for the six state elections haven’t even begun officially, yet the air is already choking with toxic political drivel.

The arrest of Datuk Seri Muhammad Sanusi Md Nor may result in sympathy for him and Perikatan Nasional, but the message has been strongly delivered to everyone.

If anyone pushes the limit, they will be arrested and charged in court.

On June 18, when the Sultan of Selangor announced the dissolution of the Selangor State Assembly at the Balai Dewan Diraja of Istana Alam Shah, he provided a reminder – don’t wield the race and religion cards and play up other sensitive issues.

The police have also repeatedly issued the same reminder, but as expected, these directives have fallen on deaf ears.

In fact, Communications and Digital Minister Fahmi Fadzil was criticised when he warned of the consequences for posting such messages on social media.

He had strongly urged all parties to refrain from spreading rumours about racial, religious sensitivities and royalty during the state polls.

Whatever the political fallout from the caretaker Kedah Mentri Besar’s arrest, it’s more important that the police have taken strong action against those who’ve challenged the law.

Over the past few months, Malaysians have noted with concern, if not alarm, how politicians have used race and religion to stir controversy on the sentiments of the predominantly Malay voters.

The narrative has been about the rights of the Malays and the sanctity of Islam as the official religion being challenged and threatened.

The perception that this strategy has worked seems to encourage these politicians to push the boundaries even harder.

To them, it’s the end that justifies the means, and that amounts to winning the elections at all costs.

The Rulers have been dragged in as heads of Islam in their respective states. They have watched with uneasiness how certain politicians have used religion for political expediency.

The brazenness of some politicians in daring to question the decision of the Royalty has also taken root.

In March, PAS president Tan Sri Abdul Hadi Awang defied a ban on politicians delivering religious lectures in mosques and suraus by speaking at Masjid Rusila in Marang, Terengganu.

Terengganu Ruler Sultan Mizan Zainal Abidin had expressed disappointment in his ban being ignored, stating he “was upset” about some politicians delivering religious lectures or leading Friday prayers without the approval of the state Islamic Religious and Malay Customs Council (Maidam).

The open rebuff by Hadi didn’t go down well with the Rulers, as some felt this was defiance of the royal institution. Basically, the red line had been crossed.

As early as February, the Sultan of Johor urged his people to reject any form of extremism that could jeopardise the long-established harmony in the state, adding that “Johor is out of bounds for politicians and bigoted religious leaders who are out to break the bonds of unity and solidarity among the different races in the state.”

Thus, when Sanusi pushed the envelope when speaking at a ceramah in Selayang, Selangor, he got caught. He apologised to the Sultan of Selangor for his remarks, but it was rejected.

The significance of this incident is that a report was made by members of the Selangor Council of the Royal Court.

The arrest of Sanusi, who is a popular politician, has expectedly stirred a lot of emotions.

Highly seditious comments against the Selangor palace have been posted by his supporters.

It’s almost certain that they can expect the police to knock on their doors for their “musings” on social media, which are clearly aimed at inciting social unrest.

In the age of social media, where information and opinions fly fast and furiously, our authorities, including the police, need to react swiftly to explain their actions.

Sanusi’s arrest at 3am has been regarded as excessive by many. Unfortunately, the police didn’t issue any official statement to explain their actions until late afternoon.

They should have released a statement as early as 8am when Malaysians woke up and read about the arrest. The police may not care about the political implications, but surely this would protect and justify their actions.

They should also not give the impression that certain personalities – who have also raised polarising issues on race and religion – are untouchables and spared from the law.

The age or position of these errant figures, whether religious or political, shouldn’t be a consideration either.

The arrest of Sanusi will invariably cool down the political temperature. Politicians who sometimes get carried away when speaking at ceramah will now restrain themselves as they know they’re being watched.

Given the intensity of the next two weeks of campaigning, the police should call the top leaders of the respective parties for a meeting to remind them of the consequences of snubbing their directives.

Alarmist messages of temples being demolished if a certain party comes to power or that Malaysia is teetering on the edge of another round of May 13 riots, are unnecessary and out of place.

The politics of fear must end, regardless of our political allegiance. It serves no purpose except to cause uneasiness and anxiety among the people.

Let cool heads prevail over the next two weeks. Ahead of the National and Malaysia Day, politicians must be reminded that this country belongs to all of us.

Malaysians, especially the minorities, must be made to feel that they have a place in this country. No one should feel insecure and have any doubt about their future in Malaysia.

The country deserves to have politicians who build bridges for our multiracial communities, and not those who strive to divide us and instil fear and hatred.  ANN