It has been announced that Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s newest ethnocentric Malay political party would be known as ‘ Pejuang’ which denotes many meanings including someone working on a crusade, a struggle, a campaign, or a cause for or against something.
It is a catchy and powerful name to conjure up the aspiration for something high, holistic, impressive and just. Just the name itself will command wide appeal. The big difference is that it would enlist essentially peninsular Malay support to promote their cause and also fight corruption. It would seem that Dr Mahathir has won this first round in stating that there is a cause to be fought for.
Ensuring Peninsular Malay Supremacy
Looking back it would seem that for three quarters of a century Dr Mahathir has faithfully stuck to a personal and political mission for the well-being and the entrenchment of peninsular Malay supremacy in the country.
In those 75 years Malaysia has experienced several notable, structural and seismic challenges and changes. The period has seen the tail end of British colonial rule, the formation of the larger federation incorporating the relatively larger territories of Sabah and Sarawak and their native and non-native people who mostly do not identify themselves as Malays.
Since 1963 when Malaysia was formed, in part largely due to the vast natural and Human Resources of Sabah and Sarawak, the country has emerged as a major economic and geopolitical force in Southeast Asia. The transformation of Malaysia has seen rapid modernisation and urbanisation with nearly 80 percent of the people living in highly developed environments with health, educational, social and infrastructure facilities and amenities comparable to the most liveable places in Asia and the rest of the world.
Dr Mahathir himself was partly responsible and instrumental for some of these positive developments.
Consequently Malaysia has become a vital link in international supply chains, a travel hub and an integral part of a more globalised world. Multinationals invested in Malaysia partly on account of its assured political stability, the good infrastructure, its wide use of the English language, its reliable law courts, the availability of a trainable low-wage labour force and the lower cost of business operations.
Some of these advantages declined with time as wages increased, when some judges were unjustifiably excoriated and other Southeast Asian countries began offering seemingly better investment environments.
In 2020 Malaysia suddenly entered a period of political uncertainty with a weak unelected government in power. This shaky government’s claim to authentic legitimacy was its predominantly peninsular Malay/ Muslim credentials and composition.
In large measure due to Dr Mahathir’s penchant for shooting from the hip Malaysia had also become known as an Islamic state when its constitution only allowed for Islam to be the official religion of the country.
The Muhyiddin government that came to power represented vicariously the avowed desire of Dr Mahathir for quintessentially peninsular Malay predominance in national politics. But it had one chink. Dr Mahathir was himself not a part of it and worse, it had cleverly and categorically rejected his leadership. Dr Mahathir also claimed the Muhyiddin’s government was tainted because it had relied for its legitimacy on some allegedly corrupt MPs.
The main thrust of Dr Mahathir’s Pejuang is the valiant fight by peninsular Malays against corruption and kleptocracy. It is a hard uphill task as segments of that population do not seem to share his misgivings about corruption. A known convicted leader like former prime minister Najib Razak remains popular in some segments of the Malaysian population.
For these reasons Dr Mahathir felt compelled to form a new Malay- Muslim party in a crowded field of Malay- Muslim parties. But by calling it Pejuang (short for Parti Pejuang Tanah Air) he made it clear it is essentially a peninsular Malay-dominated political party. It bears some resemblance to the founding of UMNO in 1946 except that then when the Malays under the leadership of Dato Onn bin Jaafar formed UMNO it was actually a timely and successful attempt to unite various small Malay organisations of the peninsula. UMNO was inclusive of all peninsular Malays in its effort to reject the questionable provisions of the British inspired Malayan Union proposals.
1946 & Now
Created some 74 years later Pejuang is being foisted with much fanfare on a much, much larger territorial entity which incorporates Sabah and Sarawak which have a substantial indigenous population that largely does not identify itself as Malay. Instead their all inclusive Sabah and Sarawak political and ethnocultural identity does not diminish their proud indigenous roots in Dayak, Kadazan, Murut,Bidayuh,, Bajau, Sulu, Kelabit, Melanau, Melayu and other origins which are unique to the two northern Borneo states.
In religious matters the two states are of a greater and more enlightened ecumenical, inclusive and respectful (as opposed to being merely tolerant) genre where families can accept, respect and cohabit with members of the same family espousing different religious traditions and persuasions. There seems to be clearly no compulsion in matters of religion there allowing for a harmonious, happy, peaceful and pragmatic coexistence.
UMNO at its founding was also a centripetal force, uniting and expanding a singular Malay consciousness while Pejuang is an unabashedly centrifugal force pulling out the spokes of the core Malay parties already in existence.
At 95 Dr Mahathir can realistically have but half a decade to build this party and, as has been his style, he never fails to have a lower second tier in his leadership which is wanting and weak. There is no one in Pejuang with the patriarchal standing Dr Mahathir enjoys.
Sabah & Sarawak Pertinent Factors
Some 57 years after becoming a partner of peninsular Malaysia, Sabah and Sarawak are clearly more sophisticated states which have become slightly less rural but also more acutely aware, respectful and reverential of the multiple religious traditions of the whole country.
The populations of these two largest states increasingly sense that they are not being accepted and integrated as coequals of their peninsular compatriots. There is also the sense that these two states contribute greatly to Malaysia’s economic growth and prosperity but are not getting commensurate returns, respect and representation in national, commercial, bureaucratic and financial administration and governance.
With this sentiment simmering and growing in the foreground the emergence of Pejuang with its narrow purely Malay agenda seems such an anticlimax, a distortion and a letdown. It is a harkening back to postwar Malay interests. It suggests somewhat of a retrogression into the past to a time of a much, much smaller geographical territory (which excluded 70 percent of its present territorial configuration) when there were substantially fewer citizens of non-Malay origin who were claimants of the country’s citizenship.
Following the dissolution of UMNO when Semangat 46 was formed it had some correlation to the reality of the late 1980s when an attempt was made to reinvent and reinvigorate the spirit of 1946. That was then and Semangat was wisely dissolved within a few years of its existence.
Pejuang therefore seems somewhat like a deliberate diehard descent into an era of the past to deny the passage of time, the reality of a changed country and the higher unity of Malaysia which was founded on broad minded positive pluralism. Pejuang is also in denial of the lapse of decades during which Malaysians have largely or lovingly transcended the connotations and constrictions of race and geographical identity politics.
They are an interconnected and interdependent national community. Pejuang also seems to be indifferent to an overarching larger territorial Malaysia of which the Peninsula and its Malay-first agenda appears to be such a small part. Pejuang has also further disunited the Malays at a time when Malay unity is most crucial in coping with Covid-19 and post pandemic challenges.
Dr Mahathir’s prescription for the advancement of the magnanimous Malay people seems not only misplaced and mismatched but obsolete and odd. There are several leaders, including Dato Seri Shafie Apdal, Dato Seri Anwar Ibrahim, Dato Mohamad Sabu and Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah whose outlook is a lot more inclusive, highly intuitive and in tune with the present times.
Understanding Dr Mahathir’s Perspective
Dr Mahathir is however not without redeeming qualities. It was principally his effort alongside others that brought down the country’s most corrupt and clearly kleptocratic government. The relentless pursuit of the prosecution of both Dato Sri Najib and his deputy, Dato Seri Zahid Hamidi had also been spearheaded by Dr Mahathir. Najib has since been convicted with a 12-year jail sentence and a RM210 million penalty which is being appealed.
Dr Mahathir has almost singlehanded put himself in the forefront in acting against the two topmost elected officials of the country. These are spectacular achievements in a country where the top brass have been perceived to be immune from the reach of the law. A party like Pejuang may just be the thing needed to cleanse the polity of fetid corruption.
Dr Mahathir may also have a point that a multiracial attempt at cleansing the country will fail as it will be seen as an effort directed at the ethnic peninsular Malay elite who command and control all the country’s levers of power. A multiethnic effort at cleansing the nation, as experienced by the Pakatan Harapan Government was doomed from the start as being anti-peninsular Malay power. Dr Mahathir himself reinforced this victimhood narrative. The problem is that sometimes Dr Mahathir seems to overreach.
Beyond The Peninsula
Dr Mahathir’s allegory in a poem at the launch of Pejuang to a neighbouring territory’s situation that is not quite to his liking is unfortunate. That territory is a smart sovereignty of its own solid standing with decent democratic values founded on demographic realities, a distinguished squeaky clean leadership fully conjoined to the wider and marvellous Malay civilisation. Sabah and Sarawak have also their unique success stories, strengths and characteristics of which any Federation should be proud of. After all, no one is complaining about being part of this placid, peaceful and promising Malay archipelago.
One cannot realistically imagine restoring any country to its original inhabitants be they Orang Asli, aborigines or the Aztecs.
Certainly not in 2020.
Dato M Santhananaban is a retired Malaysian ambassador