Many Malay-based parties have tried to appeal to the non-Malays by pursuing diversity as a by-the-way project. The basic narrative is that they are intent on protecting Malay rights and privileges, and by the way, pledging that other races will not be harmed, too.
Umno always had to struggle with the different tones used during their annual general assemblies – a fiery, unapologetic, nationalistic defender of the race – and during meetings with their non-Malay counterparts of MCA and MIC.
Amanah pursued the non-Malay route, too, by opening up the party to little success. Even PAS tried to appeal to non-Muslims during elections by extending its “Supporters Club”, which has little to no influence in how the party decides on issues.
It is not a novel idea. In fact, Bersatu, from its formation, already has an associate membership that is open to non-Malays. But this membership has no decision-making power at the party’s highest level, nor have there been any credible leadership from a non-Malay from Bersatu.
But more than not being a novel idea, it is also unconvincing.
Just because a nationalistic, race-based party sets up a non-Malay arm does not make it a multiracial party. This is especially so for causes that are based on identity.
It is not as simple as adding other policy ideas to pursue, like cutting taxes, universal basic income or a guaranteed jobs scheme. Pursuing different identity-based causes simultaneously rarely works.
This is especially so when the cause of Malay rights is diametrically opposed to the cause of a multiracial Malaysia. There is nothing in law or convention that prevents Bersatu from pursuing the multiracial cause, but they are unlikely to be convincing to its voters.
Moreover, it is doubly difficult to pursue this to its practical end. Assuming a Malay nationalist identity from the start, its members and leaders have built a credential of being the greater Malay defender than the other Malay parties. The competition lies in who can defend the Malay interest better – this is the offering that they put forth to the voters.
All narratives of anti-corruption or a better economy must conclude with protecting the Malay race. This is inescapable because this is the identity they have chosen to assume.
What this means is that party members in Bersatu would not allow a change of narrative, let alone a change of policies or party structure. A change of mind would imply a change of heart – that is too much to ask.
Strong resistance is already brewing against Azmin Ali’s potential position as the party vice-president and his faction as a whole.
Voters are smart
Most of all, Malaysian voters are smarter than what politicians think. When Bersatu politicians go to a mixed or non-Malay constituency to ask for their votes, voters could tell that Bersatu’s multiracial cause is nothing more than lip service. Its leaders are not sincere in this pursuit, nor do they have a history of championing diversity causes.
Voters could also see through the fact that the non-Malay faction in Bersatu also does not have substantive power. They are not given an equal voice at the decision-making level, nor are policies within and outside the party multiracial in nature.
That is why this is a huge gamble by Muhyiddin Yassin.
Bersatu risks losing both ends of support – the Malay nationalist voters who now resent a non-Malay arm that would tarnish its cause – as well as the non-Malay voters who would not vote for the party because they know it is not a truly multiracial party.
Do not get me wrong. I am not saying Bersatu will not attract a single non-Malay to join them. It is possible that Azmin will get hundreds of thousands of supporters, as he claims. But the people attracted to join Bersatu will not join because they crave for a multiracial and diverse country – a Malaysia where everyone belongs, and meaning is shared.
They will join because power is easy to obtain. No rules, only greed. Diversity will be reduced to just another smokescreen for the rule-breaking pursuit of power.
I’m not sure if this is the multiracial party we want.
JAMES CHAI is a legal consultant and researcher working for Invoke, among others. He also blogs at jameschai.com.my. You may reach him at email@example.com.
The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.