Najib Razak and Mahathir Mohamed

As Najib Tun Razak grapples with how to turn the corner from the setbacks his Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition endured in the recent general elections and forge ahead with a new cabinet for his administration, he undoubtedly faces some serious potential challenges from within his United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) party. Compounding this more immediate dilemma for him will be the other major task of reinventing UMNO’s relationship with the other key component parties in BN, namely the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) and the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC). If Najib’s initial response to the election results is any indication, his instincts will likely draw him to continue to appease the far-right Malay ethno-nationalists within UMNO, thus, by extension, further complicating the wider prospects for the MCA and MIC to resurrect themselves as worthy representatives of the interests of the ethnic Chinese and Indians respectively.

Having been politically bruised as a result of losing the popular vote and seeing the total seat count of his coalition in parliament drop by an additional seven seats to 133, Najib pointedly singled out Malaysia’s ethnic Chinese for blame and scorn. The fact that the UMNO controlled Utusan Malaysia daily further fanned the flames of ethnic antagonism with its provocative headlines and editorials deriding the ethnic Chinese for presumably being the culprit in BN’s largest defeat since 1969 only affirmed for most on the other side of the political spectrum, if not also the neutrals, that the UMNO inner-circle had simply become too blinded by its paternalistic tendencies and self-proclaimed mantle as the natural guardian of Malay supremacy to recognize the realities of a vastly altered political landscape in the country. The fact that the MCA (and to a lesser extent, the MIC) saw more of their traditional base abandon them since the 2008 elections only compounded UMNO’s sense that it was betrayed by the non-Malay voters. Having subsequently come out to defend Utusan Malaysia for targeting the ethnic Chinese, while not backing away from blaming the apparent ‘Chinese tsunami’ for BN’s poor showing, Najib has – even much to the disappointment of some of the leadership in the MCA and MIC – no doubt opted to echo the sentiments of the hardliners in UMNO.

To be sure, Najib has repeatedly aligned himself with the Malay nationalist hardliners within UMNO. From his days as a leader of UMNO’s youth wing to his rise as UMNO president, Najib has understood the need to pay homage to that wing of the party that was long championed by his political mentor Mahathir Mohamad. While Mahathir’s departure back in 2003 opened up political space for some of the more moderate voices within UMNO to come to the fore, the party remained deeply rooted in a Malay supremacy ideology championed by Mahathir. Badawi’s anemic leadership within UMNO and his subsequent displacement in 2008 was viewed as a vivid reminder that the party’s experiment with a “kinder gentler” version of Malay ethno-nationalism was an aberration in need of correction. Nobody within UMNO’s inner-circle understood this better than Najib. While crafting a reformist and contemporary image of himself, Najib understood the importance of adhering to the priorities of the far right in the party. The emergence of Perkasa and Ibrahim Ali as champions of the Malay ethno-nationalist agenda – and no doubt with the overt blessing of Mahathir Mohamad – ensured that Najib was at risk of being on the receiving end of the wrath the Malay ethno-nationalist, whose support remained critical to his survival as UMNO president.

Najib’s acquiescence to the vocal ethno-nationalist rhetoric and intimidating tactics of Perkasa on a whole host of national issues was a not so tacit signal by the prime minister that he had no intention of taking on the far right of the UMNO base; on the contrary, from 2008 onwards, he would continue to pander to this faction of the UMNO base. This of course unfolded alongside the increased submissiveness of the MCA and MIC toward UMNO. The fact that the MCA and MIC were mired in their own declining image as credible political standard bearers of the two major minority groups was played out in the precipitous decline in the popularity of Chua Soi Lek and Samy Vellu as presidents of MCA and MIC respectively. While Samy Vellu was succeeded in 2010 by G. Palanivel, this did not do much to resurrect the image or credibility of the MIC, which was – with the exception of those invested in the party and its ardent supporters – increasingly being perceived as inconsequential to the plight and advancement of the ethnic Indians. By contrast, while Chua Soi Lek on the MCA side managed to survive the fallout of the 2008 elections (when his party failed to defend 16 seats and only managed to win 15 seats), he has suffered the humiliation of overseeing a further loss of 8 seats by the MCA in the recent elections. For some perspective on this development, these two once prominent junior coalition partners of UMNO have seen their collective representation in BN’s current 133 parliamentary seats makeup drop to a mere 8.2 percent. Such is the extent of the dramatic loss in credibility of the MCA and MIC (both within the BN and in the eyes of the voters).

Hence, at least since 2008, while the dominant junior component parties of Barisan such as the MCA and MIC have seen its reputation and credibility plummet, we have also arguably witnessed a distinct tilt within UMNO to giving deference and, in the eyes of some, even pandering to far right within the party. Of course, this was no more evident than in Najib’s endorsement of the controversial Zulkifli Nordin, the vice-president of Perkasa, as BN’s candidate for the Shah Alam parliamentary seat in Selangor and his nod to Ibrahim Ali as a contender in Pasir Mas, Kelantan. Incidentally, both of these ultra ethno-nationalist candidates were rejected by the voters.

Arguably, a weaker MCA and MIC renders these parties even less effective in influencing the future directions of the BN. On the other hand, Najib is making it abundantly clear from the fallout of the elections that in light of the setbacks, and notwithstanding some of the moderate voices within the party who have spoken out to distance themselves from the race-baiting that has unfolded, humility is not what we are going to get from UMNO’s inner circle. The cries for national reconciliation have ostensibly been crowded out by thundering accusations of betrayal and duplicity especially on the part of the ethnic Chinese.

The dilemma for BN is abundantly clear: the more entrenched and engulfed Najib and UMNO become with the agenda of the far right ethno-nationalists, the higher the risk of further alienating the already disgruntled moderate Malays and non-Malays, who have shown their willingness to abandon the BN. Yet, Najib cannot afford to ignore the dominant far-right within UMNO lest he risk his own future as leader of the party. The steady rise of a viable opposition only compounds this dilemma for Najib.

Sunil Kukreja is professor of sociology and associate academic dean at the University of Puget Sound.