ANALYSTS believe that Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s exclusion of a full minister to overlook racial and religious harmony could stall ongoing efforts to foster national unity.
The four-party coalition in its election manifesto had proposed to establish a Majlis Perundingan Keharmonian Rakyat (Consultative Council for People’s Harmony), which had raised hopes that the new administration would revive the campaign to foster genuine integration after decades under Barisan Nasional (BN) left the nation divided along communal lines.
It is stated that the Council would, among other things, “research and suggest policies and programmes that will enhance unity and integration and eliminate discrimination from our culture.”
But observers have been left baffled after Prime Minister Dr Mahathir designated the national unity and social wellbeing portfolio to a mere deputy minister instead of a full minister, which they said have made some question if his government was taking national reconciliation seriously.
“National unity is most critical especially inter-religious and ethnic harmony, including integration with Sabah and Sarawak,” said Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia’s (UKM) Datuk Denison Jayasooria.
“Not announcing a minister is not too good. There must be a strong one at the centre… there is a definite need for minister. Now only a deputy? Who does he report too?”
Dr Mahathir unveiled his remaining full Cabinet lineup last Monday, naming Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia’s Md Rafid Md Rafik as Deputy Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department in charge of national unity and social wellbeing.
Amanah’s Datuk Mujahid Yusof Rawa was named Minister in the Prime Minister Department in charge of religious affairs, but it is unclear if his scope of job would include matters related to racial unity or integration with Sabah and Sarawak, as noted by Jayasooria.
Some also believe the lack of clarity around Mujahid’s designation could limit the interpretation of his job scope to just Islamic affairs, although the Amanah vice-president did say in an interview with Malay Mail last week that he aims to use his position to push for inter-faith dialogue.
Sarawak-based political analyst Faisal Hazis said PH’s failure to name a full minister to oversee integration may frustrate some segments in East Malaysia, where anti-peninsula sentiment has grown strong in recent years.
Unity a stillborn
But the Universiti Malaysia lecturer also believes the new administration could salvage the shortcoming and turn it around to its advantage if Mujahid’s job scope goes beyond Islamic affairs and if the minister puts national reconciliation high on his agenda.
The former PAS leader already has a sterling track record on interfaith initiatives, Faisal noted further.
“We thought that this government is building a new Malaysia and if you want to do so, need to look at all religion and not only focusing on Islam. But having said that, Mujahid Yusof Rawa is a good inclusion because he is very inclusive and has been actively involved in inter-religious dialogue,” Faisal told Malay Mail.
“I thought he could have been made in charge of religious affairs and unity…but let’s give this government room to prove itself and hopefully the portfolio is not only tasked to look at Islamic affairs alone, it could be seen in relation to other religion as well.”
Regardless, critics say they have valid reasons to worry or doubt PH’s seriousness about national integration.
The forerunner of Pakatan, the four-party Opposition coalition called Barisan Alternatif, had proposed a similar entity on April 2, 2001 called Majlis Perundingan Perpaduan Nasional (MPPN), public intellectual Chandra Muzaffar noted in a letter penned on the subject and published by the press just last month.
Yet the MPPN, which would have formulated ideas on unity and was envisaged as an independent body that would be directly answerable to Parliament, was a stillborn.
Chandra also noted that two of the four parties that endorsed the MPPN are now part of PH. Yet three out of the four parties from the coalition appeal to ethnic constituencies, downplayed ethnic issues during the election campaign, and instead highlighted the alleged kleptocracy of then Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak, especially in relation to the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) scandal.
“Exposing elite corruption and espousing integrity are political postures which have a huge impact upon the electorate regardless of ethnicity and religion,” Chandra, also among detractors critical about the absence of a unity minister, said in the letter.
“But good governance alone is not enough to create a harmonious society. Issues of identity are at the core of most multi-ethnic and multi-religious societies. Malaysian identity, for instance, can be a divisive issue.”
But others have argued that Dr Mahathir may have had political considerations to make, and that putting less emphasis on religious or racial reconciliation — which would entail addressing thorny issues like dismantling Bumiputera privileges — could allay fear among conservative Malays that the new government is abandoning their interests.
Only a third of the country’s ethnic majority, the Malays, voted for PH in the 14th general election, with the rest going to conservative pro-Bumiputera and pro-Islam parties Umno and PAS.
“This government is grappling with reform with the old system but they also have to balance the fear of the conservative Malay voters as well,” Faisal said.
“Like what we see in the last general elections, only a third of them voted for PH and majority did not vote for the coalition and if they want to think of serious reform, they need to look beyond one term…so they need to assure and convince the Malays despite their push for reform, it is not at the expense of Malay rights and interests.”