By Liew Chin Tong

JOHOR BAHRU, Malaysia -- In the age of hyper-polarisation, championing the cause of the middle ground or moderation seems unfashionable, akin to drinking coffee without sugar or milk, as scholar Wong Chin Huat once said. But as responsible leaders, we must be clear-eyed on what is ultimately good for health.

For pragmatic electoral needs and for nation building purposes, DAP and Pakatan Harapan as well as other coalitions that aspire to win federal election and govern successfully must champion a Middle Malaysia.

I have written about the Middle Malaysia electorate as early as 2009 which was later published in 2013 with the title “Middle Malaysia: Centre ground is battle ground”.

Many analysts and even politicians can’t seem to understand that only by winning the Malaysian middle ground could one win and form a stable Federal Government.

I admit that there is no clear definition of the middle ground but at the risk of sounding too simplistic, let’s just say that elections are very much decided by the swing voters or “atas pagar” voters. They decide who is best to serve them.

Are Malays a monolithic entity?

Malay parties – UMNO, Bersatu, PAS, Pejuang – continue to believe and promote the idea that the Malays have monolithic characteristics and preferences across the nation, and they will vote as one united entity to support a kind of Malay supremacy agenda.

Unfortunately, some of those who opposed these Malay parties unwittingly agree that the Malays are the same one entity, and therefore refuse to acknowledge that there is a middle ground in Malaysia.

Some non-Malay writers and columnists believe that non-Malays should forget about the electoral process as the numerically inferior non-Malays would never win, implying that only racial battle exists in Malaysia, and that the Malays would act as one to crush the non-Malays.

Others believe that DAP is the party for the non-Malays and should not aspire to win power in coalition with other parties. For them, the DAP should just serve as a permanent opposition party serving only the needs of the non-Malays.  

In fact, there are also those in the DAP who want the party to put the interest of the non-Malays first and not to “appease” the Malays; not even to dress appropriately at a mosque, as Dr Boo Cheng Hau suggested.

It is both electorally fatal and terribly bad for nation building to advocate DAP for the non-Malays only, with Malays being mere token in the party. This may perpetuate the myth that everything in this country stems from a racial tussle, and for the DAP not to try to win power in a coalition setting.

DAP for non-Malays only?

If DAP is only focusing on winning non-Malay votes, it will be a party reduced to 15 to 20 seats, and not the 42 seats it won in 2018.

If the DAP has no governing aspiration, it will return to the pre-2008 level of support, which means the party will have perhaps nine (1995), 10 (1995) or 12 (2004) parliamentary seats.

Perhaps the number would be even lower when Chinese voters realise DAP is no longer interested to be part of the government in a long-term effort to enact changes for the betterment of the country.

The nation’s history has pushed DAP to the national stage. The public wants us to not just be a permanent opposition party. Together with our coalition partners, DAP must present itself as a government-in-waiting, in every sense of the term.

We must not just oppose for the sake of opposing; we must provide sensible policy solutions. We must speak for all Malaysians, and to represent the Malaysian Middle Ground, and not to dance to the tune of the extremists on any side.

Throughout my years in DAP since the year 2000, 13 years of which as part of the central leadership, most DAP leaders have tried very hard to position DAP as the Malaysian party for all.

My own victory at the DAP Johor state election in May 2021 has shown that despite repeatedly being called “pro-Malay” by my detractors – as if it is a major sin in the party, majority of Johor DAP grassroots members support my leadership.

I am confident to say that the majority of DAP leaders and members want the party to emerge as a truly multiethnic party.

I am confident to say that while currently the majority of DAP members are non-Malays, most of us agree that DAP should be the party of choice for all Malaysians, including the Malays.

I am also certain that the centre in DAP wishes to see the party as a partner in the national government, and not to return to be a permanent opposition party harping on limited racial interests.

To be a partner in the national government, DAP will have to work with coalition partners, be they Malays, Chinese, Indians, Ibans, Kadazan Dusuns, and to win votes beyond racial lines and across South China Sea.

Endless racial tussles

As a reality check, let me say that what DAP is facing now is similar to that experienced by PAS two decades ago. In the 1999 general election, PAS rode on the reformasi wave to win 27 parliamentary seats, the party’s best-ever performance.

PAS won seats in the west coast Peninsula, outside its traditional Kelantan and Terengganu bases. Many who won in the 1999 election were progressive leaders who joined PAS out of their dissatisfaction with UMNO’s corrupt rule.

But the hardliners in PAS who were afraid of changes managed to edge out the progressives after their president Datuk Fadzil Noor’s death in 2002, resulting in the massive defeats in the 2004 general election.

Yet the PAS progressives won the party election in 2005 and remained a significant force until 2015 when their patron Tok Guru Nik Aziz Nik Mat passed away in February that year. They were then routed at the party election in June 2015, and had to leave PAS to form Parti Amanah Negara.

The fall of Pakatan Harapan government in February 2020, besides the betrayal by some leaders, can be partly attributed to the racial tussles based on the wrong notion that:

Among the Malays, the lie was that the DAP as a party for non-Malays was controlling the PH Government, and

Among the non-Malays, the DAP was seen as weak because it did not make a loud noise and protest against the Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad (that DAP used to make between 1981 – 2003).

Even inside PH Government, many in Dr Mahathir’s camp was trying to prove that they were not “acquiescing” to DAP’s demands while some DAP leaders shouted at first instance of any issue played up by the media so not to be seen as “quietly” kowtowing to the Prime Minister.

In the end, everything fell into the racial framing created by UMNO and PAS.

Middle ground as battle ground

In the 2018 general election, PH received only 40% of Malay votes in Kuala Lumpur and Selangor in 2018 but it was the largest block among the three contesting parties, namely PH, Barisan Nasional and PAS.

This means for every 10 Malays in Kuala Lumpur and Selangor, six would not have anything good to say about PH. Yet it didn’t stop PH from winning all the 11 parliamentary seats in Kuala Lumpur, and 52 out of 56 state assembly seats in Selangor.

If we could hold together a Malaysian narrative and be steadfast leading the Middle Malaysia, PH will still be the most viable coalition to win federal power and to build a better nation.

However, if we fall for the same racial framing and race baiting of our opponents, it’s not impossible for the DAP and PH to wither away from Malaysian politics.

Racism and racial politics will continue to make everyone suffer, except those at the top. For Malaysia to move forward, the middle ground, as I had written in 2009, is still the battle ground in both election and nation-building.