So it has come to this ― we now face the possibility of an utterly polarised country after over half a century of race-based politics.
Both the opposition and Barisan Nasional’s (BN) predominantly Chinese component parties ― MCA, Gerakan and SUPP ― have expressed concern that the electoral redelineation exercise apparently promotes racial segregation.
According to news portal Malaysiakini who analysed the change of racial composition in Selangor state seats, the redelineation exercise will lead to a drop in racially mixed seats as there will be an increase in seats where Malays either form a “large majority” (60 to 79.9 per cent) or a “small minority” (less than 20 per cent). The same goes for the Chinese. But the representation of Indian voters reportedly remains more or less the same.
Although both Malay and Chinese voters will be polarised, Malaysiakini reported that Malay representation would be increased overall as they would mostly now comprise the “large majority” in seats, while the Chinese would now generally comprise the “small minority.”
It’s no wonder then that BN’s component parties are worried about the redelineation exercise ― they fear getting less seats to contest, besides losing the ones with a large Chinese majority based on voting patterns in the 13th general election. It’s unlikely that the Chinese voters’ anti-establishment sentiment will change much in the next elections.
Based on BN’s racial makeup, it’s highly improbable that MCA or Gerakan would contest Malay-majority seats in the peninsula. They would be left to Umno that increased its federal seat count from 79 to 88 in GE13, while MCA and Gerakan had only won seven and one parliament seats respectively.
So, if the redelineation exercise goes through in its current proposed form, Malaysia will be totally split: the Malays will be represented in (federal) government while the Chinese and Indians will be on the other side. (Sabah and Sarawak do not have the same kind of race politics as in the peninsula.)
The redelineation exercise is the culmination of race-based politics that we have been long accustomed to for decades. It shows the ultimate failure of trying to represent the three major ethnic groups in Malaysia via three separate political parties in a single coalition.
When the Malays largely abandoned Umno in the 1999 general election after Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim was sacked from government, the 2002 redelineation exercise in West Malaysia, which was the most extensive undertaken since 1974, reduced the ethnic bias of the electoral system that had previously given more weight to Malay voters.
However, the ethnic bias was replaced with a “more direct political bias” towards BN, according to Graham Brown from the Centre for Research on Inequality, Human Security and Ethnicity at Oxford University, who had found an increased imbalance in constituency size.
Making seats more ethnically diverse was a good move. And it happened because the ethnic majority no longer voted for a single party as a whole.
But now in 2016, it looks like the Election Commission (EC) is trying to restore ethnic bias in favour of the Malays after Umno improved its performance in GE13 (while MCA, MIC and Gerakan failed miserably).
It’s fine when a predominant ethnic group splits its votes so that the incumbent party or coalition is forced to appeal to a wider segment of the electorate and come up with less race-based, more diverse policies.
But when the majority sticks to the ruling party while ethnic minorities vote for the opposition, then we’ll arrive at this scenario where Umno will do everything in its power to retain their perceived support among the Malays, especially since BN fared the worst in history in GE13 and lost the popular vote.
It’s only logical because it’s a numbers game at the end of the day, and race is BN’s raison d’être.
We have never learned to appeal to voters based on anything other than their race. Even the opposition is forced to play the race game by fielding candidates based on their ethnicity, although to their credit, membership in Pakatan parties is not race-based.
Instead of railing against the redelineation exercise, perhaps we should let it go through to see the futility of racial politics instead of trying to maintain the pretence of equality in the current system. Giving a few Cabinet posts to non-Malays only props up such illusions.
How long will we keep doing this?
We can never have a truly diverse government if we keep perpetuating race-based politics while the population of ethnic minorities shrinks over the years. The Chinese now comprise less than a quarter of the population at 23.4 per cent compared to 36.8 per cent in 1964; the Indians only comprise 7 per cent now (11.2 per cent in 1964), while the Bumiputera population has increased to 68.6 per cent (50.1 per cent in 1964).
Even if we don’t have ethnically biased gerrymandering, the natural conclusion from race-based politics based on demographic trends is the eventual dominance of the biggest ethnic group.
We should stop deluding ourselves into thinking that we can make the current system work. Unfortunately, even the opposition seems resigned to maintaining the status quo with the entry of the Bumiputera-based Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia.
So paradoxically, maybe the only way we can get rid of racial politics is to experience its ultimate goal ― a government formed by a single race.
Perhaps when we have an Umno-only government in the next election, it will force the Malay ruling party to cater to the interests of all Malaysians across race because they won’t be able to “outsource” such work to MCA or MIC anymore.
Umno will no longer feel the need to demonise other races or to continue race-based policies because there are no more anxieties about the Malay vote. Consequently, everyone else will realise the futility of race-based campaigning and champion issues based on ideology instead.
Perhaps Umno will even open up membership to non-Malays because race-based governance will become irrelevant.
In any case, it remains to be seen whether Malaysia will face a race-blind utopia or a chaotic dystopia with the redelineation exercise.
We need a drastic change if we ever want to get rid of race-based politics. We can’t fall back on methods of the past in pushing for reform.
And if something as radical as the redelineation exercise is needed to push us into the unknown and to force us to make unprecedented choices, then so be it.
Boo Su-Lyn is a feminist who loves reading fiction. She tweets at @boosulyn.