Identity politics in which race and religion play an undeniably a powerful primordial force that could incite a community to be confrontational or hostile against another community have taken root for quite a long time in Malaysia.
But are we not exhausted of playing the race-religion agenda and motive to gain the support of the people? However, the question remains why do race and religion need to be politicised to win the rakyat’s votes in the first place? It is possible to champion the interests of the people without going overboard on matters of race and religion.
The significance of racial and religious emotions lies within their capacity of bringing together or tearing apart communities, and this is the reason why politicians of all stripes are prone to arousing racial and religious sentiments to gain political mileage.
Malaysia has practised race-based politics for the past 52 years, and we know it is divisive as politicians will harp on sensitive issues ostensibly on the pretext that they are representing their respective communities. This is unhealthy and toxic because such politicking does not promote national unity and undermines nation-building.
The defining characteristic in Malaysian politics is that of the division of citizens into bumiputera and non-bumiputera. While the motive and intent behind the classification is to ensure that bumiputeras are not left behind in socio-economic terms, non-bumiputeras have felt marginalised and discriminated against.
And so, the cycle of the politicisation of race and religion continues to characterise the political debates and discourse. It is an unending pattern of the exploitation of race and religion for political ends.
The then-dominant Umno was renowned for playing up racial and religious issues on the pretext that it was the undoubted defender of Malay rights and Islam. It is now in a strategic alliance with PAS through the Muafakat Nasional alliance.
The upcoming Kimanis by-election in Sabah which will be held on Jan 18 will not be much different from other elections in general. Identity politics will still be the factor in the campaigning for this by-election.
Although race and religion are not as politicised in East Malaysia compared with Peninsular Malaysia, the presence of Umno in the context of the newly formed Muafakat Nasional could bring a negative impact. By that, it is meant the political division along racial and religious lines could be heightened.
This is because the parties will be mainly identified with a certain race or religion and therefore, be pitted against one another on that basis. It is arguable that Umno might want to implicitly or tacitly play up the race and religion card but in a subtle way by pitting PBS (Parti Bersatu Sabah) against Warisan.
Umno is already raising the issue of the Sabah temporary pass (PSS). In what amounts to “dog-whistle” politics, Umno is trying to insinuate that the Warisan-led Sabah state government is trying to bring in Muslims migrants from the Southern Philippines through Sabah Temporary Pass.
Ideally, race and religion should be an asset to bridge the gap and build harmony among the communities and not a license to play a “holier than thou” game. In the case of Sabah, Sabahans are quite emphatic in not wanting to see a divisive culture on the basis of race and religion become entrenched.
The Voters’ Intention to Vote (VIV) Model formulated by Emir Research indicates that racial and religious motives are not contributing factors in the voters’ intention to vote. In fact, the manifesto fulfilment and future expectations are what the rakyat are anticipating. The VIV Model indicated that manifesto fulfilment and future expectations of the people are found to have a direct positive impact on the Government Satisfaction Index (GSI).
Why the race-religion approach is not relevant to Sabah?
Sabah is blessed with a multi-ethnic and multi-religious population. For the record, there are 42 ethnic groups with over 200 sub-ethnic groups with their own language, culture and beliefs. Despite its diversity, Sabah has always emphasised unity and harmony.
The political landscape in Sabah is different from what it is in the Peninsular. Sabah Chief Minister Shafie Apdal has always highlighted the need to maintain the practice of recognising, accepting and respecting each other regardless of race and religion and to always practise the moderate approach and avoid extremism, including in politics
However, it is depressing to see there exist efforts by several political parties that tend to promote and spread extreme race-based or religion-based politics to deepen differences, and arouse anger and hate among the people in the hope of gaining political support.
There are many other matters that require critical attention and which are close to the heart of Sabahans. Access to basic facilities like proper roads, clean water, electricity, infrastructure, public transportation, not to mention access to technologies, unemployment and illegal immigration remain issues to be addressed.
What we should focus on
Kimanis is situated in the West Coast Division of Sabah. Most of the population in the district are involved in the aquaculture and agriculture sectors which make up their source of income. Rich in natural resources, most of the land area in Kimanis is used for commodity crops such as rubber, oil palm as well as watermelon. Most importantly, Kimanis is also well known for its oil and gas resources which makes in an important industrial town providing jobs to the population.
Political parties should be focusing on improving the local economy and the livelihood of the people. Therefore, the political issues during the campaigning should be about jobs, wages, transportation, infrastructure, and access to basic facilities.
An example of this is the recent initiative by the Fisheries and Aquatic Resources Development head to allocate budget to reconstruct and improve the 15-year-old impoverished jetty and fisheries barn in Kimanis. The poor state of the jetty and fisheries barn have affected more than 500 fishermen in the area. The reconstruction and upgrade will provide better facilities to cater to their needs.
Race and religion do not need to be a factor in the campaigning at all in Kimanis.
Attending to issues at hand is what we need to focus on, parallel to the efforts to fulfil the Shared Prosperity Vision 2030. This year, 2020, is a year to see more development that is inclusive and not exclusive.
Dayang Shuzaidah Abduludin is Research Analyst at EMIR Research, an independent think tank focused on strategic policy recommendations based on rigorous research.