09/30/2019, 17.39
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Young Malaysians transcend the concepts of ethnicity and religion

by Paolo Fossati

Editorial writer Anil Netto looks at 'Old vs New politics' in Malaysia. Parties that represent the past emphasise identity. But it is in economic inequalities that threaten national unity.

Kuala Lumpur (AsiaNews) – For young Malaysians, ethnicity and religion are increasingly less relevant to the country's social fabric, this according to Anil Netto (picture 2), an editorial writer specializing in human rights and socio-economic justice, speaking to AsiaNews.

"Although these two aspects continue to influence national politics,” Netto said, “the new generations are worried about other problems: finding a job after school or university, the high cost of living, the debts contracted for their education, buying a house, health care . . . To lead the country away from Islamist forces, the government must meet these concerns.” For the editorial writer, economic difficulties threaten national unity more than inter-ethnic relations.

"In everyday life," says Netto, "there are no particular tensions between the members of different ethno-religious groups. Rather, I see the widening gap between the haves and have-nots (40 per cent). In the latter, most are Muslims, and some harbour resentment.”

"Over the years, ethnic Muslim Malays have enjoyed state benefits and advantages. Not everyone, however, has enjoyed them in the same way, especially rural communities. Outside the cities, dissatisfaction is often fertile ground for politicians who use race and religion in election campaigns.” However, the current situation "is largely the product of what happened after the last general elections".

Three major coalitions ran in May 2018: the Barisan Nasional (BN) of the then Prime Minister Najib Razak; the Pakatan Harapan (PH) of current prime minister, 94-year-old Mahathir Mohamad; and the Gagasan Sejahtera (GS), a coalition of right-wing Islamist parties.

In an upset, Mahathir beat his rivals, sending shockwaves through the parties that lead the losing coalitions: the Pertubuhan Kebangsaan Melayu Bersatu (United Malays National Organisation, UMNO) and the Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party, PAS). Both used race against the winner, and recently formed an alliance.

"As you can guess from the names, these parties emphasise issues that are deeply felt in the country. They represent the past based on what we in Malaysia call ‘Old vs New politics’. The first is identity-based: ethnicity and religion. The second focuses on the participation of different groups in the country's future," Netto explained.

Yet, many Malaysians do not realise the danger posed by the growing influence of groups that promote a more right-wing view of Islam. "This threat,” he said, “is not stressed enough. We see manoeuvres that primarily affect the so-called ‘liberal voices’. The current government struggles to counter this trend; in part because it can count on the support of only 30 per cent of Muslim voters. The opposition gets 70 per cent instead.”

"What is happening is partly a global phenomenon, marked by the exploitation of race and religion to demonise others. Compared to other states however, in Malaysia there is also a religious bureaucracy that benefits from considerable funding and sometimes operates according to its own agenda.”

"In my opinion, the confrontation between past and future politics will continue in the coming years. It will be up to ordinary citizens to defend what they have achieved so far, first and foremost in terms of progress and change, and resist attempts by right-wing parties to go back to the past.”

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