©New Sunday Times (Used by permission)
by Chok Suat Ling
Barack Obama's victory in the US presidential election raises the question of whether someone from an ethnic minority can rise to the highest political office in Malaysia. However, for the moment, that would be an unrealistic expectation, writes Chok Suat Ling.
BARACK Obama's election as president of the United States sent people around the world onto the streets in celebration. From the plains of Kenya to the port of Obama, there was rapturous response to his promise to bring change at a time when it is direly expected and needed not just in the US, but everywhere else.
But people were also jubilating over the ascendency of a man of colour to the most powerful seat in the world. Almost immediately, parallels were drawn and questions raised as to whether what happened in the US could also happen in other countries: could a person from an ethnic minority advance to the highest political post in the land?
Singapore has already answered in the negative, at least for the near future. Its Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, in remarks published last week, said he did not think a Malay would be able to become premier in the Chinese-majority city state any time soon.
In Malaysia, similar questions have also been raised in the wake of Obama's victory. Politicians and activists are among those who have commented about the significance of his victory to minorities and ethnic politics in Malaysia. They wonder whether a Chinese, Indian or non-Muslim Bumiputera, among others, could one day become prime minister.
The Federal Constitution, they stress, does not specify that the prime minister must be of any particular race.
Some recalled a statement by then prime minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad which supported the possibility of a Chinese or Indian leading the country.
"There will come a day when Malaysians of Chinese or Indian descent are accepted by all races and then, the prime minister need not necessarily be a Malay. The process in this direction has already begun. Believe me, if we are sensitive to the needs of the Malaysian people, the issue of race and descent will no longer prevent any Malaysian from holding any post," he said when opening the 47th MCA general assembly in 2000.
But that was eight years ago. And while there have been sweeping changes in the political landscape, especially since the watershed date of March 8, the likelihood of a non-Malay assuming the post of prime minister remains remote, even implausible, for now.
Only the right candidate would be able to cross ethnic borders. This would have to be someone charismatic who appeals to all, irrespective of racial background.
Experts say the equivalent of Obama has yet to make an appearance on the public stage in Malaysia.
Obama would not have won if he were a Muslim instead of a Christian; or if he came across as speaking from the perspective of his race instead of his more inclusive language; or if he did not have the experience of growing up with his white grandparents and mother.
According to political analyst Ong Kian Ming, the Malaysian equivalent of Obama would be a Chinese Muslim who is fluent in Bahasa Malaysia, grew up with adopted Malay parents in Kelantan, obtained his undergraduate degree from a Malaysian public university and then went on to get his Masters' from Oxford or Cambridge.
He says those who tracked Obama's campaign also could not help but notice that he stayed purposefully away from issues of race.
Again, the equivalent of this in Malaysia is a non-Malay leader of a major party who does not use racially charged issues to advance his or her party's aspirations to be the leading party of the governing coalition.
That expectation is unrealistic at present, as is the prospect of a non-Malay prime minister, says Universiti Sains Malaysia senior lecturer in the School of Social Sciences, Dr Sivamurugan Pandian.
"Beyond ethnicity is the issue of religion," he says. While this "requirement" is not explicitly spelt out, it is indubitably part of the social contract.
"There was a gentleman's agreement that with citizenship given to the non-Malays, the Malays would have special rights and that Islam would be the national religion. In this regard, the dominant group will not allow a non-Muslim to be prime minister. Whatever happens must be in line with all that has been agreed upon by our founding fathers."
He feels that whether or not a non-Malay can be prime minister depends on the extent to which the Malays are willing to let go of their special privileges.
Consequently, he is sure that a non-Malay will not become prime minister any time soon.
Professor James Chin of Monash University says: "It will not happen in Malaysia under the current political set-up. Large sections of Malay Muslims will not accept a non-Malay as prime minister."
There is one key difference between the US and Malaysia, Chin points out.
"In America, the constitution is followed to the word whereas here, many things which are not part of the constitution are followed as political tradition."
An example is that the prime minister must be from the majority race and religion, he says.
A non-Malay can only ascend to the post of prime minister when political parties in the country are no longer racially based and mobilised along religious lines, says Chin.
"When that happens, maybe there is a chance. But I definitely do not see it happening in my lifetime.
"Nobody takes this issue seriously anyway. People got caught up with it pursuant to Obama's win because they are sick of the racial and religious politics here.
"A more pertinent question would be whether an indigenous person, a Bumiputera from Sabah or Sarawak, can become the prime minister."
A non-Malay prime minister may be improbable but that is not to say that the Obama campaign does not hold valuable lessons for Malaysians and for Malaysian politics.
Ong says there are ideals espoused in this campaign which Malaysians can identify with and aim for.
"The vision of America as a place where every child, regardless of race or religion, can aspire to the highest office in the land is surely one which we can all support."
But for now, what the people can realistically hope for is a prime minister with a multiracial approach and who will take care of the interests of all, regardless of religion, ethnicity or gender.
It will certainly do the country much good if politicians and political parties can move away from racist rhetoric and debate policy differences based on more substantive grounds.