THE headquarters of the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), a party founded to defend the interests of Malays, Malaysia’s biggest ethnic group, feels stuck in the past. Defeated sofas and tired photographs speak to glory days now gone. In the lobby is a collage of pictures of the great and good of the party, which had run the country for 60 years before losing an election last month. A baby-faced Najib Razak, the prime minister ousted just a few weeks ago, appears close to Mahathir Mohamad, his successor. But although Dr Mahathir once ran Malaysia as the leader of UMNO, these days he relies on the backing of a coalition of UMNO’s adversaries, known as Pakatan Harapan (PH).
Times have changed, in other words. The same police who used to bully the luminaries of PH are now concentrating their attention on Mr Najib. Raids on his properties have yielded jewellery, cash and 284 boxes of handbags, all impounded as evidence in an investigation into alleged embezzlement. Mr Najib himself has been barred from leaving the country. But even as Malaysian politics has been turned upside-down, there has been little questioning of the premise on which UMNO had governed Malaysia since independence: that Malays deserve special privileges.
Donald Trump lobs a grenade from afar into the G7
Spain now has the most female cabinet in Europe
Trump’s man in Germany
The Trump administration joins a lawsuit to shred Obamacare
People going on stag and hen dos are disrupting flights too often
The problem of masculinity, in men’s words
Race has dominated Malaysian politics since colonial times. Indeed, the British fomented racial discord as a means of maintaining control. Malays were kept toiling in the fields, whereas ethnic-Indian and -Chinese merchants and labourers were welcomed into cities. Affirmative action on behalf of Malays began soon after the British left in the 1950s, and their “special position” was recognised in the constitution. Race riots in the 1960s led to the adoption of the “New Economic Policy” in 1971, which instituted an elaborate system of preferences for Malays and other indigenous groups in university admissions, hiring in the civil service, government contracting and so on. Originally introduced as a temporary measure, the policy helped shape a corrupt system of patronage politics that proved predictably durable.
In many respects PH marks a break with all this. The coalition that UMNO led was composed almost exclusively of racially defined parties, including the Malaysian Chinese Association and the Malaysian Indian Congress. The biggest party in PH, in contrast, is the Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR), which is proudly multiracial, although led by another former UMNO grandee, Anwar Ibrahim. The second-biggest is the Democratic Action Party (DAP), which is supported by Chinese and Indian voters—ie, the victims of racial preferences—and unsurprisingly argues against them. Voters united across racial and religious divides to support the coalition, which also includes explicitly Muslim and indigenous parties. But the government is not seizing its opportunity to undo racially discriminatory policies. The coalition hangs together partly because all parties have agreed on a binding principle: that the constitution and its privileges for Malays are supreme.
Nurul Izzah, daughter of Mr Anwar and a champion of reform in PKR, advises caution when it comes to changing affirmative action. “You shouldn’t push too hard,” she says, “your efforts must gain traction with the electorate.” She worries that the assault on racial privileges that urban types want will alienate voters in rural areas, where many Malays live. If provoked, they could turn back to UMNO or to PAS, a conservative Islamic party. Saddiq Abdul Rahman, the head of the youth wing of Dr Mahathir’s new party, Bersatu, which limits membership to Malays and other indigenous people, has no doubt that “a more multiracial, inclusive Malaysia” approaches. But he admits that race will prove “a tough discussion” within the governing coalition.
The government has struck a few small blows for equality. Dr Mahathir selected an Indian as attorney-general, the first time the job has gone to a non-Malay. Better yet, after a brief delay, his choice was approved by the king, a job held in rotation among the country’s nine sultans, who are the leaders of Islam in their respective states. The finance minister, Lim Guan Eng, is Chinese—another appointment that caused palpitations among Malay chauvinists. And Azizah Ismail, wife of Mr Anwar, is the country’s first female deputy prime minister.
These encouraging developments are unlikely to be followed by anything more audacious. The government’s best chances for reform will slip away as the election grows more distant and voters less euphoric. A tweaking of affirmative action policies is possible, perhaps to ensure that benefits go more to poor Malays, rather than government cronies. But discrimination will persist.
Instead the new administration will focus on quick wins. So far these have included abolishing a hated goods-and-services tax (the government reduced the rate from 6% to zero on June 1st), investigating the scandal at 1MDB (a state investment vehicle from which $4.5bn disappeared on Mr Najib’s watch) and reviewing huge infrastructure projects (a planned high-speed rail link between Kuala Lumpur and Singapore has been cancelled).
Why so glumno?
How UMNO responds to its defeat, and to the more diverse political culture of the new government, hangs in the balance. Many in the party doubt soul-searching is needed at all. “The politics of ethnicity is still very strong,” explains Khairy Jamaluddin, the party’s greying youth chief and a candidate to become its vice-president (as well as a former intern at The Economist). “People are averse to offering radical ideas right now.”
More liberal members fear that a strong multiracial message from PH may leave UMNO in the dust, particularly with younger voters, unless the Malay party can embrace change too. The last attempt to foster diversity within UMNO was made by a leader who took over in 2009. The campaign in question, 1 Malaysia, called for reforms to affirmative action in the name of national unity. It was soon discarded. No one in the party now wants to emulate the man who dreamed it up: the disgraced Mr Najib.