Even as his rivals play race card to woo Malays, polls show voters most concerned about economy
Malaysians have become used to rising racial rhetoric ahead of elections. But eyebrows were raised last Sunday when Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi accused former premier-turned-opposition chief Mahathir Mohamad of having an Indian father.
The direct attack on the racial credentials of a man who led Umno for 22 years also came less than a fortnight after Prime Minister Najib Razak said he considered Indian Muslims to be bumiputera. Bumiputera is a term used by the government to identify the Malay majority and indigenous tribes, and accord them special privileges.
Umno has repeatedly warned that defeat for the dominant Malay party in an election due by August next year would see the opposition dismantle decades of pro-Malay and Islamic policies.
"The contradiction between the PM and DPM's remarks has opened up a Pandora's box of race," Malay cultural expert Eddin Khoo told The Straits Times.
Pakatan Harapan's July 14 appointment of Tun Dr Mahathir, 92, as its chairman was the opposition's response to the ethnic scaremongering that has eroded its support in the crucial Malay vote bank.
S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies' senior fellow Oh Ei Sun told The Straits Times that Umno can ill-afford to lose its "most secure vote bank - the heartland Malays who still look up to Mahathir. So an attack on him would hopefully solidify that base".
Malays form the majority in over half of parliamentary wards and these seats are the bedrock of Umno's political dominance.
Despite Datuk Seri Zahid's attempt to undermine Dr Mahathir's "Malayness", analysts believe the DPM's move plays into Dr Mahathir's hands as the government's racial attacks are now focused on him, a man widely considered to have single-handedly modernised Malaysia and created a wealthy class of Malays.
The Najib administration, on the other hand, faces increasing pressure over the rising cost of living, and alleged billions lost by state fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad and Felda, a land development scheme that has settled 112,000 multi-generational bumiputera families.
Malaysian PMs: Malay and more
Tunku Abdul Rahman: His father was the 25th ruler of Kedah while his mother was Siamese royalty, according to Bernama.
Tun Abdul Razak Hussein: He descended from one of Pahang's highest-ranking nobles. According to historian William Linehan, the nobles have matrilineal ancestry from a Bugis chief, To' Tuan.
Tun Hussein Onn: The son of Umno's founder Onn Jaffar. A book by ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute's Leon Comber states that his grandmother was Circassian, an ethnic group that now largely lives in Turkey.
Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad: His father was a Penang Malay who had ancestors from Kerala, India.
Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi: He has Hadrami - a sheikhdom that is now part of Yemen - blood, according to a book printed by Utusan Publications. His maternal grandfather was a Hainanese Muslim, according to The Star.
Datuk Seri Najib Razak: According to Utusan Malaysia, the son of Malaysia's second premier also has Bugis lineage through his mother, whose ancestor was a Bugis chieftain in Johor.
Meanwhile, recent surveys have noted how economic concerns - not race or religion - are topmost in voters' minds, with ethnicity only being important so far as it relates to bread-and-butter issues.
In addition to all this is the fact that every one of Malaysia's past five top leaders, and incumbent Datuk Seri Najib, has mixed-race parentage. In the light of Mr Najib's gesture to Indian Muslims - many of whom have already "masuk Melayu", a local colloquialism literally meaning "enter Malay" - the public is now examining how "the monolith of Malay culture has evaporated overnight", according to Mr Khoo.
The constitutional definition - anyone who professes to be Muslim, habitually speaks Malay, conforms to Malay customs and is the child of a Malaysian parent - now seems less useful.
Since Mr Zahid's racial dig, Dr Mahathir has subtly touched on both the PM and DPM's Indonesian Bugis and Javanese heritage, but only as a pivot to a more pertinent question for Malays: whose leadership has done more to improve their lot?
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 05, 2017, with the headline 'Malaysia debates Mahathir's 'Malayness''. Print Edition | Subscribe
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