ST Global Outlook Forum: Identity politics will remain in Malaysia, Indonesia; needs deft handling

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Approval ratings for the Malaysian government have dropped, six months after the opposition took power in a historic win. Meanwhile, tensions are high ahead of Indonesia's upcoming polls, say panelists at The Straits Times Global Outlook Forum.
(From left) ST Malaysia bureau chief Shannon Teoh; Iseas–Yusof Ishak Institute fellow Norshahril Saat; ST assistant foreign editor Lim Ai Leen; former Malaysian Cabinet minister Khairy Jamaluddin; Prof Joseph Liow of NTU's S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies; and ST Indonesia bureau chief Francis Chan. ST PHOTO: KELVIN CHNG

SINGAPORE - Identity politics which zoom in on race and religion will be a feature of the Malaysian and Indonesian political landscape and it is important the issues associated with it are deftly managed, panellists at the ST Global Outlook Forum cautioned on Wednesday (Nov 28).

Panel members also addressed other topics linked to the two countries that are Singapore's closest neighbours - from campaigning ahead of Indonesia's presidential polls in April and the question of Malaysia's Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim succeeding Tun Mahathir Mohamad as prime minister, to the future of the once-dominant party Umno.

With more people turning to conservative Islam in Malaysia and Indonesia, politicians have found it a rich vein to tap for support, a number of the panellists noted.

They cited the close cooperation between Umno and the Parti Islam SeMalaysia on Malay and Muslim issues, and the example of the 2017 Jakarta gubernatorial polls where identity politics was used by opponents of then-governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, a Chinese Christian, to defeat him.

But Iseas-Yusof Ishak Institute fellow Norshahril Saat noted that in Malaysia, the six-month-old Pakatan Harapan (PH) government has taken steps to reverse the deeply conservative Islam that had taken root there.

This even included a meeting in August by Pakatan's de facto Islamic affairs minister Mujahid Yusof Rawa with activist Nisha Ayub, who champions the rights of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.

"PH will need time to undo decades-old policies" of the previous Barisan Nasional government, Dr Norshahril said.

In Jakarta, President Joko Widodo, who is seeking a second term, chose conservative cleric Ma'ruf Amin as his running mate, a move some analysts there said was to protect his flanks from attacks by Islamists and Muslim conservatives.

But with voting for the president taking place only in April next year, it is too early to say whether tensions of the sort sparked by identity politics during the 2017 gubernatorial polls, and the use of fake news, would not make a return, said ST Indonesia bureau chief Francis Chan.

On the question of leadership in Malaysia, panellists said much attention is on the Mahathir-Anwar succession plan. The four parties making up the Pakatan alliance agreed previously that Dr Mahathir would hand over the premiership to Mr Anwar in about two years' time.

But there is ongoing debate as to whether Mr Anwar will again be denied the top post, as happened in 1998 when he was deputy prime minister to Dr Mahathir.

Former Malaysian Cabinet minister Khairy Jamaluddin, who was on the panel, said one reason why he hopes Mr Anwar will lead the country is that among PH's leaders, Mr Anwar "is the only one who is well versed enough to handle identity politics".

He also felt that Dr Mahathir should be more specific about when Mr Anwar will take over.

As for the future of Umno, Mr Khairy said that six months after its historic loss at the polls, the party is weaker. But he was clear that it will still be around.

It won 54 seats in the Federal Parliament at the general election, but currently has 48 MPs because of defections - and speculation is that there could be more defections to come.

Still, Mr Khairy was certain about the party's future: "Malay voters tell me we will survive... Umno will still remain, but in what form I am not quite sure."

As to the kind of government that Mr Anwar would lead should he come to power, ST Malaysia bureau chief Shannon Teoh said that was unclear, "because one of the things with Anwar is he is quite a political chameleon".

Mr Teoh said that while Mr Anwar had said during campaigns that he would promote a "needs-based" economic agenda - and not one that puts Malays at the forefront - there seems to be a different messaging now.

He is seen as actively placating the Malay ground and has built bridges with the Malay royal houses.

Professor Joseph Liow, dean of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies and the College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences at the Nanyang Technological University, said one interesting aspect of the succession issue in Malaysia is that Dr Mahathir - having said he would hand over in two years - would be considered in many a political system as a "lame duck".

But on the contrary, he is more often seen as a "man on a mission".

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