Despite opening door to non-Malays, pundits see uphill task for Bersatu to win over minorities

Bersatu president and Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin had last week proposed a new chapter in the Malay party to allow non-Malay leaders to become office-bearers and to contribute in leadership positions. — Picture by Ahmad Zamzahuri
Bersatu president and Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin had last week proposed a new chapter in the Malay party to allow non-Malay leaders to become office-bearers and to contribute in leadership positions. — Picture by Ahmad Zamzahuri

KUALA LUMPUR, Aug 24 — Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia’s (Bersatu) move towards greater inclusivity by opening its leadership positions to non-Malay Malaysians may sound promising in theory, but political analysts are sceptical if the ruling party will succeed.

The analysts questioned too if Bersatu will accord its non-Malay leaders political capital equal to their Malay peers, noting it could have difficulty convincing its current batch of Malay grassroots members to open up their privileges to the races.

“So Bersatu needs to reinvent itself so as to rival Umno and PAS’ dominance in MN and opening up its membership to the non-Malays looks like a good move,” Universiti Teknologi Malaysia geostrategist Azmi Hasan told Malay Mail when contacted.

Bersatu president and Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin had last week proposed a new chapter in the Malay party to allow non-Malay leaders to become office-bearers and to contribute in leadership positions, ostensibly to widen its voter base beyond one racial group.

Briefly venturing into Bersatu’s founding as a splinter from Umno as a Malay party, Azmi pointed out that Bersatu and its two other political partners in Muafakat Nasional (MN), Umno and PAS, are already gunning for the same voter demographic group, the Malays.

MN is a political accord signed by Umno and PAS in September 2019, based on mutual cooperation on matters related to Islam and the Malay community, ostensibly without sidelining other issues of national concern.

Azmi noted that Bersatu appeared to be “losing out” the support of this voer group compared to the two older and more established Umno and PAS.

While lauding Bersatu’s move towards inclusivity, he said the party should be mindful that its Malay grassroots members may not take kindly to allowing non-Malay officer bearers and will have to tread delicately to manage the possible apprehensions in being a plural society.

Currently, Bersatu accepts non-Malays as associate members, but they cannot hold leadership positions.

Shazwan Mustafa Kamal, a senior associate at Vriens & Partners, likewise sees much potential in Bersatu’s proposal to accommodate non-Malays.

However, he questioned how much political clout non-Malays will have in Bersatu if they remain only as affiliate members.

“While this may be a balancing move to challenge the perception that Muafakat Nasional (Umno, Bersatu and PAS) are overtly pro-Malay in their agenda, it remains to be seen whether this proposal will gain traction among non-Malays or whether this is a poor attempt at paying lip service to make the alliance more palatable for the non-Malay populace,” Shazwan said.

He noted that there is still lingering public scepticism over whether a non-Malay chapter of Bersatu will hold equitable political capital compared to Malays in the party — especially as it is working under the premise of a Bumiputera party that engineered the collapse of the previous Pakatan Harapan government, of which it had been a component party.

“Besatu would need to flesh out details on the rights and limits of its planned affiliate members if it truly aims to capture non-Malay support.

“It’s a crowded political field in Malaysia, and parties like PKR, DAP, Amanah and even Gerakan are more than willing to take in non-Malay leaders,” Shazwan added.

Senior fellow at the Singapore Institute of International Affairs Oh Ei Sun gave a similar assessment.

“Frankly speaking, it is more than likely that those non-Malays, especially non-Bumis, if any, who aspire to join Bersatu or even hold party positions are doing so for ephemeral personal, material gains, for as long as Bersatu is in governmental power. 

“This is because it is inconceivable that they would accomplish anything of significance in a predominantly Malay racialist party that has gone rogue from its comparatively moderate roots,” he told Malay Mail.

Oh suggested that should Bersatu lose its clout as a ruling party in future, its non-Malay members might migrate en masse to another political party whom they see as more promising then.

Like Azmi, Oh said Bersatu’s Malay grassroots members are unlikely to be as welcoming as their party leaders to non-Malays, especially when they would have to compete for the same limited party positions and honours.

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