January 22, 2013
The Middle Class Dilemma
On the one hand, they are presented with the incumbents whom they view — in the main — as unreformed and unrepentant. Indeed the shrill and nasty tone of the NGO activist and viral video protagonist Sharifah Zohra Jabeen Syed Shah Miskin would appear to encapsulate Barisan Nasional’s ethos.
However, the Opposition is also failing to add value to the debate. Four-and-half years on, the reality of Pakatan Rakyat’s uneven leadership has been laid bare for all to see and evaluate. Selangor and Penang are the highlights with Kedah and Kelantan as the laggards. It’s not a good sign when the contrast is that big.
In the 2008 polls, many of the middle classes deserted the ruling coalition as swathes of the prosperous West Coast fell to Pakatan Rakyat’s promise. This time around, whilst the Opposition looks set to maintain its grip on these parts of the country, the fervency of the support has dipped.
This is due in part to the stresses of maintaining an alliance that straddles such disparate partners particularly the Islamist Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (or PAS) and the avowedly secular Democratic Action Party (DAP). Over the intervening years, we have become all too aware of the weaknesses inherent in this apparently opportunistic pairing.
Certainly, the constant attacks by Pakatan’s enemies have begun to gain traction. We now know that with regards to issues of public morality and religion, we should look to PAS’s Majlis Syura for guidance and direction. In this all-important arena, the Malay leadership in Parti Keadilan Rakyat (or PKR) has had little success.
At the same time, Barisan Nasional (BN) has chosen to focus on galvanising its base of rural and semi-rural Malays in a determined attempt to hold on to power and head-off Pakatan’s incursions into the countryside.
What this has meant in practical terms is that whilst the prime minister has maintained a resolutely centrist and inclusive approach, his own party has veered to the “right” in order to excite and mobilise the Malay base. With the rhetoric so uncompromisingly Malay and generally working class, bourgeois concerns — corruption and the abuse of power — have been shunted aside.
How have these developments left the middle classes trapped?Well, many were frustrated and exasperated by the real (and perceived) mismanagement of Barisan, seeing Pakatan as a welcome injection of probity and professionalism into governance and public life.
However, recent events in Kedah over the appropriateness of women singing and performing publicly shows the extent to which PAS’s greater conservatism extends beyond the confines of the Malay/Muslim community. Moreover, the furore over the use of the word “Allah” by non-Muslims and PAS’s very public flip-flop on the issue underlines this critical factor and the supremacy of the Majlis Syura.
So for many in the middle class, Pakatan’s promise of a clean and professional administration has unfortunately been undermined by concerns about fears of moral policing and the arbitrary imposition of syariah.
These fears are real and cannot be assuaged by mere promises that PKR and the DAP will be able to moderate PAS in power. BN said and continues to say the same thing about UMNO’s racialist sentiments and that isn’t working very well.
The coalition, which ultimate proves itself willing to acknowledge that Malaysia is changing and that views on morality are no longer uniform, will win the middle ground. Of course this will be painful but it’s what the country needs to move forward.
Ultimately however, Malaysia’s middle class must decide in the next general election what’s a greater threat: the prospect of moral policing and creeping fundamentalism, or unchecked, institutionalised corruption and the abuse of power.
Is it possible that some day these threats will eventually merge into one massive challenge about what it really means to be Malaysian and what is the true nature of our country? Now do you see what I mean about the middle classes being trapped?
* Karim Raslan is a Malaysian writer who travels the region to know more and write more about the life and times of its people.