The UMNO campaign was simple: “all is at risk!” There is no protection, it kept hammering away, for you and your family, for all Malays, for the Malay stake in the country, for Islam or for the Malay rulers who are the ultimate bastion of our Malay-Islamic identity and national primacy —— other than us here in UMNO.
It was a campaign that appealed to their sense of themselves —— to their sense of Malay identity and of Malay centrality to national life. It was a campaign that sought to suggest how tenuous the basis of Malay identity had now become in national life, how insecure the Malay grip upon the Malay stake in the nation had become. Everything that was distinctively Malay about Malaysia, it was suggested, was now under threat.
It was a campaign that both cultivated and then also appealed to a Malay sense of political and cultural peril, even crisis. It was a campaign that consisted of a managed panic: that the Malays were now beleaguered in their own land, the Tanah Melayu. Their historic stake in the nation was being whittled away and was now in jeopardy.
It was a campaign that sought to suggest that, as political currents were now running, it was not fanciful but realistic to imagine that Malays might one day soon “hilang di dunia” (in the words of the classical formulation), that they might disappear from the face of the earth.
It was a campaign of controlled communal panic. Malays and their way of life are beleaguered, and, central to their way of life, Islam was in jeopardy. Malay historical primacy and political leadership, the religious ascendancy of Islam, and the constitutional position of the Malay state rulers as their “untrumpable” guarantors had become the sacred trinity of the UMNO campaign.
Everything that mattered to the Malay majority and its conventional loyalties was now at risk, it was suggested. It was threatened by the opposition Pakatan Rakyat coalition —— of which of course, the Islamic Party PAS was a key component. In the division of political labour between the Pakatan partners, it fell to PAS to wage the direct contest against UMNO for votes in the nation’s Malay heartlands core.
So, above all else, the national election —— an election that would decide the prime minister’s and his party’s future —— turned upon a contest for “the national Malay soul” between UMNO and PAS.
That was the real campaign.
It was the campaign that won the election for UMNO/BN.
And it was a campaign that the many overseas reporters and commentators who flocked to Kuala Lumpur for a week or two simply did not see or “read” or understand.
It went beneath their radar, it was beyond their social, professional and imaginative reach. It was outside their range of cultural accessibility —— and also that, to be fair to them, of the vast majority of “like-minded” and “sympathetic” young urban Malaysians whom they were delighted to meet: who captured their attention, won their sympathy, and shaped their view of Malaysian society and politics.
For many of those intelligent, persuasive and globally-networked young Kuala Lumpur cosmopolitans, the Malay heartlands and those who live there are just as foreign and remote a world as they certainly were to the visiting journalists. The young sophisticates with their congenial “discourse” and “narratives” were nice people, but a very poor guide to what the election was really about —— how it was being conducted where it really mattered.
But, to those who were running the “real” campaign that inattention was no problem. On the contrary. Let the foreign press write the stories that might please them, that seemed to centre upon the overseas journalists’ own effete concerns, not those of the rural Malay voters. Let them chase after stories that led them away from the real story, the main action.
After all, the “real campaign” for Malay votes in the heartlands —— for a firm place within and a hold upon the Malay soul —— would prosper best if it went unrecognised and unreported by the meddling and opinionated visitors of the international press. Let them meddle instead where their own interests and sympathies were engaged, not where their intruding curiosity might prove inconvenient, even embarrassing.