A New Inclusive Narrative For Malaysia


Congratulations to Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim and Pakatan Harapan.
If we had the luxury of time, we could write long, poetic essays about this historical achievement, and the immense relief and hopeful excitement that so many of us are feeling.
So after a brief (but strong) hug to every single Malaysian who sacrificed sweat, blood and tears to bring about this long-awaited day, we will instead ask - what’s next?
My one-word answer would be, narrative.
On the heels of this big change, what we urgently need now is a strong, clear story being pushed out to all of Malaysia that really frames what this transition actually means, and what it’s all about.
To understand the importance and centrality of narrative, we can look back to 2018 to learn from the mistakes of the past, and avoid the disasters those mistakes resulted in.
Learning from history
An important caveat, of course, is that the Harapan government of 2018 was led by Dr Mahathir Mohamad, and it was more of a Mahathir government than it was a Harapan administration.
It is now clear that Mahathir never really wanted the Harapan government to succeed. It’s also obvious that he masterminded the Sheraton Move - which ultimately backfired on him.
What Mahathir really wanted was a strong government with a strong Malay-only party at the centre (he has never cared whether this party was called “Umno”, “Umno Baru”, “Bersatu”, “Pejuang” and so on).
Former prime minister Dr Mahathir MohamadAccording to his old-school thinking, this was the only formula that works in Malaysia.
In 2018, Mahathir thus had no interest in a new Malaysian narrative that was driven by inclusive multiracial harmony.
He quite simply believed that Malaysians were just too racist for such harmony to exist. That was Mahathir’s internal narrative, and the idea he wanted to impose on Malaysia.
Indeed, when problems like Icerd started coming, Mahathir probably thought that things were unfolding exactly the way he had wanted - with increasing racial and religious sentiment as a backlash to a “DAP dominated” government on the rise.
This was the perfect precursor to Mahathir’s plan to eventually dump DAP by having several Umno and PKR MPs basically switch over to Bersatu.
Of course, the cherry on top of all this scheming was that by doing this, Mahathir could avoid the greatest political nightmare of his entire life - letting Anwar become prime minister.
Avoiding the void
That is a long walk down history to explain a simple but vital aspect of the 2018 Harapan government - there was no new narrative.
The term “New Malaysia” emerged organically, but it was soon clear that nobody knew what those words meant, and that Mahathir’s government was not interested in defining and building on that narrative.
This created a vital void and Umno and PAS filled it with their protests against Icerd, the “Malay unity” narrative of Muafakat Nasional and so on.
GE14 could have been the end of Umno, and to a lesser extent, maybe even PAS. However, this was not the outcome that Mahathir wanted.
And so, he allowed that void to appear, and for those political parties to fill that void with the old narrative and story - the story of Malay-Islam versus the rest.
This was the story that worked perfectly well for Mahathir in the 1980s and 1990s, when he ruled unchallenged like an emperor or what his detractors used to call him back then - “Mahafiraun”.
And so in 2018, Mahathir did everything he could to bring back that mentality and that story.
It is now 2022. Mahathir and all his friends have lost their deposits contesting in GE15, and Anwar is now prime minister.
So, what is the story now?
Don’t ‘counter’ bad narratives, create better ones
I think this is the greatest and most vital question facing Harapan today.
Our entire understanding of the world around us boils down to stories we tell ourselves in our heads - stories that define and shape every aspect and experience of our lives as human beings.
Stories define whether we feel truly accepted and at home here as Malaysians; how we feel about people of different races and religions; and ultimately - how we interact with one another as fellow Malaysians.
If Harapan can build the right narrative and story to really frame this huge political transition, then we will finally have the seeds of a truly new Malaysia.
Mahathir didn’t have faith in Malaysians. He believed they were too racist to have any kind of government except a race-based one.
A new narrative needs to be built on a completely different belief - one that has full faith in the ability of Malaysians from all backgrounds to build this nation up together.
Building this narrative is far more important than trying to “counter” imbecilic political attacks like saying alcohol and gambling shares went up as soon as Anwar became prime minister, or aggressively trying to arrest kids posting racist nonsense on TikTok.
It’s never about getting bogged down with countering, attacking or trying to eliminate bad narratives. That’s a waste of time and marching to the beat of your opponent’s drums.
It’s always about having a better narrative that people prefer. This is the single biggest fact that many operatives don’t seem to fully understand at a fundamental level.
Use Malaysia’s best talent
A new narrative has to go way beyond one simple phrase (though you’ll need one of those too).
Malaysia has experienced the emptiness of slogans like “1Malaysia” or “Keluarga Malaysia” - slogans that are in and of themselves perfectly well and good but were never backed up by real action.
A good narrative can’t be something you think up haphazardly over a couple of days.
It’s got to be a story put together by people who really know and understand narratives, and by people who really know and understand Malaysia - not just the Malaysia of the Klang Valley or west coast, but the Malaysia of the east coast and the Malaysia of Sabah and Sarawak.
We are talking about people who speak the local language, in more ways than one.
The right narrative will make every Malaysian - whether part of the majority or a minority - feel truly safe, welcome, validated and valued in this shared home of ours.
There is no end to right-thinking, intelligent and most importantly, sincere Malaysians out there who are perfectly qualified to build a narrative like this. I’m confident that if asked, they will answer the call to serve.
If Harapan can bring these people together, and give them everything they need to work their magic, I think they can stitch together a story and a narrative that will make every single Malaysian - from Padang Besar to Johor Bahru, from Langkawi to Semporna - feel like this is a home they want to build together.
In doing so, they will not only heal the deeply harmful wounds caused by toxic, divisive politics over decades - they will forge a new meaning of what it means to be Malaysian, and galvanise the full, awe-inspiring potential of a united Malaysia. - Mkini
NATHANIEL TAN is a freelance strategic communications consultant who works with Projek #BangsaMalaysia. Twitter: @NatAsasi, Email: [email protected].
The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of MMKtT.

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