Singapore’s Fadli Fawzi and the reframing of ‘Malay politics’

Zurairi AR
·6-min read
Zurairi AR
Zurairi AR

JULY 5 — This Friday, Singapore will vote in its general election which critics say points at the ruling party PAP capitalising on the Covid-19 pandemic and the public goodwill towards the government’s initially-praised response.

But to some of us across the Causeway, the polls may seem sudden, with too short a campaigning period (just nine days), too many parties independent of each other (11, with nary a pact between them), and an absolute mess of a system that looks to favour whoever is in power.

There is also the matter of the motivation of voters.

While in the past few GEs here, Malaysians have battled in order to determine which pact gets to take over Putrajaya (and we proudly unseated a six-decade regime in 2018, only to have democracy snatched out of our hands earlier this year), in Singapore it feels nobody can even imagine a non-People’s Action Party (PAP) government.

As journalist-activist Kirsten Han noted in her excellent newsletter We, The Citizens, Singaporeans are more concerned about having a more vocal Opposition in Parliament to keep the PAP government in check, rather than actually voting the Opposition into power.

“This creates a need to figure out a balance, where sufficient numbers of voters elect opposition candidates, while not having too many people vote opposition to the point where we have a ‘freak election’, where the PAP fails to win a majority of the seats and therefore can’t form government,” she wrote.

For me personally, the most interesting part of the GE2020 campaign so far has been the surging popularity of new candidates, especially those of Malay background.

And nowhere has this been more true than in the Workers’ Party (WP), the only Opposition party with MPs in the outgoing Parliament. This time, WP has introduced five new Malay candidates, against six new Malay faces from PAP.

Immediately, WP’s Muhammad Fadli Mohammed Fawzi who debuted in the Marine Parade constituency, caught my attention. And a look at social media showed that I was not alone.

In particular, Fadli received praise for introducing himself with a pantun, a form of Malay rhyming poem:

Segarlah kuntum menanti kembang

Nyalakan api azammu kawan

Walau dilanda ribut nan kencang

Parti Pekerja tetap berlawan

Along with a rhyming English version:

Fresh is the bud that waits for the bloom

So light the fires in your will, my friend

The fiercest of storms may gather and loom

But the Workers’ Party will fight to the end

As Twitter user @lmaokasturi pointed out, Fadli’s pantun has since been reciprocated by others, one of those by social activist and interfaith advocate Mohamed Imran Mohamed Taib.

Speaking to Malay Mail, Imran conceded that the pantun captured a lot of attention, especially among the Malay community there and activist circles, as it showed Fadli’s endearment to his Malay culture and roots.

But Imran said Fadli’s academic credentials and status as a lawyer were also a factor. 

“It is rare to find highly qualified Malay professionals joining the Opposition,” he said in an email interview.

By contrast, I found it rare for Singapore to indulge in such personality politics, but Han explained that such a thing has happened in Singapore, such as with Nicole Seah who was just 24 when she debuted in 2011 (she has now returned with WP, for a probable repeat of the so-called “Nicole Seah effect”).

In a brief email interview, Han also listed WP’s Raeesah Khan and Jamus Lim as those who are also enjoying attention from the public. Raeesah is the founder of social enterprise Reyna Movement and the daughter of former presidential candidate Farid Khan, while Lim is an economist who gained some fans during a recent televised debate.

“These candidates do attract attention because they seem to be offering something different from the establishment and the norm,” Han said, but cautioned that online popularity does not necessarily translate into votes.

Today is also the second day of the virtual Parlimen Digital in Malaysia and as we ponder a future where our lawmakers show maturity and participate in progressive discourse, there is one thing that Malaysian hopefuls can take away from their Singaporean counterparts: moving away from framing socio-economic issues through an ethnic lens — another thing which Imran said was refreshing coming from Fadli.

In a Facebook post, Imran wrote of the possibility of Malay votes swinging towards the Opposition, in particular due to two policies: The personal mobility device ban that affected many Malay delivery riders, and restrictions against home-based food-business operators, that again affected many in the community.

Speaking to Malay Mail, Imran clarified that the policies were not specifically against the Malays, but as a significant number of Malays fall within the lower socio-economic rungs, the impact was greater.

“Bread and butter issues will always be a major consideration. But over the years, I see greater attention on national issues (such as housing, transportation, cost of living, etc.) in Malay political discourse,” Imran said.

“Key to understanding this is the increasing recognition that Malay socioeconomic woes are not confined to the community. In other words, it is not a ‘Malay problem’ but rather, an issue of structural inequality that impacted all Singaporeans and not due to being Malay.”

In a Facebook post prior to his nomination, Fadli reiterated this need to “reframe the conversation away from the lens of race”, and debunk the notion that the Malays suffer from some cultural habits or attributes of the community.

“By approaching such problems in terms of a structural-economic issue, we will also be able to better understand and alleviate the socio-economic struggles of the working class and the poor in Singapore, regardless of their race,” Fadli pointed out.

In Malaysia, taking a step towards this ideal has been made even more difficult with the Perikatan Nasional (PN) doubling down on ultra-Malay politics in order to secure its grassroots support amid a thin Parliamentary majority and ahead of a possible snap poll.

Pakatan Harapan (PH) did make some progress previously, but again, it too was hampered by a need to pander to the Malay majority, and the insistence of its then component Bersatu to burnish its right-wing tendencies — inevitably leading to the dissolution of its administration. 

As PH picks up the pieces for the long trek ahead, self-reflection is needed, for a shift towards a more equitable and egalitarian future for Malaysians — Malay or not.

*This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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