Counting the cost of Malay conservatism

By Karim Raslan

KUALA LUMPUR, Sept 23 — Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak, like his cousin, Education Minister Datuk Hishammuddin Hussein, are “bangsawan” (or aristocratic) politicians. To outsiders, it would appear that their rise through Umno has been charmed. In reality, their rise was propelled by a combination of lineage, “noblesse oblige”, education, the personal wealth linked to their family networks (it’s safe to say that they know or have connections to everyone of political or economic consequence), glamour and the deft management of party politics.

At their best, they can be the most racially inclusive of figures: cosmopolitan, urbane and well-educated. In this respect, they reflect the way modern Malay royals have themselves become ineluctably “Malay-sian”, with royal palaces bestowing Datukships on the socially ambitious of all races.

At their worst, the “bangsawan” politicians can be deeply conservative, resistant to change and overly cautious. In the case of Najib, his continuing refusal to endorse and promote the reform agenda is undermining his own career.


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