WHEN Malaysians fight about race, what are we really fighting about? What are the actual undercurrents that are causing these fights?

On a superficial level, a few answers come to mind.

Some would argue that racial inequalities and racist policies are obviously the first and foremost root cause that informs racial conflict in Malaysia.

Yet others, myself included on many occasions, argue that Malaysians fight so much about race because our founding political parties were racially defined. Historically, those definitions in turn incentivised politicians to put a racial spin on almost every political issue.

In a talk this last week featuring two political scientists from Malaysia and Australia, Wong Chin Huat and Benjamin Reilly, Wong reminded us of another sometimes overlooked factor: the fragmentation of Malay political parties.

For much of Malaysia’s history, there have only been two major Malay political parties – Umno and PAS.

Today, there are arguably five: Umno, PAS, PKR, Bersatu and Amanah.

Trying to determine which of these is the strongest and most powerful or influential would be a complicated endeavour.

After all, what variables would we use to make such an assessment? Number of members? Number of people who voted for them? Number of seats in parliament? Which party holds the prime ministership? Which party leads the most state governments?

Umno apparently has the most members (four million), and won the most seats in GE14 (54) with the most people voting for them (2.5 million). PKR is the party within the ruling coalition that won the most seats in parliament (47), and is in theory the party of the next prime minister.

Bersatu is the party of the current prime minister and leads the most state governments, while PAS is one of Malaysia’s most enduring, ideologically driven political parties, and has the second largest membership, at over one million.

There is thus – unlike before – no straightforward answer to the question of which Malay party is the ‘strongest’. What is clear is that Malay political power today does seem quite fragmented, without any one clear leviathan.

One obvious comparison that can be made is the question of Chinese political representation. Here, there seems to be no doubt whatsoever that DAP reigns supreme, as no other Chinese based party comes close to the political clout that DAP brings to the table at the moment, for better or worse.

Historically speaking, it could be inferred that Malaysia has endured some of its most turbulent political conflicts during times when Malay political power was split down the middle.

Three notable examples come to mind.

The first is from 1969. While this has not yet been established as the prevailing historical interpretation, some scholars believe that the May 13 riots were engineered (at least to some extent) as part of an effort from within Umno to remove Tunku Abdul Rahman from power.

The second example was when Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah challenged Mahathir Muhammad for the leadership of Umno in 1987.

The aftermath of this conflict included the ruthless Operasi Lalang, and the constitutional crisis which arguably marked an end to judicial independence in Malaysia for a long time.

Operasi Lalang could be read as a crackdown on non-Malay politicians and activists which was meant to bolster ultra Malay credentials, within the context of the intra-Umno conflict.

The third example is when Anwar Ibrahim was sacked as Deputy Prime Minister and Deputy President of Umno in 1998. This eventually sparked the Reformasi movement which saw widespread large scale protests, and the formation of Parti Keadilan.

All three of these crises left an indelible, long lasting marks on Malaysian politics, and all three arguably originated from an internal division within Umno, the major Malay political party.

The present situation looks different today, but also has similar origins.

Just as Anwar’s sacking led to the formation of Keadilan, Muhyiddin Yassin’s sacking eventually led to the formation of Bersatu.

A similar internal split happened in PAS, which saw the more progressive leaders of the party leave in order to form the Amanah.

One thing led to another, and we now have a ruling coalition consisting of not one but two Umno splinter parties, and one PAS splinter party – ‘splinter’ and ‘split’ apparently becoming more and more the operative terms.

The internal dynamics of Pakatan Harapan also cannot be said to be 100% rock steady. We saw in the last year moves from some parties to recruit this or the other set of Umno MPs, which threatened to alter the internal balance of power, as well as the tensions all this maneuvering created.

On the whole, as long as there are separate parties within a coalition, some form of intra-coalition conflict and competition is essentially inevitable. As a result, the Malay polity is very much split, with prospects for unification – given the existing relationships and dynamics at play – looking somewhat dim.

I think we often overlook the degree to which this situation makes a large number of Malaysians uncomfortable – sometimes even at a subconscious level.

There may be this sense that without a strong, unfragmented Malay polity, other polities will step in to throw their weight around, at the expense of the Malays.

This fear need not be a rational one to be a real one; it need not be grounded in actual facts or based on what said other polities are actually doing.

All it takes is for there to be the potential of being overrun and outmaneuvered, due to the optics of who is politically ‘united’ and who is not.

This potential alone generates enough underlying anxiety and fear – flames which parties like Umno and PAS are all too eager to fan and prey on.

In summary, perhaps one of the biggest actual underlying causes of Malay political anxiety is not inter-ethnic competition, but the fact that there are too many Malay-based political parties competing with one another – a situation which is seen by many to ultimately and inherently disadvantage the Malays.

Resolving this problem – given the very complex dynamics between existing political parties –requires more space, intelligence and wisdom than is currently available to this columnist.

Hopefully however, getting closer and closer to accurate identification of core underlying problems will at least help us take the correct first steps towards building a Malaysia in which we recognise the institutional engineering (to borrow Professor Reilly’s terminology) necessary to create systems and dynamics that will effectively allay ethnopolitical anxieties across the board.

Hope and fear are two of the strongest motivators humans tend to experience. Let us then aspire to political structures and dynamics that encourage hopefulness –Pakatan Harapan’s namesake – rather than fear and anxiety.

NATHANIEL TAN currently works at EMIR Research, and would like to wish everyone Selamat Hari Raya!