(See-saw image by scusi/Dreamstime)
From party secretary-general Lim Guan Eng's description, Middle Malaysia indicates a state of mind or a set of values based on moderation and mutual respect. However, the DAP's new catchphrase is also an electoral strategy. Lim's confidant, parliamentarian Liew Chin Tong, says in an interview: "We're responding to the leadership vacuum left by the Barisan Nasional (BN), which has no middle-ground leadership. There has been no effort to create space for ordinary people, who may not be ideologically inclined, but who just want a government that works."
But whether it is an election strategy or a mindset approach, defining Middle Malaysians may be a trickier exercise than assigning group labels such as "moderate", "tolerant" or "the silent majority". Ultimately, assessing the DAP's game plan raises at least two questions. Are collective values consistent? And is the line of moderation largely drawn along ethnic boundaries?
Where's the middle?
Nik Aziz How consistent are moderate values? A modern-minded, Western-educated, occasional beer-drinking Malay-Muslim Malaysian may today strongly object to letting non-Muslims in Malaysia use "Allah". Conversely, hardcore Islamists like PAS spiritual adviser Datuk Seri Nik Abdul Aziz Nik Mat have no qualms over sharing "Allah" with other faith communities.
Other examples: a young PKR leader like Nik Nazmi Nik Ahmad can be forward-thinking on meritocracy and needs-based affirmative action, and yet be uncritical about Islamic moral policing by the state. Or take PKR de-facto leader Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim's indecisiveness over disciplining hardliner Zulkifli at the risk of angering PKR's Malay Malaysian support.
If PKR, whose leadership espouses plurality and equal rights, is concerned about losing its Malay Malaysian base, is being moderate in Malaysia largely defined by race?
In the March 2008 general election, to be moderate meant having values contrary to the BN's alleged corruption, cronyism, and race-based policies. But election results showed that the middle ground was largely Peninsula-based non-Malay Malaysians who voted for the opposition. Opposition parties netted only 35% to 40% of the Malay Malaysian vote, notes DAP publicity secretary Tony Pua.
The question then becomes, who are the middle Malay Malaysians? As the largest ethnic group at over 60% of the population, it should matter to the DAP, which knows it cannot succeed in elections without the help of its partners, PAS and PKR.
Making sacred what isn't
Norani Othman Political sociologist Prof Dr Norani Othman thinks the Malay Malaysian middle class, also known by the idiom "Melayu Baru", is still evolving. "They have not shown clearly whether they have had a change of values to be necessarily cosmopolitan and global in outlook," she tells The Nut Graph in a phone interview.
The rise of this middle class is the result of the New Economic Policy and rapid national transformation under former premier Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad. It brought fast wealth and drastically raised standards of living along with the sense of entitlement.
"Scratch beneath the surface of those who say they are tolerant, and what they mean is that they are tolerant only if their security is assured. Tolerance comes from being in a superior position," Norani says.
One reason for this, she says, is the sacralisation of the Malay Malaysian's "special position" and privileges. Islam, intended as the country's official religion, is conflated or equated with Malay identity and issues. Thus, any discussion on such matters is considered "a threat to Islam and Malays", and hence, taboo.
Norani notes that the country's leaders have been encouraging this making sacred of Malay Malaysian issues. It perpetuates a sense of racial and religious superiority and causes some to question if they are weak Muslims. It becomes a barrier that keeps middle-class Malaysians from stepping onto the middle ground.
Setting the agenda
Pua The number of truly middle-ground Malay Malaysians in tune with the DAP's thinking may be too few in number. The party's own membership comprising Malay Malaysians is less than 5% of total members, says Pua.
But he is optimistic that there are more of such Malay Malaysians out there. He believes the "Allah" debate has exposed deep fissures in the collective Malay Malaysian mindset.
"The fact that there are some who can agree with the High Court judgement means there is a group that does not operate based on insecurities. We're not asking them to forsake their ideals about what being Malay and Muslim means, but when we say they are Middle Malaysia, we recognise that they are willing to engage and to respect others' differences," Pua tells The Nut Graph.
The DAP's challenge is to convince middle-class Malaysians by ensuring party policies cater to them as well, Pua adds.
And though there are different degrees of moderateness, the aim is to net support from different people "within the context of Pakatan (Rakyat)", says Liew.
"Through our partners, we can win different people with different definitions of being moderate," he adds. In other words, Middle Malaysia is also about the DAP setting the middle-ground agenda for PAS and PKR without putting them off, especially the Islamist PAS.
"It's a roadmap for the PR. The DAP is clarifying its relationship with PAS and PKR by stating clearly that we need them and are serious about our collective path to Putrajaya," Liew says.
But the Zulkifli saga in PKR shows that this won't be easy. What we mustn't be surprised about is the likelihood that as the DAP and other secularists push to expand middle-ground values, reactions from conservative forces are likely to increase.
Is Middle Malaysia a hopeful gamble? Are the DAP's partners up to it? Whether it works as an election strategy remains to be seen.