FOR more than half a century, Malaysian politics was dominated by one theme - establishing and maintaining Malay supremacy.
The dynamics involved in that agenda led to, among other things, the demise in 1946 of the Malayan Union, which had envisaged equal citizenship rights for all; the eviction of Singapore from the federation in 1965; and the institution of the New Economic Policy, favouring bumiputeras, in 1971.
'Malaysian politics is Malay politics, and Malay politics is Umno politics,' a senior Malaysian politician told me.
That was 10 years ago. Would he say the same now? I doubt it. In recent years, a new wrinkle has been added to the country's politics. The most pressing question now is not Malay supremacy - that has been long settled - but who is to be supreme over the Malays: Umno or Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS), the modernising agenda symbolised by Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad or the atavistic agenda of the Islamic state?
Umno received less than half the Malay votes in the last General Election in 1999, according to observers. PAS' strength then was undoubtedly fuelled by anger over the treatment of former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim, but the party still remains formidable, despite Sept 11 and the disappearance of Datuk Anwar as a cause celebre.
Boasting over 800,000 registered members, over half of them women, it commands support not only from farmers, fishermen and religious teachers, but also 'many urban middle-class Malays, large numbers of professionals educated abroad, university lecturers, university students, and disgruntled Umno members', according to Dr Patricia Martinez, a Malaysian scholar.
Its support has little to do with people clamouring for an Islamic state, she writes, but derives rather from their desire for a 'moral compass' to negotiate the 'travails of modernity' and the 'corruption, cronyism and nepotism' that many Malaysians complain about.
Tan Sri Musa Hitam, a former Malaysian deputy prime minister, concurred: 'Every Malay who joins the Islamic party can be attributed to disillusionment with Umno. That is why they run off to PAS.'
A veteran Malaysian journalist told me PAS had better cadres on the ground. That was my impression too when I travelled through Kedah, Kelantan and Terengganu some months ago.
PAS leaders I met had a clean aspect about them. They reminded me of left-wing cadres from the 1960s and 1970s - simple, direct, dedicated, with a shining look in their eyes. The most remarkable tribute to the Islamic party that I heard came from a Chinese Malaysian in Kota Bahru's Chinatown, who told me, smilingly, 'PAS macham PAP' (PAS is like the People's Action Party), referring to Kelantan's PAS-ruled state government's reputation for honesty.
Dr Mahathir's strategy to defeat this formidable force has taken two contradictory forms. One, to outflank it on the right, he has declared that Malaysia is already an Islamic state. Two, to outflank it on the left, he has re-emphasised Malaysia's multi-racial nature.
The assertion that Malaysia was already an Islamic state was not merely rhetorical. In recent years, Kuala Lumpur has increased considerably funding for the Department for the Advancement of Islam (commonly referred to as Jakim, or Jabatan Kemajuan Agama Islam Malaysia), which comes under the Prime Minister's office.
It was this body which in April 2000, drew up, and sent to state legislatures, apostasy laws to stop Muslims from 'deviating' from Islam. The legislation was later withdrawn, but not before some states had enacted it.
Notwithstanding such moves, however, Umno's Islamisation campaign is unlikely to cut much political ice. Proclaiming Malaysia an Islamic state inevitably prompts Muslims to ask: How Islamic is it really, and who would be best fit to lead such a state?
Umno will find it difficult to win this debate, for it would be contesting for Malay hearts and minds on grounds that PAS already dominates.
Singapore's PAP would have had the same difficulty in the 1960s if it had challenged the communist left ideologically on the anti-colonial, anti-imperialist front. The PAP won only because it successfully enlarged the political agenda to include socio-economic issues - jobs, education, housing, health.
Dr Mahathir is trying to do the same with the second prong of his strategy - re-emphasising multi-racialism, and de-emphasising (at least rhetorically) bumiputera preferences. Thus, his attack on the Malay 'crutch' mentality, his call for a conversion to English in schools, and his plans to introduce national service to promote multi-racialism.
But he, or his successor, will have difficulty following through with these policies for two simple reasons. One, they undermine entrenched Malay privileges; and two, they benefit minorities.
As it is, Umno is already overly dependent on minority support to sustain itself in power. In two recent by-elections, the ruling Barisan National (BN) coalition won the seat that had a sizeable minority population, but lost the one that didn't.
There is no immediate danger of BN losing its hold on power. Plans are already afoot to increase the number of parliamentary seats allocated to Sabah and Sarawak, as well as to urban centres in peninsular Malaysia, where BN is still strong. Such moves will probably keep it in two-thirds comfort for at least another term.
But in the long run, it is politically untenable for a Malay elite to remain in power, with only minority support from Malays, and majority support from minorities - especially as demographic trends indicate Malays will become more numerous, and minorities less so.
The urgency that has crept into Dr Mahathir's speeches indicates he is well aware of this quandary. At stake is his legacy, as well as Malaysia's future as the most progressive Muslim- majority state in the world.