KUALA LUMPUR - A curious debate has been taking place among the most senior leaders of Malaysian politics, with the final answer possibly swinging Malay voters one way or the other.
The debate revolves around the question: Can a Chinese Malaysian aim to be the Deputy Prime Minister? Opposition politician Mahathir Mohamad said recently that the Chinese-based Democratic Action Party (DAP) had previously asked for the Deputy PM's post. But he quickly denied saying it after Umno leaders used his sound bites as a tactic to scare off Malay voters.
And on Wednesday, Prime Minister Najib Razak's press secretary Tengku Sariffuddin Tengku Ahmad raised eyebrows when he issued a statement to ask DAP veteran leader Lim Kit Siang to confirm that he had never asked for the post.
A statement from the Prime Minister's press secretary is often interpreted as carrying the words of the man himself.
Mr Lim's reply, as reported by FreeMalaysiaToday news site on Wednesday: "He is talking as if it is a great crime for anyone to have hopes of becoming deputy prime minister or prime minister of Malaysia."
The angst shown by the politicians points to a sensitive subject in domestic politics: Malaysia's majority race is not quite ready to accept an ethnic Chinese as the No. 2 in government, let alone as the prime minister of Asean's third-biggest economy.
The highest post for a Chinese Malaysian in politics, as it has been for decades, is transport minister. The current Transport Minister is Datuk Seri Liow Tiong Lai, president of the biggest Chinese party in the ruling Barisan Nasional.
The attacks and denials are targeted at Malay voters, who are mostly loyal to the Umno-led coalition, but which the opposition wants to prise away.
Umno's favourite tools to ensure Malay loyalty are to say it is sympathetic to Islamic issues and that it protects Malay rights, and that the opposition led by the DAP will take these away if they are in power.
Tun Dr Mahathir, who leads the opposition Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (PPBM), started the debate over a Chinese deputy PM when he said early this month that the DAP had asked for the No. 2 post. The former prime minister later said that he had made a mistake and that it was the Malaysian Chinese Association which had asked for the post.
But by then, the pro-government media had jumped all over the issue.
PPBM is now an ally of the tripartite Pakatan Harapan opposition alliance that includes the DAP.
Datuk Seri Tengku Sariffuddin wrote in the statement: "It is the people's right to know the truth of Lim's limitless political ambitions so they can make an informed choice before voting."
DAP secretary-general Lim Guan Eng, who is also the son of the elder Lim, said his party had never wanted the deputy PM's post.
"We have never made such a request and our only stand is for PKR adviser Anwar Ibrahim to be the prime minister," he said as reported by The Star last week, referring to DAP's ally, Parti Keadilan Rakyat.
Datuk Seri Najib also waded into the debate.
"(Tun Mahathir) spent 22 years attacking DAP. He labelled Lim Kit Siang as a racist, anti-Islam and anti-Malay.
"And now, suddenly, he wants to give Kit Siang the position of deputy prime minister. Does this make sense?" he asked.
This article was first published on Jan 28, 2017.
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