Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Malaysian Politics: The Challenge for Pakatan Harapan

Seven things Pakatan Harapan must and mustn’t do

By Munir Majid

The PH government led by Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad has to define with clarity what it means by a multiracial Malaysia, says the author.

Malay Mail

11 September, 2019

If Pakatan Harapan (PH) wants to be returned to power in Malaysia's next election, it must show it is in charge of issues which are falling about all over the place.

First, it must show, even now, that it wants to win the next election. And not lose it by taking the long view or the short-sighted one that it still has 3½ years to put things together.

The reform agenda — the long list of institutional and electoral reforms, good governance, honesty, integrity and accountability — is absolutely essential but will take more than one parliament to take effect.

To the general electorate, it is distant and abstract, against the in-the-face issues they are concerned about. There is not much time to address these issues and arrest the decline in support for PH.

If it loses the next election, the dark political forces it defeated in May 2018 will come back darker, with the high probability they will not again allow themselves to be defeated by playing totally on the racial arithmetic and by abusing the powers of the state more completely than before GE14 — something political scientists now term “populist dictatorship”.

PH must snap out of any complacency about this serious risk. There is a responsibility to the nation akin to that that galvanised it to oust the last government.

PH should not be in denial that right now it is losing the people’s support. The second thing it must do is to regain it. Three-and-a-half years will be gone in the blink of an eye.

People will not necessarily come back to PH just because they cannot contemplate the prospect of United Malays National Organisation-Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (Umno-PAS) crashing to power and imposing a one-race one-religion order. Stranger things have happened in politics.

How to regain that support? The most critical — and the most difficult — is to show, thirdly, that PH is committed to a multiracial Malaysia while retaining (or regaining) non-Malay support but not alienating the Malay voters it had (already now eroded).

If it does not do so, the race and religion base of Umno-PAS will be strengthened even as PH’s non-Malay votes diminish.

PH has to come out in one voice with great clarity on a complex issue after decades of de facto uni-racial rule and increasingly, religious intolerance with attempts also to draw in royalty as defender of race and religion in a Tanah Melayu.

That PH is committed to a multiracial Malaysia I have no doubt. But there are within the coalition different shades and thoughts on its achievement, or reestablishment, in a Malaysia whose politicians have increasingly polarised.

PH has to define with clarity what it means by a multiracial Malaysia. It cannot be just a slogan which gives high hopes to some and causes a call to arms among others. One shade of grey which must be clarified is this: It must be made clear to the Malays that nobody is taking away their special privileges under the constitution.

The non-Malays must understand this, too, and not interpret the PH victory for a new Malaysia to the point where these rights are challenged.

The Malays, on the other hand, must be made to understand the rights of the non-Malays and the practice of religions other than Islam — also recognised under the constitution — must not be violated.

This is a huge task. How to drive understanding of the fundamental basis of Malaysian multiracialism after years of uncompromising extremist attitudes, especially among Malay-Muslim racists.

[He has grasped the crux of the matter. This is where PH will fail and fall.]

Laws must be used, without abuse and subject to judicial review, to ensure racist-inspired conflict, emanating from whatever source foreign or local, does not undermine our multiracial Malaysia. These laws PH must introduce.

Fourth, PH must draw a clear distinction between constitutional right and government policy. You do not open up a Pandora’s box with respect to rights contained in the constitution, but you can review policy if it is not working well.

The NEP (New Economic Policy) is one such policy which masquerades as a constitutional right because it has been around for over two generations and become a bad Malay habit.

It was never intended to last so long but has been used to ride on Malay populism and developed into an entitlement, which accords it a mistaken legal right.

[Again, easier said than done. How to draw a distinction between a right and a long-running government policy which many have mistaken as a right, and say you will abolish the faux right? And not be accused of stripping the Malays of their constitutional rights?]

The political plus pseudo legal force of the NEP makes it a totem pole around which many dance in a trance for votes from heaven. Hence there is this fear to say categorically the NEP must end.

The approaches to dislodge it are thus delicate: It is not bad, only its implementation is. It should be needs-based and not racially focused, and so on.

The truth is the NEP has both worked and not worked. Where it has not worked the most is to make the Malays a dependent race uncompetitive in a global environment which is what the world has become.

Best to leave the NEP behind without prevarication. Let it lapse. PH has actually come up with a new policy — Shared Prosperity. This should be given greater content and greater emphasis.

There is no need to be apologetic by saying that since the Malays are most in need, they would, therefore, benefit the most. That is axiomatic. But what should be clear is that there must be effort by everyone for growth to be shared.

There are variations within PH on the definition of multiracial Malaysia and on a new policy to replace the NEP. Bersatu wants to destroy and replace Umno, take over the Malay base and then moderate it. Time, however, is not on the side of the Bersatu leadership unless Umno is made illegal.

Otherwise a revived Umno would be a tough nut to crack, especially with its unholy alliance with PAS. Victories in three by-elections since its ignominious defeat in May 2018 have given it heart.

Apart from being made illegal, the only other event that could derail Umno would be if there were major defections to Bersatu.

Then there would be the rearranging of guards at the top in Bersatu, with incumbents threatened. Strong leadership in Bersatu could stack up the leadership order but, when absent, it would not hold together.

PH's Democratic Action Party is just set on the reform agenda, but silent on multiracial Malaysia and on Malay rights. The party has not said much about the NEP. Anwar Ibrahim's Parti Keadilan Rakyat is general about wanting a multiracial Malaysia and a “needs-based” policy. Definition and specificity have not been a strong point of the PKR leadership.

Put together, there is no clarity on the multiracial Malaysia the PH coalition wants and on what exact socio-economic policy it wishes to propound.

This is a godsend to Umno-PAS. The Malay-religious nationalists can pick holes in the PH coalition, highlight particular points of threat to its aroused constituency and drive a wedge through the ruling party.

The next election is still going to be primarily fought on racial and religious issues, not on issues that matter like education and the economy, which are linked to race and religion anyway.

PH will lose the next election without clarity on its policies. As it is, it has also not been outstanding in delivering results.

Dr Munir Majid was formerly group editor of New Straits Times, executive chairman of Malaysia’s Securities Commission and chairman of Malaysia Airlines. He has also held directorship posts in banking, telecommunications and academia.

[That's the hope from an experienced (and probably wise) Malaysian. Now, the view from a Singaporean diplomat, experienced in such matters.]

Pakatan ‘falling apart’, fuelling Singapore-Malaysia spats: Bilahari Kausikan

Former diplomat Bilahari Kausikan said after Barisan Nasional was replaced by PH in the 14th general election last year, “old bilateral issues almost immediately resurfaced”.

22 February, 2019

SINGAPORE — Political instability in the ruling Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition and its failure to capture Malay support are aggravating relations between Malaysia and Singapore, said former Singaporean diplomat Bilahari Kausikan.

Mr Kausikan said after Barisan Nasional (BN) was replaced by PH in the 14th general election last year, “old bilateral issues almost immediately resurfaced”.

He was referring to recent disputes on maritime boundaries and joint airspace control, as well as ongoing negotiations into the price of water Malaysia sells to Singapore.

“These issues are not new and they cannot be resolved,” Mr Kausikan said in a public lecture at the National University of Singapore.

“To resolve an issue, both sides must want to resolve it. Whereas in this case, the other side’s interest is to keep them alive to use them to rally support.

“It would be wrong to place too much emphasis on the personality of (Prime Minister) Dr Mahathir (Mohamad) although that was undoubtedly a factor,” he told more than 200 attendees.

“More importantly, the new Pakatan Harapan government is fundamentally incoherent.

“It’s falling apart,” said Mr Kausikan.

He cited a Merdeka Centre research last year which found a three-way split of Malay votes for PH, Umno and Islamist party PAS, meaning that the support of Malaysia’s largest ethnic group looks to be fiercely contested by the three groups.

The results, said Mr Kausikan, reveals the instability of the ruling pact, which will grow further as it desperately tries to rally greater Malay support if it hopes to retain power in the next general election.

“Using Singapore as a bogeyman or whipping boy to rally the Malay ground is a time-tested tactic,” he said.

“Dr Mahathir used it when he led Umno, he uses it now that he is head of Bersatu.

“This is not just a matter of personality or historical baggage.”

In his lecture, Mr Kausikan also said he expects Malaysia’s political scenario to remain in a flux for some time because of infighting within PH and the growing threat of Islamic fundamentalism.


The former policy adviser to Singapore’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs urged the republic’s incoming new leadership to maintain the country’s military capabilities, saying that a show of might is crucial in its dealings with Malaysia.

This is because Malaysian leaders will always seek to undermine and subjugate the city-state.

“Even though Singapore is now accepted as a sovereign state, it is not a situation which Malaysia is entirely comfortable with,” Mr Kausikan said at the lecture titled 'Singapore’s relations with Indonesia and Malaysia'.

“Today, the governments of our neighbours deal with Singapore as a sovereign nation only because we have developed capabilities that have given them no other choice.

“It is not their preferred way of dealing with a small, ethnic Chinese-majority city-state.

“They would prefer us to accept a subordinate role as do their own Chinese populations,” he said.

Singapore’s new leaders must, therefore, continue to “establish red lines” which send a clear message to Putrajaya that the country is equipped and ready to use its military might in the event it is forced to a corner.

“The threat of use of force is as much part of diplomacy as negotiations. Diplomacy is not just about being nice.

“It is essential to establish red lines because it is only when red lines are clearly understood that mutual relations can be conducted on the basis of mutual respect.”

Mr Kausikan said the fundamental reason for Malaysia’s continued provocative acts towards Singapore is because of the republic’s system of a multiracial meritocracy, which greatly contrasted from the former’s race-based policies.

“The basic and enduring issue is not what we do, but what we are – a multiracial, meritocratic small city state that performs better than they do and we must always perform better.

“The very existence of our dramatically very different system, too close to be ignored or disregarded, that does better than their system, poses an implicit criticism of their system to their own people.” 


Pakatan Harapan spats more than just teething issues

By Ng Qi Siang

The anticipated accession of Anwar Ibrahim to the premiership in 2020 may well change PH’s political direction, says the author, but unless the component parties reconcile fundamental differences in their vision for Malaysia, instability within the PH will likely persist.


02 January, 2019

Following a seismic electoral victory, Malaysia’s new Pakatan Harapan (PH) government has faced difficulty navigating the challenges of coalition government.

Some analysts have noted that recent public spats between the coalition’s leaders are ‘symptomatic of a coalition government with components that have yet to truly unite and find their footing’.

The question then is whether PH’s component parties will eventually find unity, given that their alliance has been more a marriage of convenience than one united by common political beliefs.

Consider the public disagreements between Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s Bersatu and the other three main component parties, Democratic Action Party (DAP), Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) and Amanah.

Aside from the dispute between Bersatu’s Syed Saddiq and DAP leaders over the recent violence at a Hindu temple in Selangor, there have been concerns about Dr Mahathir’s co-opting of former United Malays National Organisation (Umno) legislators.

This has in part led to PKR stalwart Nurul Izzah Anwar resigning as party vice president and relinquishing her federal government roles in protest.

A bitter internal election within PKR has also been seen as a renewed proxy war between the Malaysian Prime Minister and his heir apparent, Anwar Ibrahim, as staunch Anwar loyalist Rafizi Ramli and Azmin Ali – seen to be close to Dr Mahathir – jostled for the deputy presidency of the party.

While the PH owes a large part of its success to Dr Mahathir’s political charisma and Bersatu’s ability to win rural Malay votes, to call them “unusual bedfellows” would be an understatement.

The founding PH parties – DAP, PKR and Amanah – stand on a platform of Reformasi, which calls not only for an end to political corruption, but also a more democratic and multiracial approach to governance.

Many of these ideals were formed in opposition to Dr Mahathir’s first premiership, which was associated with cronyism, authoritarianism and ethnic chauvinism.

While Mr Anwar claims that Dr Mahathir has now accepted the Reformasi struggle, recent developments such as diplomatic disputes with Singapore, the co-optation of former Umno members into Bersatu and the call for a third national car suggests that the “changed man” may not be so different after all.

Bersatu in fact brands itself as a “Malay-nationalist party” that is an “older and better version of Umno”. It is the only PH party that does not accept non-Malays as full members and office-holders and appeals to nostalgia for strong economic growth under Dr Mahathir’s first premiership to secure its political base.

There thus exists a fundamental contradiction between the values, beliefs and outlook of Bersatu and the other PH component parties.

Ideological clashes have in fact led to dissolution of previous coalitions – Barisan Alternatif (1998-2004) and Pakatan Rakyat (2008-2015) collapsed over differences between the Islamism of then coalition partner Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS) and DAP’s commitment to a multicultural “Malaysian Malaysia”.

The present coalition now faces greater difficulty staying united, as Bersatu has ideological differences with not only the DAP, but also with PKR – the party of Mr Anwar and Reformasi – as well.

These tensions will likely be exacerbated by the recent defection of 17 Umno lawmakers to Bersatu. These moves will strengthen Bersatu’s influence within PH, allowing Dr Mahathir to more easily implement his pet policies while giving the old regime a voice in the new coalition.

Worse, the questionable backgrounds of some of these individuals – notably Rahim Thamby Chik, who allegedly committed statutory rape against a minor and distributed a sex tape to incriminate Mr Anwar – sit badly with PH’s commitment to clean government, potentially leading to fears of  “coalition capture” among the other component parties.

The Malaysian electorate which voted for change in the May election appears to be growing disillusioned with the “Eighties-Redux” of Mahathirism that the present government appears to be embarking on.

PKR’s Mr Rafizi recently claimed that PH’s approval ratings have fallen by around 20 per cent since the election, partly because the coalition is still to deliver on its promise of economic recovery.

While it is not unusual for governments to lose popularity following an election, the drop appears to stem in part from fears among PH supporters that the “Pact of Hope” is merely becoming another Barisan Nasional.

This may create further division within the coalition, as the other component parties may take a harder line on disagreements with Bersatu to secure their electoral bases.

While Umno’s weakness has been highlighted as a source of consolation in mitigating popular dissatisfaction with the PH, it is worth remembering that moves towards liberalisation are often followed by a conservative backlash.

Backed into a corner, the party could be tempted to pursue a rightward turn – perhaps in cooperation with PAS – to pander to lingering insecurity about Malay rights among rural voters.

The recent partnership between Umno and PAS in organising a massive rally in Kuala Lumpur opposing Malaysia’s possible ratification of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD) is perhaps a sign of things to come.

If PH cannot resolve its lingering disunity and make strides towards improving the economy, it could open the door to greater right-wing populist influence in Malaysian politics.

Failure to deliver on the change demanded by the Malaysian electorate in GE14 could disillusion voters, prompting them to seek more radical alternatives.

An electoral alliance between Umno and PAS, should one be formed, could tap into this discontent by appealing to ethno-religious identity politics.

If this alliance make significant electoral gains in future polls, we may observe a more radical and populist form of ethnic and religious politics in Malaysian politics.

This could lead to greater division and political instability in a country still divided by communal politics and increasingly facing new challenges from growing Islamic conservatism in recent years.

The anticipated accession of Anwar Ibrahim to the premiership in 2020 may well change PH’s political direction.

But unless the parties reconcile fundamental differences in their vision for Malaysia, instability within the PH will likely persist, leaving Malaysia’s hope for Reformasi hanging by a thread.


Ng Qi Siang is a fourth-year History major at Yale-NUS College with a keen interest in Malaysian politics.

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