Home 2009: 3 Whither Malaysian Politics?

Whither Malaysian Politics?

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Are Malaysian voters ready for a regime change, wonders CY. Are we ready to face the new and more frustrating challenges ahead?

Since the 8 March 2008 general election, Malaysian political development and change has never been as vibrant and dramatic as before.  The “political tsunami” that swept away the 50-year political hegemony of  the Barisan Nasional (BN) has given Malaysians a taste of “People’s Power” for the first time.

But this “People’s Power” is not yet a mature one.  There is freedom of speech, more so for non-governmental magazines publications, internet blogs and online newspapers, but less so for the (controlled) mainstream newspapers especially the Malay presses.  Public debates on political issues, on television shows as well as public ceramah enjoy a higher degree of openness.  Yet, several public gatherings have been selectively quashed by police intervention.  These include the ISA candlelight vigils and the countrywide cycling event organised by the Oppressed People’s Network (Jerit). And police have intervened and broken up a few ceramah ahead of by-elections.

Whither Malaysian politics? Is Malaysia going to be a mature democracy or will we witness a return to the era of an autocratic regime? Or is it muddling through a transition that will leave us somewhere in between?  These are not simple questions to answer.

But we can learn much from our neighboring country’s experiences. A look at the historical events in the Philippines might give us some hypothetical answers.  I will provide four possible scenarios for Malaysian politics. I argue that a return to authoritarianism is doomed to failure. But I raise a doubt on the political behavior of the Malaysian people, who play a significant role in regime change.

I am not arguing that the Malaysian common folks are ignorant and do not want a change.  My doubt is the unexplored political behavior of this “realm” of politics, which Pakatan Rakyat (PR) has not yet learned from the BN.

Political drama on the stage

The euphoria of the political tsunami began to subside when a whole series of political events followed. First, was the dispute within PR on the distribution of state assembly seats especially in Perak and the uncertainty over the appointment of its Chief Minister. Then, Anwar’s announcement of the possibility of PR forming a new federal government. The Sabah Progressive Party (Sapp) was the first to withdraw from the BN.  The withdrawal gave high hopes for the PR supporters that ‘September 16’ would materialise. But, as we all know, it did not succeed. Then, the list just goes on and on, culminating with the political fiasco in Perak and the sudden Elizabeth Wong episode.

The change of Perak state government has made many Malaysians; especially Perakians disgusted and at the same time doubtful.  People felt betrayed and angry by the decision made by the three defecting politicians. It is no surprise that many were upset.

The chronology of the political drama began with the defections of the Bota Umno state assembly member Nasaruddin Hashim followed by the ‘missing-in-action’ PKR state assembly members Jamaluddin Mohd Radzi and Mohd Osman Jailu ahead of their corruption court cases. Then came the sudden show of support for the BN by the three PR’s state assemblypersons’, the third being DAP state assembly member Hee Yit Foong. All three appeared side by side with Prime Minister to-be Najib Razak over TV news and finally came the meeting with the Sultan of Perak.

Currently, most Malaysians are in doubt whether the formation of the new state government is constitutionally proper or otherwise. (See malaysiakini.com, 6 February 2009) Without passing through the (much-debated) dissolution of the state assembly, the appointment of Zambry Abdul Kadir as the new Menteri Besar has forced Menteri Besar Mohammed Nizar Jamaluddin to take the matter to court. The fiasco continues with the now much-debated issue of whether the Perak Sultan’s decision has legal basis and is grounded in the constitution.

Karpal Singh also sought legal means, this time not directed at the new state assembly but looking at the “constitutional” and customary right of the Sultan.  Aside from that, Karpal also criticised and blamed Anwar Ibrahim, Lim Guan Eng and Lim Kit Siang for PR’s political disaster in Perak.

What has happened within Pakatan Rakyat – leaving aside their two by-election victories on 7 April? What has happened to the politicians in whom many have placed their hopes? What has happened between Umno and the royal family?  These are the doubts that many Malaysians would like to clear.

The semi-nude photograph episode involving PKR’s Elizabeth Wong is the most distasteful and disgraceful drama that Malaysian political history has witnessed since the Anwar sodomy case in 1998.  Unlike before, this event has twisted Malaysian politics from racial politics and the politics of suppression into the politics of intrusion into a person’s personal life, character assassination and conspiratorial politics.

Possible scenarios

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What do the above events tell us?  There are two political manifestations. On the one hand, it reveals that the maturity of PR as a coalition is weak.  PR is facing internal rivalry besides pressure from the BN. Further, PR is not yet a firm coalition that can face the realpolitik of external pressures, particularly from Umno.

On the other hand, we witnessed a comeback attempt by the BN, especially Umno, which reflected Najib’s desperation to consolidate his power ahead of the March Umno general assembly and Umno’s lack of a political strategy, apart from racial and gutter politics.

What then are the possible scenarios? There are four possible scenarios:
•    a return to authoritarianism;
•    less authoritarian but no further liberalisation;
•    a liberal era, and
•    PR to become another BN.

The comeback of authoritarianism

BN will continue to use gutter and racial politics to consolidate its power as shown by recent political events.  The semi-nude photographs episode is unlike what happened to Anwar Ibrahim and certainly not similar to Chua Soi Lek’s case, though some quarters might argue otherwise.  

Both these cases involved top politicians, with the former being deputy Prime Minister and the latter a former MCA  vice president.  Both are also male politicians.  More importantly, both cases were highly linked to internal political rivalry that happened during political crises. That is to say, if both Anwar and Chua had not been politically assassinated, their enemies would have lost their political hegemony altogether. Hence, a direct, planned, quick, and openly orchestrated political assassination was deemed necessary.

In Elizabeth Wong’s case, she was the victim of a political power struggle between two political blocs, namely PR and BN.  It is not yet proven that the episode was politically oriented.  But if this is the case, then it is similar to cases of political conspiracy, “dirty” and gutter politics.  The only difference is that she is not a high-ranking politician and had never had a political career of any sort that was similar to Anwar’s and Chua’s.

Political assassinations have now gone ‘behind the scene’ and appear unplanned unlike the much more openly orchestrated image assassination in the public sphere that both Anwar and Chua endured: both were publicly alleged or rumoured to have engaged in sexual acts, a form of “constructed” public image assassinations.  In contrast, the Elizabeth Wong episode was without any rumour of any sort; yet it appeared to be orchestrated “behind the scene.”

On 19 February  2009, Umno Youth leader Hishamuddin Hussien and his followers organised a rally at PWTC.  A closer listening to his speeches (see malaysiakini.com video on 19 February) revealed a heightened calling for “Ketuanan Melayu.”  In general the speeches revolved around the rhetoric of “kestabilan dan keamanan” (stability and harmony); bangsa (nation); “hormat kepada raja” (respect for the Malay royalty), which were juxtaposed to Malaysian history of political struggles and its political harmony.

A betrayal of the raja or disrespect to the raja’s decision in the formation of the new Perak state government or even questioning the decision could subject one to condemnation as a penderhaka (traitor).  This interpretation of political history and rhetoric translates to just one conclusion: “ketuanan Melayu” represented by respect to Malay royalty.

BN or Umno is still engaging in the racial politics of “ketuanan Melayu.”  This time, the rhetoric does not revolve around the disputes over the Malays’, Chinese, or Indians’ rights but the royalty.  The politics of new bottles filled with old wine attempts to seek a return of old politics.

In a seminar talk organised by a Mandarin online newspaper, merdekareview.com and The Kuala Lumpur and Selangor Chinese Assembly Hall on 17 February, the DAP Bukit Bendera Member of Parliament, Liew Chin Tong, argued that Najib attempted to put forth a political strategy similar to his late father Tun Razak’s.  In the midst of political crises such as the May 13 crisis, Umno regained its power in 1969 by turning chaos through racial riots to its advantage.  Similarly, Najib was alleged to have been creating political crises to begin in Perak in order to create a political climate for intervention.

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Such an attempt is doomed to failure. History lessons from the Philippines have shown that Ferdinand Marcos attempt to come back to power amidst political instability and crises sparked his downfall.  Marcos had to flee with his billion dollars of cash and jewellery to Hawaii.

Marcos’ downfall was the result of a combination and the culmination of human rights abuses, rampant corruption, and the suppression of freedom and democratic rights of civil society during his Martial Law era from 1972 – 1986.

In 1983, the assassination of Ninoy Aquino at Manila Airport and the widely publicised photo of his body lying on the floor at the airport shook Filipinos.  The assassination revealed to the people that the act of violence was an act of betrayal of the people, an act of disrespect to democracy, and an act of denial of the people’s freedom of choice.  In February 1986, Filipinos demonstrated and gathered at Edsa and succeeded in toppling the authoritarian regime.  The return to old politics was doomed to fail.

Less authoritarian rule but no further liberalisation

A second scenario will be that BN has learned its lessons but will not relinquish its power for further democratisation. Opting for the latter will spell the end of the political careers of certain  BN personnel. Unless these politicians are willing to change, they will allow for less democratisation.  Given the events that are happening now, it is unlikely they are going to opt for less authoritarian rule and further liberalisation.

A liberal PR or another BN

A liberal era will be born – that is, if PR survives the political fiasco.  Let’s be optimistic despite the “demise” of PR caused by BN.  PR has not yet been institutionalised as a stable coalition in its ideology, its unity to sort out differences, and its ability to build a valid political platform for the people.

Besides that, PR will need to get used to realpolitik – that is, gutter politics, money politics and repressive politics of BN/Umno. It will have to find a way of maneuvering and learning how to fight against Umno hegemony within the system.

If PR survives these, it will become a more institutionalised political coalition.  A liberal era will be born – if PR keeps its promises of liberalisation.

It is possible, however, that PR could become another BN.  Let’s not forget that PR is made up of a variety of “politicians”. It includes those who are committed to democratisation, those with vested interest such as the three musketeers, and those who are susceptible to realpolitik pressure from Umno.

Hypothetically speaking, if PR survives the political pressures through a strategy of know-how and political maneuvering within the system, it will not be surprising that some of PR’s political figures will begin to compete for a revamp in the political distribution of power – at the expense of democratisation.

The history of the Philippines between 1898 to 1901, when Emilio Aguinaldo, the President of the Malolos Republic, was attempting to strengthen his political authority from the intervention of the United States, is revealing.  One of the strategies that Aguinaldo used was to reorganise the power structure in Manila as well as in the provinces.

A number of commissioners were appointed to organise elections for the cause.  In doing so, Aguinaldo made a decree, which was known as decree June 18, 1898. It stipulated that only those 20 or above were eligible to vote; those “friendly” towards the idea of independence; and those who had “high character, social position and honorable conduct, both in the community and the suburbs.”

In other words, only the elites – the learned and the rich – of the country were eligible to vote and compete for political positions.

The consequence of such stipulation was that the latter political administrations were controlled by those elites with less interest in independence, with vested (economic) interests; and less committed to the revolution. That left the masses (mostly peasants), non-elites, revolutionary elites and military personnel committed to the revolution to continue fighting for independence.  In short, Aguinaldo had a chance to revamp the Philippines’ political structure with committed political personnel but instead prioritised politicians with vested interests.

Unexplored “realms”

An article published in merdekareview.com on 19 February stated that there was a hint that the Perak crisis was about to happen.  It found out that articles were already being published by Utusan Malaysia and interviews with several Malay organisations and personnel about the then PR-controlled state government on the issue of land entitlement for the (Chinese) new villages.  Land is another symbol that is seen as part of Malay rights.  Therefore, the PR government’s proposal had intimidated hardcore supporters of “Tanah Melayu”.  As a result, Umno used such racial politic for its own ends.  

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It is certainly possible that the land issue was of concern for the Malays, especially rural Malays – but let us think out of the box for the time being. I would argue that there is more than just “Tanah Melayu.”  There are other politics that we have taken for granted.

What about the politics of morality?  What about the politics of charisma? What about the politics of “taking care of the  people’s welfare” in the kampung areas (note,  not bandar or bandaraya)?

These are the unexplored “realms” that have not yet been surveyed –  the way rural folks ‘do’ politics.  Most analyses are too caught up with the racial politics and electoral politics, which are important too, but these have limitations in representing the political perspective of rural folks.  Seldom do we attempt to understand their political perspectives (not culture), their articulation, their desire, their views of authority, and their way of interpreting change.

Remember that recently Khairy Jamaluddin teamed up with AirAsia in the former’s MyTeam football project, which was to make “dreams come true” for the rural folks to play Manchester United in London?  We might argue that this sort of tour is a waste of money and without meaningful political participation.

Whether we like it or not, it is precisely these sort of Umno ways of political engagement with the people that has constructed a moral political platform from the grassroots. Thus, this is politics of a different sort. Not authoritarianism, not democra-tisation, not corruption or human right issues, but a politics that is perhaps based on morality, personality, charisma and commitment.

Likewise, it is not gutter politics but moral politics that attracts people. This sort of politics has been engaged by Umno/BN throughout its 50 years of hegemony.  On the whole, Umno has had solid support from the rural folks, which does not necessary translate to national politics, but it has solid ground in local politics as seen in the 7 April by-elections.

This different sort of BN regime might remain in the rural area for years to come, which PR is lacking and way behind! The votes cast for PR was not because PR was a better alternative than the BN.  Neither was it because Umno failed to deliver.  It was, perhaps (if we have conducted a thorough survey), simply to teach Umno a lesson for its arrogance, its negligence, and the frustrations caused by the economic downturn.

March 8 was an “unexpected” result for the BN, for the PR, and for the the Malaysian people. We do not yet know ‘the commoners’’ voting behaviour on March 8. What PR should do now is to look at the politics of rural folks, which Umno or BN has long ago done so much work on.  Is PR ready for a political ideological change?


Both BN/Umno and PR will need to learn their lessons.  A return to old politics would be political suicide for BN and PR. Equally, a lesson not learned would be political suicide for both.  Both face huge challenges ahead. The former is required to strip off its old political ideologies and to engage in new, liberal and moral politics ahead.  The latter needs to solidify its liberal political agenda more forcefully and to learn from its enemies’ good deeds.  

Indonesia has taken 10 years to reform and is still continuing to do so. Are Malaysian voters ready for a regime change?  Are we ready to face the new and more frustrating challenges ahead?  Whither Malaysian politics?  Let us explore this further in the next few years.

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AGENDA RAKYAT - Lima perkara utama
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