We need to learn from this debacle and continue working towards a more inclusive and equitable Malaysia, says Jeyakumar Devaraj.
The events of the past 10 days might be bewildering for many Malaysians. Alliances were formed and dissolved within hours, and various players issued contradictory statements.
But it makes more sense when we look at the interests and intentions of the main players – Dr Mahathir Mohamad, Azmin Ali, Anwar Ibrahim and Muhyiddin Yassin. Here’s my take on it.
Mahathir – ambivalent about PH?
Mahathir is at the centre of the latest development – though I do not think he wanted it to unfold at this point.
Since the 1960s, Mahathir has made no secret of his belief that, for an ethnic group to succeed in the modern era, it needs its share of scientists, bankers, professionals, business people and millionaires – a modern bourgeoisie!
- Sign up for Aliran's free daily email updates or weekly newsletters or both
- Make a one-off donation to Persatuan Aliran Kesedaran Negara, CIMB a/c 8004240948
- Make a pledge or schedule an auto donation to Aliran every month or every quarter
- Become an Aliran member
In Mahathir’s assessment, merely preserving the old Malay elite comprising the feudal aristocracy, landlords and the royalty would not be enough for the Malays to hold their own in the modern world. There needed to be a Malay bourgeoisie.
And he has spent the major portion of his life in developing this Malay bourgeoisie by hook or by crook. To be fair to him, he has succeeded to a certain extent. There are now many Malay professionals, academicians, scientists, business people and millionaires.
However, Mahathir feels there is still a need for the Malaysian state to continue playing an active role in promoting and building the Malay bourgeoisie given the vigour of the Chinese Malaysian business community, the rise of China and the predatory multinational companies from the US, Europe and Japan.
He was apprehensive that Pakatan Harapan leaders – Lim Guan Eng and Anwar – would not do what was necessary to protect and promote the nascent Malay bourgeoisie. The former believes too much in the free market and is too cosy with Chinese capital. The latter is perceived to be too friendly with foreign interests and might agree to compromise the Malaysian state’s capacity to nurture the Malay bourgeoisie – eg by agreeing to the investor-state dispute mechanism and government procurement clauses in the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement and other similar trade deals.
So Mahathir, I think, was ambivalent about PH remaining in power for more than a term from the very start. For him, PH represented the only way for him to remove the kleptocrats within Umno. He felt that Umno could not be reformed from within, as those in power were too entrenched. So he had to join up with the DAP and PKR to cleanse Umno of the “crooks”.
But from the beginning, Mahathir felt that he could not depend on PH to safeguard and complete his lifetime project of creating and nurturing the Malay bourgeoisie. He needed to pass the government to a Malay-majority government, which would commit to continuing the “Malay Agenda”. So he brought in MPs from Umno to bolster Bersatu and began cosying up to Umno and Pas.
It might also be the reason he promoted Azmin to become a federal minister – to weaken PKR by worsening the friction between Anwar and Azmin, so that if Bersatu could not be bolstered up enough to play a defining role in PH, a weakened PH would lose to Umno (cleansed of the worst kleptocrats) in the next general election.
This could also be the reason he didn’t countermand Lim Guan Eng’s decision in May-June 2018 to stop subsidy payments of RM300 per month to over 70,000 traditional fishermen and the rubber price support system that kicked in and supported 200,000 rubber smallholders each time the price of cup lump (scrap rubber) dipped below RM2.20 per kilogram.
Cabinet meetings take place weekly. It would have been a simple thing for Mahathir to highlight to Guan Eng the political folly of cutting these subsidies given that PH had only bagged less than 20% of the rural Malay vote. Umno and Pas were already going around canvassing the point that the government had passed to non-Malay control and that the Malays’ wellbeing would be undermined.
However, Mahathir kept quiet on this issue, probably thinking to himself: go ahead if you want to shoot yourself in the foot!
Mahathir is a master politician with clear aims: clean up Umno and then ensure the administration of the country is back in the hands of those who genuinely support the agenda to protect and develop the Malay bourgeoisie. He has been transparent in his position regarding the Malay bourgeoisie from the 1960s.
(Disclaimer: The fact I can see where Mahathir is coming from does not mean I agree with his approach to building the Malaysian nation. And I haven’t touched on the harm he has done to the Malaysian poor of all races through his programme of privatisation. Nor have I brought in the various ways he weakened institutions like the judiciary and concentrated power in the office of the PM as these important issues aren’t central to the power struggle that is taking place.)
Azmin – villain of the piece?
Azmin’s initiation of the coup on Saturday, 22 February, threw Mahathir’s plans into disarray. Many Malaysians now see Azmin as the villain of the piece as he set into motion the events that led to the unravelling of the PH government.
But let’s look at the situation from Azmin’s vantage point. He was Anwar’s trusted lieutenant since the Refomasi days in 1998. He did prison time because of his association with Anwar. He stayed faithful to the cause even when PKR did badly in 2004 and was left with a solitary seat in Parliament. Azmin was there through the bleakest periods.
But when the winds changed and Pakatan Rakyat took five states in 2008, Anwar put Khalid Ibrahim, a former Umno man who had just crossed over to PKR a few months earlier, into the post of chief minister of Selangor, a post that Azmin had wanted.
Why did Anwar do this? Azmin is intelligent, articulate and capable. He can run a state efficiently as his stint as menteri besar after the “Kajang Move” shows. Why wasn’t he given the chief minister’s post in 2008?
I think Anwar was paranoid about Azmin’s growing popularity within PKR. Anwar feared Azmin would emerge as a challenger to him if allowed to assume the powerful position of chief minister of the richest state in the federation. So Anwar put Khalid – a newcomer without the extensive networks that Azmin had within the party – in the chief minister’s post.
Anwar’s attempt to “contain” Azmin did not end there. At every PKR election – in 2010, 2014 and 2018 – Azmin went for the deputy president’s position. He never challenged Anwar or Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail for the post of president.
But Anwar always kept backing challengers to Azmin – Zaid Ibrahim in 2010, Saifuddin Nasution in 2014 and Rafizi Ramli in 2018 – but tellingly, they all lost. When the Kajang Move backfired in 2014, and Anwar was unable to take the chief minister’s post, again he attempted to block Azmin’s ascent to the post. But this time, Azmin outfoxed Anwar, and served as a fairly competent chief minister.
Azmin’s elevation to the powerful portfolio of economic affairs minister after the 2018 general election further worsened the tension between him and Anwar. Was this an innocent appointment, or was the master tactician setting the scene for the weakening of PKR?
For Azmin, the outcome of the meeting of the PH presidential council on 21 February 2020 was a disaster. It meant that Anwar would probably become the prime minister within a year. Given Anwar’s vindictiveness towards Azmin, Zuraida Kamaruddin and team, Azmin felt he had a lot to lose when that happened. So he launched a pre-emptive strike.
However, Azmin seriously misread Mahathir’s game plan. Azmin could see that Mahathir was working to increase Malay dominance in the government. But he didn’t realise that for Mahathir, cleansing Umno by removing the kleptocrats was a non-negotiable issue. It had to be done before power could be passed back to Umno.
So, of course, Mahathir was upset – both with Azmin and with Bersatu. The coup had come too soon. Umno’s ascension to the ruling position might lead to the watering down of charges against the very people he had come out of retirement and worked so hard to excise from Umno. Mahathir’s flip-flops in the week after the coup are understandable if viewed from this perspective.
Anwar – leading, if tragic, figure
Another leading, if tragic, figure in the current saga, Anwar has contributed hugely to Malaysian politics.
In 1998, after his expulsion from government, he took on Mahathir – not by using the race card or religion (which he could have, as he was recognised as leader of the Malaysian Muslim Youth Movement (Abim), but by focusing on governance, fighting corruption, and asking for justice for all and welfare for the poor.
He is well read, and his views on Islam are much more inclusive of non-Muslims. After 50 years of independence, he brought a new discourse to the political scene, and it had wide resonance with both Malays and non-Malays. This discourse remains a viable foundation of a “Malaysia baru” (new Malaysia) that many Malaysians hope for.
Anwar also paid a huge personal price for challenging the Umno political establishment. He was stripped of his deputy prime minister’s post, charged with sodomy and humiliated publicly, jailed twice after trials that did not seem quite fair. He has sacrificed quite a bit.
But he has serious flaws. He has had a lot of difficulty in keeping his friends and allies with him. Apart from Azmin, several other political leaders, after working closely with Anwar for a while, parted company, most of them acrimoniously – Khalid Ibrahim, Chandra Muzaffar, S Nallakaruppan, Zuraida, and many others. So it was not just Azmin – only he stayed on much longer than the others.
It is no secret that many PKR leaders, including a score of PKR MPs, who were formerly loyal to Anwar took Azmin’s side in the power tussle between the two. I do not believe that it was because of monetary considerations. Many of them, I think, had issues with Anwar’s leadership style – allegedly making unilateral decisions, undermining democratic institutions within the party, using henchmen to bend or even break the rules – all driven by a certain degree of paranoia (which has now become self-fulfilling).
Mahathir never recanted his statements in 1998-1999 that Anwar was not a fit person to be the prime minister. However, he has always said he would keep his promise in 2018 to hand over power because a promise is a promise.
Anwar had a chance to form the government at mid-week, but reportedly could only find support from 92 MPs from DAP, PKR and Amanah. The leaders of Bersatu, Warisan and GPS were unwilling to support Anwar’s bid to become prime minister.
Muhyiddin – intriguing role
Muhiyddin’s role in this coup attempt is intriguing.
Here is a man sacked from the post of deputy prime minister and from Umno because of his opposition to the misuse of public funds by the then prime minister. He teams up with Mahathir and contests the elections under a PH ticket. His party is rewarded richly in terms of cabinet positions. Yet he breaks off with PH and teams up with Umno leaders, including those who played a role in sacking him.
What is driving Muhyiddin and the Bersatu team to rejoin a coalition that includes the very people they rebelled against not so long ago? Assuming that Muhyiddin and the Bersatu team are acting rationally based on their perception of the situation, what could be the main elements of their collective perception?
I can offer two. The first is that PH was a losing wicket in terms of building Malay political support. Staying on as part of PH would be political suicide for a party contesting in Malay-majority constituencies.
The second, linked to the first, was the perception that PH was undermining the “Malay Agenda” as it was committed to upholding “meritocracy”, trimming subsidies to poorer sectors, promoting market-based solutions and downsizing the public sector. Uneasiness with Anwar’s leadership style might be yet another reason.
In retrospect, PH lost the propaganda battle for the hearts and minds of the Malay population. None of the PH parties had grassroots networks that could rival Pas’ and Umno’s, so they were unable to effectively counter Umno propaganda that PH was “anti Malay”.
It would have been possible for PH to have canvassed more actively for Malay support from the bottom 40% of households. For example, PH could have kept the allocations for the rural low-income group constant but ensured full transparency. It could have put up on the internet the amount budgeted for each type of aid for the rural population so that local communities could monitor the implementation of the various projects – repairing houses, building People’s Housing Project homes, repairing suraus and community halls, etc. Instread, the process has remained opaque, and local communities are unable to check whether local elites have siphoned out a percentage of the allocations.
Ensuring transparency and mobilising the local communities to monitor the implementation of the projects for them would have been a huge eye-opener – especially if, after a year, party workers compared the number of projects completed with the previous year’s number and pointed out that the total allocation had remained the same. That would have immediately drawn attention to the fact that, under the previous administration, there must have been a lot of leakages.
Similarly, in urban areas, PH workers could have had meetings with low-cost flat residents, documented the maintenance work and repairs needed, and applied to the local government for the funds to carry out these repairs.
A huge percentage of the urban low-income group live in these high-rise slums. Efforts to clean up these flats and make them more inhabitable would have won a lot of support for the PH government. The funds required would have been affordable for the federal government.
Our elderly are struggling with depleted savings. A universal pension scheme of RM300 per month to all those above 70 who are without pensions of any sort and assets of less than RM100,000 would have touched many families and won PH much support. It would have cost only about RM3bn annually and would have brought much relief to the elderly.
If PH had followed the above strategies, it would now have been in a position to challenge the usurpers to dissolve Parliament and go for a fresh general election. But PH does not dare do that now as it is highly possible it would lose the vast majority of its Malay-majority seats to Umno-Pas.
PH displayed a lack of sensitivity that it received only about 25–30% of the total Malay votes cast in the 2018 general election – a case of living in denial? – and that it would have to work hard to counter the propaganda Umno would throw at them.
There were insufficient attempts to forge a consensus within PH on how best to assuage Malay anxieties and win their support.
Some in PH acted on the assumption of the lazy Malays who had been spoilt rotten by subsidies (”dedak”) that BN had thrown at them. They felt that the Malay had developed a “subsidy mentality” and an “entitlement syndrome” from which they had to be weaned. It was a shallow, chauvinistic assessment – and a very costly one at that.
This entire episode shows that many Malaysians remain stuck in their ethnic silos. So ethnic-based parties powered the political process, shaping the narrative of “us against them”, which many Malaysians subscribe to.
Wanted: more inclusive politics
Can Malaysia ever get the reforms we need if we do not reach out to the “other”?
A good way of starting down the road of inclusive politics is to find out more about poverty groups among the “other” and work with them to resolve their problems.
PH could have adopted the so-called “Malay Agenda” and continued with the twin objectives of eradicating poverty irrespective of race and tackling ethnic imbalances in the modern sectors of the economy. Weren’t these policy objectives something that all fair-minded people would agree to?
PH could have done it more efficiently by closing off the loopholes that allow certain elites to plunder these allocations for their own benefit. These twin objectives are important for the creation of a more equitable and stable society. PH should have taken ownership of that project, tweaking it a little to make it inclusive of the non-Malay poor as well. They would then have been in a much better position to weather the current political storm.
Ultimately, we, the ordinary citizens, are also to blame:
- for being too complacent
- for failing to soothe the anxieties and insecurities that decades of ethnic-based politicking had fanned
- for not liberating ourselves from the stereotypes we hold about other ethnic groups
- for not being more sensitive to the problems others face
- for not doing more to reach out across the ethnic divide
We need to learn from this debacle and continue working towards a more inclusive and equitable Malaysia. We should never give up. And we should take heart that there are many people of goodwill in all ethnic groups – people who would like to see justice and harmony prevail in the country.
Let’s identify each other and work together for the long-term project of building a better Malaysia.