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UMNO, PAS and ...

While there have been other Malay based multi-ethnic parties in the past, the circumstances today favour the success of such an enterprise. KeADILan is an idea whose time has come

By Dr Chandra Muzaffar

Chandra: We have given keADILan a role and identity that is different from UMNO's and PAS'

The failure of Parti Keadilan Nasional (keADILan) to win a substantial number of parliamentary and state seats in the recently concluded General Election raises once again a fundamental question about Malaysian politics: is there room for a third political party in the Malay political arena -- that is, a party other than the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) and the Islamic Party of Malaysia (PAS)?

Early Endeavours

Since Malay party politics began to take shape and form in the mid-fifties, the only effective challenge to UMNO has come from PAS. Parti Negara, a Malay-based party which was constitutionally multi-ethnic, sought to create a niche for itself as a third force in the late fifties and early sixties but failed miserably. Though its founder and leader was the first President of UMNO himself, Dato Onn Jaafar, the party did not strike root within the Malay community. The only parliamentary seat it ever won -- in the 1959 General Election -- was in Terengganu. Even then, the seat was made available to Dato Onn through PAS' benevolence. PAS wanted Dato Onn to be in Parliament, even if it meant that the party would have one seat less in the highest legislative body in the land.

While Parti Negara has disappeared from the Malaysian political scene, Parti Rakyat Malaysia (PRM) has displayed greater stamina in its quest to emerge as a third force in Malay politics. Established in 1955, the party forged a link with the Labour Party to form the Socialist Front. Though the Front won 8 parliamentary seats in the 1959 General Election, its electoral support was largely non-Malay. It was only in the 1969 Election that Parti Rakyat which managed to secure 3 state seats in Pahang and Penang demonstrated that it had the endorsement of a small section of the Malay community. Since 1969 the party has not won any state or parliamentary seat but there is some evidence to show that in the 1999 contest it secured more Malay votes than it did in the 1995 or 1990 elections.

Like Parti Rakyat, the National Convention Party (NCP) founded in the mid-sixties by a former Cabinet Minister, Abdul Aziz Ishak, was also a Malay based multi-ethnic party which attempted to present itself as an alternative to UMNO and PAS. The NCP fizzled out within a few years. And its founder withdrew completely from politics.

The next major attempt to penetrate the Malay electorate through a multi-ethnic venture was the Gerakan Rakyat Malaysia (Gerakan) formed in 1968. Within a year of its formation, the Gerakan captured the state of Penang and secured eight parliamentary seats. Its support base was mainly Chinese and Indian though the Gerakan also had some Malay support at both Parliamentary and state level. In this regard, it is worth noting that when it was ravaged by a severe internal crisis in 1971, Malay support for the party was beginning to increase.

Attempts by other non-Malay based parties to obtain a foothold in Malay politics -- the United Democratic Party (UDP) in the early sixties and the Democratic Action Party (DAP) since the mid-sixties -- have been largely unsuccessful. Malay parties such as BERJASA and HAMIM, products of either internal schisms within PAS or the consequences of the long standing PAS-UMNO rivalry, have been too insignificant to be considered as serious contenders for the Malay vote.

A Shift

It was only in 1988 that a shift of sorts began to take place. There was a major split in the UMNO leadership. The faction opposed to UMNO President and Prime Minister Dr. Mahathir Mohamad broke away from the party and established a new group called 'Semangat 46'. With some prominent ex-UMNO leaders at the core, Semangat managed to win 8 parliamentary seats in the 1990 General Election. Since most of the constituencies secured were preponderantly Malay, the party proved that it had a degree of support within the community. In the 1995 contest Semangat did not perform as well as it did in the previous election but what brought about the demise of the party was the decision of its leadership to dissolve the organisation and to rejoin UMNO en bloc.

That there now exists in the nineties a body of opinion within the Malay community which is critical of UMNO and yet not prepared to align itself to PAS has become even more evident in the wake of the Anwar crisis. In the recent election, it found expression through keADILan, and to a much lesser extent, PRM. Though keADILan scored victories in only 6 parliamentary and 11 state seats, the amount of popular votes it garnered was quite impressive. It is estimated that it obtained 752,255 votes in the parliamentry contest. In at least 6 parliamentary constituencies, keADILan candidates lost by very narrow margins -- of less than 2000 votes. Since the vast majority of the party's candidates stood in Malay majority constituencies, the vote was a vindication of Malay support.

UMNO's Decline

If Malay politics in the nineties indicates the emergence of a third force, it is because of a variety of factors linked to UMNO and PAS, the changing structure of Malay society and the larger political and economic environment. For almost two decades after the revitalisation of UMNO under Tun Abdul Razak, the party was able to absorb new political aspirants and accommodate established political actors with comparative ease.

But as the party came under the dominance of a powerful, entrenched political and economic elite, its capacity to rejuvenate began to decline. The dominant elite is now perceived as corrupt, greedy and somewhat decadent -- an elite that has ceased to be sensitive to the needs of ordinary people. It explains why the party appears to have lost the ability to generate enthusiasm and spontaneity at the grassroots level. It is a party which sustains its myriad activities only through generous material incentives to its helpers. For young Malays who cherish some ideals, UMNO with its vested interests and its ingrained pragmatism holds no attraction.


Some of those who are disillusioned with UMNO would without hesitation join PAS -- a tried and tested party with a sincere commitment to its goal of an Islamic State. Yet there are others in both rural and urban Malaysia who for a variety of reasons -- past political rivalry; family ties; educational background; cultural orientation; uncertainty about the concept of an Islamic State; lack of understanding of certain aspects of Islamic law -- would prefer an alternative to PAS. There are many urban, educated, middle-class Malay-Muslim women, for instance, who remain unconvinced that PAS' approach to Islam will not jeopardise their interests.


What this also implies is that urbanisation and the changes it has wrought has been partly responsible for the emergence of a third force in Malay politics. The accelerated urbanisation of the Malays from the early seventies onwards resulted in the transformation of established patterns of power and authority within the community. A significant segment of the community was no longer subject to the old mode of political control through say the rural school teacher, in the case of UMNO, or the local religious elite in the case of PAS. As the Malay migrant settled into the urban setting, as he became more exposed to alternative sources of information, as he forged new links and networks, his understanding of political and social issues also underwent a gradual metamorphosis. The urban Malay has become more critical of established political loyalties and seeks new ways of interpreting the political realities that confront him.

Small Income Community

This explains to some extent the more evaluative attitude towards the ruling elite within the rapidly, expanding Malay urban 'small income community'. It is this urban small income community -- from the self-employed petty trader to the five-star hotel waiter to the office attendant in a government department -- that constitutes the crux and core of keADILan and indeed the reformasi movement. Faced with a host of problems such as housing, transportation and the rising cost of urban living, these small income earners perceive themselves as 'the marginalised', who have been sidelined by Mahathir's mega development orientated towards the rich and the powerful.


A segment of the urban Malay middle-class also sees keADILan as an alternative to both UMNO and PAS. For this group it is not just the shortcomings in some of the government's economic programmes that concern them. They are also agitated by the severe restrictions imposed upon various civil and political rights; by violations of the rule of law; by the decline of the justice system; by the sycophancy of the mainstream media; by the pervasiveness of elite corruption. Given their access to Internet and other media, Malay middle classers are better informed than the rest of society.

The Anwar episode which exposed the ugly face of the system not only heightened their consciousness but also compelled them to move against the prevailing injustices. Indeed, it is partly because of the readiness of a section of the middle-class to act that information and analysis about the Anwar episode reaches the small-income community. As a result of this, the small-income community has become an extraordinarily well-informed group especially in relation to the Anwar episode.


If groups within the Malay middle-class and the small-income community are helping to create a third force in Malay politics through the Anwar episode, it is because they are in a position to access alternative information and knowledge. And they are in a position to do this because the general level of literacy and education has improved considerably over the last two decades. Today, about 90 percent of the populace is classified as literate. In a direct sense, literacy and education -- and the new sources of information, especially Internet -- have also contributed towards the transformation of Malay politics.

Uneven Development

There are two other aspects of the general economic and political environment which we have alluded to that have also helped increase awareness of the need for an alternative to UMNO. After two decades of the New Economic Policy (NEP) which succeeded in reducing absolute poverty and redressing some of the economic imbalances between the indigenous Malay and non-indigenous Chinese communities, a segment of the Malay community now realises that the NEP has also generated new iniquities. The gap between the 'Have a lot' -- those who earn 20 or 30 thousand ringgit a month -- and the 'Have a little' -- those who earn 500 or 800 ringgit a month -- has increased at an alarming rate.

Those who are well-connected to the dominant elite have benefited disproportionately from the allocation of shares and the award of contracts, compared to Malays without connections who are also entitled to shares and who may also be in a position to bid for contracts. Indeed, many Malays now know that the NEP was the creature of an economic philosophy that was bound to result in uneven development -- that is development benefiting certain groups much more than others; development favouring certain areas much more than others; development biased towards certain forms of economic activities much more than others. For the victims of uneven development, keADILan and the third force in Malay politics have become the conduit for articulating their frustrations and their hopes.


Frustrations stemming from uneven development are only one side of the story. As the Malay community becomes better educated, better informed and more exposed to global trends, it is also becoming more frustrated with the paternalistic style of leadership of the Mahathir government. The accumulation and concentration of power in the hands of an elite, especially in the hands of a single individual, and the attendant curbs and controls imposed upon the citizenry, has incensed a section of not only the Malay but also the Chinese and Indian communities. The general perception is that it is only Mahathir who has the right to decide and determine what is good for the nation. It is this that has earned him the wrath of the people. It is this paternalism that has propelled keADILan and the alternative movement forward.

Multi-ethnic Party

Certain features in the prevailing political and economic environment, significant changes in the structure of Malay society in recent years, fractures within an increasingly ossified UMNO and perceptions of PAS have all helped to create the conditions for the emergence of a third force in Malay politics. KeADILan as a manifestation of that force at this point in time has chosen to establish itself as a multi-ethnic, rather than as a Malay or Islamic party.

As an approach, this is of tremendous significance to Malaysian politics. If keADILan was set up as a Malay party, it would have had to compete with UMNO on its own territory. This would have been detrimental to keADILan. If, on the other hand, keADILan was formed as an Islamic party in the image of PAS it might not have taken off. KeADILan would have been perceived as redundant, given PAS' presence and the popular view of what an Islamic party is.

By launching keADILan as a multi-ethnic party, albeit with a Malay base and with Islamic credentials, we have given the party a role and identity which is different from UMNO and PAS. This is keADILan's strength. While there have been other Malay-based multi-ethnic parties in the past, as we have seen, our analysis has shown that the conditions and circumstances today are much more propitious for the success of such an enterprise. KeADILan, in other words, is an idea whose time has come.

What remains to be seen is whether the party has the will and the imagination to translate that idea into reality.

14 December 1999

Chandra Muzaffar, an ALIRAN member, is deputy president of keADILan, which won five parliamentary seats at the recently concluded general election