Home TA Online 2014 TA Online Power-sharing formula in Malaysia: But with whom?

Power-sharing formula in Malaysia: But with whom?

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Just because power is shared doesn’t mean it will translate into good governance. Power should no doubt be shared – but with the rakyat and not just the political elites, says Nicholas Chan.


Power sharing is a romantic idea for the multiracial, multicultural “melting-pot” that is Malaysia.

It paints a gleeful picture of camaraderie, empathy and content among the major races of the country, captured nicely by the picture of Abu, Ah Seng and Muthu playing soccer together in our textbooks (begging the question, what about our major Borneo ethnic groups?). The idea must be reminiscent of some sort of Golden Age lost, as Dr Mahathir seems to have put it as his vision of both the past and future for Malaysia.

Most official propaganda or teachings might have left us with the conventional wisdom that this perfectly self-sustaining formula once existed, but was lost during the tragic May 13 incident.

But how true is it that we had come to a mutual understanding about power-sharing when Tengku Abdul Rahman, Tan Cheng Lock and V T Sambanthan emerged victorious as the key negotiators of our Independence? It might have appeared that the Alliance formula had worked when it romped to almost a clean sweep of electoral seats in the 1955 elections and gained virtually an unlimited mandate in dictating the supposed fabric of the nation.

So what is the Alliance formula? It is not so much of a universally understood and accepted ‘social contract’ but a gentlemen’s agreement, one that was forged by the close ties among the political elites at the highest echelon of the component parties of the Alliance, managed tactfully by the Tengku’s affable personality.

Understanding the inherent strains between the different communities in Malaysia, these fine gentlemen took the decision that closed-door meetings in a quid pro quo spirit was the best way to manage the fragmented nation. Power sharing was not so much read in a democratic language but in an insular and consocational manner. Basically, national matters were to be discussed over tea and golf by the few whom claimed to speak for the masses. Perhaps that was why the Tengku once mentioned he was “the happiest Prime Minister in the world”.

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Openly, the spirit of nationhood then in infant Malaya was that the Malays should enjoy political eminence while the Chinese would enjoy a free hand in their already established economical preponderance.

But a nation of millions cannot be maintained by the friendship of the few. Nobody understood or shared their vision of nationhood. Tensions on rethnicity, religion and language have not only arisen outside the party but also from within. The earliest sign of the cracking of this superficial power-sharing formula actually dates back as early as 1959 in the form of a serious tussle between the MCA and Umno.

In 1958, Dr Lim Chong Eu, who had ousted Tan Cheng Lock as MCA president, challenged Umno’s hegemony by asking for more electoral seats to “safeguard the interests of the Chinese community”. The Tengku was obviously infuriated by this act he called the “betrayal” of the Alliance formula.

Although a patch up was arranged between the two leaders, it was obvious that the dissatisfaction over the “formula” had spilled over to the grassroots levels and resulted in the reduced majority of the Alliance parties. The MCA won only 19 out of the 31 parliamentary seats they contested in the 1959 general elections while Umno won just 52 out of the 70 seats it went for.

If not for the anti-Indonesia sentiment (the mostly leftist opposition parties were perceived as pro-Indonesia) during the Confrontation period, it was postulated that the support of the Alliance would have slid even further in the 1964 election. Five years later, 1969, the simmering melting pot of finally reached boiling point.

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Although idiosyncratically, democracy is about sending a few people to represent the interests of the rakyat, it is obvious that using democracy to preserve a power-sharing formula upheld by the few is not workable. Malaysia’s formula of power sharing was flawed because it only led to power and wealth being shared among the few. This resulted in the condensation of the rakyat’s contempt at the top party levels, ultimately breaking the Alliance formula in 1969.

From there on, power sharing was put on the back burner when Umno and MCA’s “friendship” grew irreparable over time. Consocationalism was replaced by majoritarianism sustained by Umno’s one party rule, also conveniently referred to as Mahathirism in the 1980-90s.

Evidence has proved again and again that hatching a demographically sensitive power-sharing formula (among parties handpicked to represent ethnic groups) is not conducive to national peace or prosperity.

Aside from the unrealistic romanticism associated, the ‘formula’ also violates two other political foundations of the country,the first being that our country is a federation, implying that power should be shared between governments, not just between parties at the central level. Oppression of opposition-held states by the federal government has so far lent no credence to the spirit of federalism.

Secondly, it also violates the dynamism that is fundamental to democracy: the simple fact that governing parties can be changed. The Alliance or Barisan National’s precocious balance of power maintained by a pre-determined composition of parties was built under the premise that it was to last, or at least until there was a heavy shift in our demographic balance. This makes it a stubborn design that was not meant to outlast the ever-changing tides of democracy. Worse, it was also a concoction of black powder and sulphur, thanks to its divide-and-rule culture. Faced with too many boundaries that were not meant to be crossed, someone was bound to trip over a wire all too easily and all too soon.

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It is a false notion suggested by Mahathir that we always have this great, static formula to return to when things don’t turn out so well – especially in the light of the national mood now.

But power balance stagnation is never a good thing. Just because power is shared doesn’t mean it will translate into good governance. While mostly ruled with autonomy, the Borneo states are still plundered irreverently by their local politicians. Power sharing must also come with power checking, and that is the whole point of democracy.

Power should no doubt be shared in Malaysia, but with the rakyat and not just the political elites. Focusing on the latter has so far perpetuated a non-trickle down crony economy that exacerbates not just inter-ethnic, but also intra-ethnic inequality.

Powers should not only be shared horizontally (among all branches of government), but also vertically (among all units of government). Localised democracy should be encouraged by further devolution of powers and also the revival of our now defunct local elections.

The prospects of change must be exciting for everyone instead of foreboding the threat of violence. A view that any change of powers is prohibited within a democracy is as good as an authoritarian one.

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