Stephen Tan Ban Cheng takes a broad look at the trajectory of Malaysian politics and the lessons that might be learned from Umno’s fall from power – but the tale might yet have another twist.
It is time we Malaysians engage in some dramatic relief after the grand betrayal that led to the collapse of the Pakatan Harapan (PH) government on 24 February 2020 and the swearing in of Muhyiddin Yassin as Prime Minister on 1 March 2020.
PH came into power against the background of a dead certainty – the ostensible impossibility of dislodging the Barisan Nasional (BN) government. The BN had ruled for six decades stretching from Merdeka (for the peninsula) on 31 August 1957, first in the form of its predecessor, the Alliance, till 1970 and then repackaged as the grand BN alliance of many parties from the mid-1970s.
Over the years, as BN grew from strength to strength, the dynamic of the expanded membership of parties within it changed, with the Umno initially setting the trend but finally becoming the hegemon it should never be, since it was foreseeable would be to the detriment of our young nation.
The lesson-laden change in the equation meant that parties such as the MCA and the MIC turned conformist, never even having any say in policymaking for the nation – which was not the case in the earlier years when independence was attained under Tunku Abdul Rahman.
Even latecomers in 1970, such as second-tier parties like the Penang-based Gerakan, led by the legendary Dr Lim Chong Eu and the Ipoh-based People’s Progress Party (PPP) led by the two Seenivasagam brothers, DR and SP, were allowed to descend into irrelevance over a period of less than 40 years.
Over the six decades, a succession of ruling parties in the Sabah state government such as Mustapha Harun’s United Sabah National Organisation (Usno), Harris Salleh’s Berjaya and even Joseph Pairin Kitingan’s Parti Bersatu Sabah (PBS) saw the same pattern of descent.
This paved the way for the peninsula-based Umno to establish its presence in the state, especially under Sabah Chief Minister Musa Aman from 2003. Musa was finally ousted by his successor, former federal minister Shafie Apdal, who led Parti Warisan Sabah (Warisan) to capture the state government in the 2018 general election.
Sarawak saw a blip in the political pattern when the original parties that separately joined the BN–Sarawak Alliance comprising Stephen Kalong Ningkan’s Sarawak National Party (SNAP), Ong Kee Hui’s Sarawak United People’s Party (SUPP), Daniel Tajem’s Parti Bansa Dayak Sarawak (PBDS) and an assortment of marginal parties were somehow reduced to their final irrelevance. They were later supplanted by Parti Pesaka Bumiputra Bersatu Sarawak (PBB), led by Taib Mahmud (now Governor of Sarawak). PBB became, like Umno, a trend-setter and a hegemon in Sarawak politics.
But this pre-2018 growth of Umno in West Malaysia and PBB in Sarawak (comprising an area larger than the peninsula), is consonant with the principles of power and its use. The more power you have, the more you want; the more you get, the more the others in the equation are sidelined or marginalised.
Herein lies yet another lesson for the future of Malaysian politics. Umno had grown to be like the Humpty Dumpty in the nursery rhyme of my kindergarten days, way back in 1954-56, like an oversized egg sitting unpredictably on the wall, defying the principle of entropy – which says a lack of order or predictability can only lead to a gradual decline into disorder.
Where was the unpredictably? Umno grew unpredictable when the grand multi-billion ringgit 1MDB scandal erupted under the watch of Prime Minister Najib Razak, who began his premiership in 2009. The phenomenal scandal even attracted the attention of the US Department of Justice.
The gravity of the situation deflected the focus of this Umno leader from the administration of the nation as he had to deal with the multiple problems arising from the 1MDB scandal, involving many countries, including well-known global tax-free havens. So, he came to be like our Humpty Dumpty, the nursery rhyme, which goes:
Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall,
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall;
All the King’s horses
And all the King’s men,
Couldn’t put Humpty Dumpty together again.
As mentioned, the principle of entropy states that a lack of order or predictability can only lead to a gradual decline into disorder. Humpty Dumpty the nursery rhyme explains why Najib fell from grace in Putrajaya on 9 May 2018 after helming the country for just nine years.
Do note the nursery rhyme says that all the king’s horses and all the king’s men could not put Humpty Dumpty together again. That is the nursery rhyme.
But Malaysia is called Bolehland, where anything is possible. So, in Najib’s case, anything is possible – including a political resurrection, just like the ostensible impossibility of dislodging the BN government after six decades.
In a companion piece, I shall also attempt to explain why our former Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad, who ruled for 22 years from 1981 to 2003 and was previously regarded as an icon, fell from power after he invariably ignored the principle of predictability in his second term, which lasted just 22 months.