Stephen Tan Ban Cheng shows how the seed of the Pakatan Harapan government’s downfall was planted in the euphoric days after its stunning 2018 election victory.
In an earlier companion piece, I had alluded to the principle of entropy hardly known in the simple Humpty Dumpty nursery rhyme.
The principle of of entropy states that a lack of order or predictability can only lead to a gradual decline into disorder.
This piece shall argue that it was this departure from the principle of predictability that led to the collapse on 24 February 2020 of the Pakatan Harapan government led by Dr Mahathir Mohamad, a Prime Minister who had earlier led Malaysia for 22 years (1981-2003).
Contrary to conventional wisdom, Mahathir’s Malay-based Bersatu party, despite its small number of MPs, spearheaded the challenge of forming a new government supported by the other PH coalition parties – the multiracial PKR and the DAP, the religious-based Amanah and the Sabah-based multiracial Warisan.
PH had earlier challenged successfully the previously held view that the Barisan Nasional government was invincible after ruling the nation for more than six decades since the independence of the peninsula on 31 August 1957.
Significantly, Mahathir’s fledgling party led the charge, fielding 52 candidates, mostly in Malay heartland seats located in the peninsula, in the 222 parliamentary constituencies at stake nationwide.
Nationwide, including in East Malaysia, PKR put up 71 parliamentary candidates, the DAP contested in 47 seats and Amanah tried to wrest 34 seats. In Sabah, Warisan, enjoying the “martyr image” of recently eclipsed federal minister Shafie Apdal, spearheaded the PH challenge, contesting in 17 seats.
PH was up against the incumbent BN, a coalition of national and regional parties, in the 2018 general election.
The election also witnessed many three-way contests with the religious-based Pas seeing action in 157 parliamentary seats, its largest number of candidates since independence. The electoral strategy was for BN and Pas to catch the individual PH parties in a pincer movement, a strategy that failed abysmally since it ignored the sentiment on the ground.
Significantly also, what was lost amid the hurly-burly of electioneering was the tone of the results when they came. PKR won the most seats with 48, DAP followed with 42, Bersatu third with 12 and Amanah fourth with 11, making up a magical 113, a simple majority. Warisan, just a PH affiliate, provided the topping of the cake with eight seats, taking the tally to 121 in the 222-strong chamber.
The outcome came only at 4am the next day, the announcement delayed against a backdrop of what insiders said was frantic jockeying by BN for the support of new opposition MPs to form the new government.
Missing the jump at the start
The results meant a victory for the challengers, but the nature of that victory was ignored when the cabinet was announced. Mahathir’s Bersatu took an almost similar number of cabinet positions as PKR, the DAP and Amanah. Bersatu also had a string of the weightier portfolios.
Note also the stacking of the parties that contributed to the inevitable entropy: Bersatu with 12 MPs at the top; PKR (48), the DAP (42) and Amanah (12) supporting Bersatu; with Warisan (8) stacked in between.
There was the sizzling to the steak offered to the nation when the DAP’s Lim Guan Eng was appointed Finance Minister, Bersatu president Muhyiddin Yassin was installed as Home Minister and Amanah’s Mohamad Sabu as Defence Minister. Azmin Ali, a well-known opponent of Anwar Ibrahim, was picked as Economic Affairs Minister.
So, where was the sizzle and where was the steak? See the confusion created and the ensuing entropy? Keep your eye focused on the piece de resistance and decide which is which.
The image that struck me was one of a champion horse “missing the jump at the start” in horse-racing jargon, making way for a dark horse to win the race. Clearly, something was amiss. But I thought then this might well prove to be a new equation the ‘innovative’ PH had wisely agreed upon. Silence reigned after the cabinet announcement.
But then, murmurs grew about people being in pivotal cabinet positions where they should never be. The murmurs turned strident with the consequent appointment of deputy ministers. A clear need for adjustments meant things had gone awry.
Confirmation came with the announcement of the new head of the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission. My learned friend Latheefa Beebi Koya was appointed chief commissioner for two years from 1 June 2019, catching William Leong, the chairman of Parliament’s newly set up major appointments committee, flat-footed.
On 6 June 2019, then de factor law minister Liew Vui Keong defended the PH government’s decision, stressing the appointment was made in accordance with the law, ie Section 5 (1) of the MACC Act 2009 (Act 694). “Hence, the need to refer to the Cabinet or the Parliamentary Select Committee does not arise.”
Nine months later, on 6 March 2020, five days after Muhyiddin Yassin was installed as Prime Minister, Latheefa Koya became the second top civil servant to resign after Tommy Thomas quit as Attorney General on 28 February after the coup. Latheefa is seen as a staunch supporter of ex-PKR deputy president Azmin Ali, who led 10 party MPs to defect, sparking the PH government’s fall.
The seemingly calculated and orderly descent into disorder, chaos or entropy was to prove detrimental to the longevity of the PH regime.
Note especially that it seared the repeated unpredictability of Mahathir’s post-election manoeuvres, which defied the principle of predictability. Those manoeuvres started with the appointment of Mahathir’s cabinet (which took a longer time than Muhyiddin announcement of his cabinet on 1 March, after the 24 February coup). The unpredictability was seen in the choice of politicians for positions in Mahathir’s cabinet.
Even the discord recorded in the two international treaties – one involving first the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD) and then the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court – breached the rule of predictability. Given that these were promises in the PH manifesto, these were not expected to be dropped like a hot potato they were not.
Both these proposed ratifications were badly handled by the PH government. Somehow, they were given an unnecessary and unhealthy racial twist.
For instance, the Rome Statute, even in the absence of the US, had already gained the status of jus cogens, or compelling law, in international law once a simple majority of the “high contracting parties” became signatories. It creates an erga omnes or “towards all” obligation for states to comply. In short, every state has an erga omnes obligation towards the entire international community.
Even the 1951 Refugee Convention has attained the status of jus cogens. Over time, the ICERD is also expected to attain compelling law status.
Future Malaysian government leaders, backed by informed senior civil servants, must keep abreast of international law by recruiting international law experts. They must know that a clause in international conventions governing international agreements or treaties called clausula rebus sic stantibus provides for the unenforceability of a treaty due to fundamentally changed circumstances. This doctrine is one of the oldest norms of customary international law.
They should take heart from this rule, or escape clause, when signing international treaties. Escape clauses are almost standard inclusions in international law, but our own local laws seldom have such provisions.
Commentators should either shut up or contribute positively to the debate. For instance, in explaining why the PH government fell, Ariel Tan of the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, said: “Malay acceptance of PH began to crumble within six months of its coming to power after a successful campaign by the opposition to characterise PH’s move to ratify the International Convention for the Elimination of all forms of Racial Discrimination, and subsequently the Rome Statute, as an attack on Malay interests.”
Just this view of the two treaties was given, without other background information. Doctrines of the oldest norms of international law such as clausula rebus sic stantibus to nullify the enforceability of a treaty due to fundamentally changed circumstances were never even ventilated.
Twenty-five years ago in 1954, when I was still in university, the South Koreans had already sent their top civil servants to acquire knowledge on how to unify the two Koreas when the time comes. Some of these civil servant students must have retired, but the knowledge acquired would have been handed down to their successors since the two Koreas have not been united like East and West Germany did in the 1990s.
Mahathir unable to get up again
What we in Malaysia seem to have today is:
- A so-called “backdoor” government that suffers from a trust deficit, although being vindicated somewhat by its response to the Covid-19 pandemic affecting the country
- Some public institutions that lack integrity
- Mass media, including the court of public opinion, that not just failed to reflect the social and political milieu but challenge the people’s faith
- Political parties that fail to persuade the majority, especially with their radical departure from normally accepted positions
All these four pillars of state and their minions are pitifully engaged in a concerted quest for money and control of resources as the be all and end all of human life. After just 63 years of nation-building, just what does such a concerted quest signify for our nation, assuming all these worrisome ingredients are present?
The above seed of unpredictability, when watered in the different fluids of information, misinformation and even disinformation was a classic way to allow the plant of entropy to bloom and flower the way it did. And when it led predictably to the gradual decline into disorder and chaos, the collapse of the PH government was inevitable after 22 months.
Along with that came the fall of a national icon, Mahathir, bereft of all power, like Humpty Dumpty. Given his age and the almost psychologically fixated way that he is still tossing the coins of “ketuanan Melayu” (Malay supremacy) after losing power, it is unlikely that he can be “put back together again by all the King’s horses and all the King’s men”.
From the sudden emergence out of nowhere of the khat issue and the way it was handled to Mahathir’s attendance at the Malay Dignity Congress, it was clear something was not going right for the PH government.
This suspicion gathered force when PH supporters for the five by-elections, especially the last one at Tanjong Piai involving his own Bersatu, experienced the pattern of tepid mobilisation. Since the fire in the belly was lost among PH supporters, PH lost four of the five by-elections, more because PH was buying into the process of the Umno-Pas discourse on race and religion instead of injecting their electorally supported alternative discourse.
Perhaps Mahathir may have set out to wish for such a fall, but reason dictates that he could never have imagined the dire consequences of being unable to get up again.
Najib might do a resurrection, seeing the way he is, in the words of another nursery rhyme, still riding “the cock horse* to Banbury Cross, to see a fine lady upon a white horse; with rings on her fingers and bells on her toes; she shall have music wherever she goes.”
But unlike the promise of “music wherever she goes,” in this democratic age of the cyberworld, all that may become available could well be discordant voices, perhaps even muted by the use of naked power – that sublime but transient stuff of dreams … and sometimes nightmares.
* A cock horse is just a high-spirited horse, without any sexual connotations