The opposition is still in slumber

Raja Petra Kamarudin

The last couple of days there have been many analyses done on the Pengkalan Pasir by-election. Well, writing an after-the-fact analysis is child’s-play so I am not going to do that. Instead, I am going to resurrect an old ‘I told you so’ piece that I wrote five years ago.

Yes, I know, nobody likes a smarty-pants. And they hate an ‘I told you so’ piece even more. But I’m going to do it anyway.

In late 2000, soon after the Sanggang by-election and about six months or so before my detention under the Internal Security Act on 11 April 2001, I wrote a piece in the English Section of Harakah, the official organ of the Islamic Party of Malaysia (PAS), called ‘Sanggang – The BA’s wake-up call’.

The purpose of this piece was to bring to the opposition’s attention that all is not well and, unless something is done about it, the future would look very bleak for the opposition coalition, Barisan Alternatif (BA). Needless to say, the wake-up call did not wake the opposition from its slumber. It went ahead and did everything we said it should not do. And the 2004 genereal election turned out exactly the way we said it would if the oppposition did not wake up.

Anyway, this is what I said five years ago soon after the Sanggang by-election (which, if you were to replace the word ‘Sanggang’ with ‘Pengkalan Pasir’, it is as relevant today as it was five years ago):


I was so sure PAS would win the Sanggang by-election that I thought it unnecessary for my presence in a town I had never even heard of until the death of the incumbent State Assemblyman. Not that my presence would have made any difference, mind you. Pahang was, after all, next on the list of victories for Barisan Alternatif.

The reports I received from the ground were that it was a sure victory for PAS. The support for PAS was overwhelming. The PAS supporters were everywhere that, whatever little supporters Barisan Nasional had, if there were any at all, were swamped by the sheer number of PAS supporters. The Barisan Nasional supporters had probably all left town in a hurry realising that it was futile to resist the PAS onslaught.

When the results came in, not only did Barisan Nasional win, but they also managed to increase their majority from the last time around. And it was not that too long ago since the last round.

I was told that PAS was actually ahead up until the night before. The morning of the voting it suddenly turned. Why?

No doubt the impression created was that the support for PAS was overwhelming. But what ‘support’ are we talking about? Support from the crowd or support from the voters? In this case the crowd did not represent the voters.

As what the Prime Minister (then), Dr Mahathir Mohamad, said: there were so many out-of-town PAS supporters that, for the first time in the history of the town, there were massive traffic jams four kilometers long. But these were not locals and they would not be voting.

This has always been the mistake of the opposition; be it PAS, DAP, keADILan or PRM. Anything the opposition parties do seem to attract crowds. But the crowd comprises of out-of-towners, people who would not be voting in that area, fence-sitters, curious people who just want to see what the hell was going on, people who just love crowds; be it a traffic accident, fun fair, or political rally; UMNO supporters who also enjoy opposition ceramahs for its entertainment value, UMNO supporters who want to hear what the opposition has to say so that they can counter the statements later, and so on and so forth. In short, the majority of the crowd would either not be voting, or would not vote for the opposition. The actual voters who were there to be swayed were the minority.

The opposition always experiences this and it always fools them. We have said this before and we will say it again, “crowds do not translate into votes” — and it is time the opposition learnt this lesson.

The opposition experienced this in 1982 and 1986, and before that in 1978. Their ceramahs never failed to attract the crowds but it did not attract the votes. The opposition needs to change its perspective of what ‘success’ is all about.

The opposition has proven it knows how to ceramah. It has not yet shown it knows how to rule. The opposition has proven it knows what justice is. It has not yet shown it knows how to dish out justice. The opposition has proven it knows what a government should not do. It has not yet shown it can be a better government. The opposition has proven it is against corruption. It has not shown it has the formula for a better government. The opposition has proven that the government’s economic policies do not work. It has not yet shown it can manage the economy better. And the list goes on.

The opposition may feel it has all the answers. It may even actually have all the answers. But only the opposition knows this, the voters do not. The opposition may blame the media for this. They may accuse the media of being one-sided for not highlighting the good things the opposition has to say while playing up the negative issues. The opposition may even accuse the media of distorting the truth or of downright lying. But what has the opposition done to overcome this?

The opposition has plenty of opportunities to present its side of the story to the voters. There is Harakah, Suara PRM, Berita keADILan, the Rocket, and the many ceramahs conducted all year long the length and breadth of this country. But what ‘news’ does the opposition bring to the people? More of the same thing — and this means more government-bashing, UMNO-bashing, and Mahathir-bashing.

The people know all about the excesses of the government. They know about the corruption and abuses. They agree that there is no freedom of speech in this country. They agree that Malaysia is a dictatorship. In short, they know there are so many things wrong with this country. What they do not know is how the opposition is going to put this right.

Parti Keadilan Nasional was born with great expectations. For once there is a party that is genuinely multi-racial and multi-religious. But then, when they look closer, keADILan appears, more and more, like just another Malay party. Where are the non-Malays and non-Muslims? What they see is a handful of non-Malays, non-Muslims who could not legitimately claim to represent the other races and other religions.

That was when the non-Malays, non-Muslims decided that Malaysia was not yet ready for a fully-fledged multi-racial, multi-religious party and, until it is, they would continue to throw their support behind Barisan Nasional, which at least has the appearance of representing all the races and religions in this country.

Can you blame the voters for this? Barisan Nasional is a legally-registered party while Barisan Alternatif is but a mere ‘understanding’ that does not have a legal leg to stand on. In fact, BA does not even have its own symbol and each party has to contest under its own symbol. How can you expect a non-Muslim Chinese to trust PAS overnight after distrusting the party for more than 50 years? How could a Malay now vote for DAP after considering that party an enemy of the Malays whose only mission in life is to ‘rob the Malays of their God-given rights and privileges’? And keADILan is perceived as nothing more than a party to free Anwar Ibrahim from jail. The question is: what would happen to the party after Anwar has been freed? Would the party then close down and all the members rejoin UMNO the way of Semangat 46?

There are too many old wounds and distrusts that cannot disappear overnight just because Lim Kit Siang and Fadzil Noor shook hands in public. More needs to be done before the ‘extreme’ Islamic party and ‘chauvinist’ Chinese party can be seen as united. And it will have to start with a legally-registered party and common symbol.

Nevertheless, legally-registered parties and symbols are just eyewashes. Parties can break up and parties can leave the coalition. This has happened before and it can easily happen again. How can Barisan Alternatif prove that it is a marriage of ‘till death do us part’? In today’s modern world, the divorce rate is extremely high and marriages that last seem to be an exception rather than the rule.

The crucial test in winning the voters’ confidence is in proving how the opposition can rule better than the present government. It is a sort of Catch 22 situation. The opposition is not being allowed to rule because it has not proven it can do the job. But it cannot prove it can do the job until it is first given the chance to rule.

This is where Kelantan and Terengganu come in. Barisan Alternatif is already ruling these two states. It, therefore, has to show that Barisan Alternatif is jointly ruling these states and not just PAS alone. If it appears like PAS is in total control and the rest of the Barisan Alternatif members are not playing any role, this will not impress the voters. If only PAS is in power then, at best, Barisan Alternatif can just be a regional government — never the federal government.

PAS needs to sacrifice some ground in Kelantan and Terengganu to show that keADILan, DAP and PRM are partners in these two state governments. PAS needs to present the governments of these two states as Barisan Alternatif governments and not just PAS governments. PAS needs to show that the success in governing these two states is Barisan Alternatif’s success and not just PAS’ success.

I know it’s not easy. PAS practically monopolises Kelantan and Terengganu. It also has 27 of the 42 Barisan Alternatif Parliamentary seats. But PAS has to look at the bigger picture. It needs to downplay itself to play-up Barisan Alternatif. It needs to show that keADILan, DAP and PRM are equally in the driver’s seat and not mere passengers. PAS needs to do this to ensure that Barisan Alternatif has a better chance of forming the next federal government and not remain a mere regional government.

The shadow cabinet idea has been adopted and Barisan Alternatif has already formed many bureaus that will ‘shadow’ the government ministries. But the bureaus have yet to show their mettle. The bureaus have yet to show they can do the job they have been set up to do. The bureaus sound good. But is this all they are going to be? Sounding good without producing results?

The bureaus will need to be developed and it will take time to bring them to maturity. They will actually have to function as a shadow government without the advantage of the government machinery. It is going to be a colossal job for Barisan Alternatif but it is something that needs to be done. Not doing so would mean Barisan Alternatif would never progress beyond Terengganu and Kelantan. And that is if they do not end up losing the two states back to Barisan Nasional come the next election.

PAS has to decide what its political agenda is. Is it to Islamise the nation or to form the next federal government? It cannot be both as there are not enough Muslims in the country to support an Islamic program. This may sound blasphemous but that is the reality of Malaysian politics. If the Malays-Muslims formed 80% or 90% of the population, then maybe it would be possible.

Take note though, many of the Malays-Muslims themselves do not support an Islamic program. Many Malay-Muslim women do not support the tudung ruling. If the Malays-Muslims themselves resist Islam, what would you expect from the non-Malays, non-Muslims?

The opposition needs an immediate image overhaul. It can no longer get support based on sympathy. People are immune to the issues of kezaliman, rasuah, penyelewengan, and so on. The opposition cannot hope to win by default. It needs to get support for what it is, not for what Barisan Nasional is not. The opposition needs the voters to vote for it not because they hate the government, but because they love the opposition.

Sanggang was good for the opposition. It shows the opposition what the voters really think of it. Sanggang is the opposition’s wake-up call. But will it really wake up or will it continue with its slumber?