An idea whose time has come

Malaysia has been in search of an alternative to BN’s half-century rule and Pakatan Rakyat is an idea whose time has come. Unlike the previous attempts, today’s Pakatan is likely to survive for a long time and will serve as a viable and practical alternative to BN.

Liew Chin Tong, The Malysian Insider

Those who wish to see the break up of Pakatan Rakyat similar to that of previous opposition coalitions will be disappointed.

Formed on April 1 last year, PR was a response to the post-March 8th political terrain, in which the Opposition won five state governments — Kelantan, Kedah, Penang, Perak and Selangor — and more than a third of the Parliamentary seats.

The three parties — Democratic Action Party, Parti Keadilan Rakyat and Parti Islam Se-Malaysia — were advised against forming a coalition before the 12th general election as polling results consistently shown that going alone without attacking each other give the parties the best chance of capturing more seats combined.

The election mandate went beyond the widest dream of the Opposition as the daunting task of governing these states as a coalition begun. A new formula was necessitated.

Past experiences of opposition coalition were not encouraging. The Socialist Front coalition, consisted of Partai Rakyat and Labour Party, and later joined by National Convention Party, ended in the mid-1960s amidst government crackdown and arrests. Internal crisis also emerged when Labour Party’s move to the extreme left at the prodding of the grassroots, escalated by the dispute between the two major parties over issues of language and cultural identities.

The Malaysian Solidarity Convention mooted by Lee Kuan Yew in 1965 was short lived, disappeared from the political radar together with Singapore’s expulsion in the same year.

The Opposition parties, particularly Gerakan, DAP and PPP reached a non-aggression pact after the defeat of Serdang by-election in December 1968 due to a three-corner fight. But no further collaboration among the Opposition parties was made after the suspension of parliamentary democracy as a consequence of the May 13th incident.

In 1986, Pas attempted to forge an alliance through Harakah Keadilan Rakyat (HAK) with several minor parties but did not get anywhere as Pas itself could only muster a single parliamentary seat in the election.

In 1990, Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah led two coalitions — the Gagasan Rakyat with non-Malay-based parties and Angkatan Perpaduan Ummah (APU) with Muslim-based parties — through his Semangat 46 party. Non-Malay support for the Opposition was impressive but Malay vote did not swing as expected. The coalitions died a natural death subsequently.

The sacking and humiliation of Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim in September 1998 resulted in a massive Malay revolt. For the first time in Malaysia’s history, DAP, Pas, Parti Keadilan Nasional, and Parti Rakyat, coalesced under the umbrella of Barisan Alternatif in October 1999, weeks before the general election.

It was a reverse result of the 1990 general election where the non-Malays did not support the Opposition due to Barisan Nasional’s effective propaganda of political violence in Indonesia that might occur in Malaysia if the opposition was voted in.

The coalition effectively collapsed on 22 September 2001 when DAP pulled out of BA due to differences with Pas over the issue of an Islamic State.

Malaysia has been in search of an alternative to BN’s half-century rule and Pakatan Rakyat is an idea whose time has come. Unlike the previous attempts, today’s Pakatan is likely to survive for a long time and will serve as a viable and practical alternative to BN.

First, cooperation among the Opposition has improved since the Reformasi era. Prior to the 1998 crisis, the two long-standing Opposition parties operated in their respective comfort zone — Pas among rural Malays and DAP among urban Chinese — and had virtually no contact with each other, even at the top level.

But in the last decade, many leaders increasingly felt that only by working together that they can check or even defeat BN. These are the leaders who have worked closely with each other in the BA secretariat and the Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections or BERSIH secretariat, as well as forging a close rapport in the Parliament.

Second, in the states governed by Pakatan, the day-to-day working relationship among its second echelon leaders solidifies the coalition at the sub-national level. Governing in coalition also forces the parties to think beyond their support base with a national perspective.

Third, it is clearly discernable that the voting public is all for the creation of a viable alternative. Previous Opposition coalitions failed because they were rejected by the voters, one way or the other.

For instance, in 1999, DAP’s close ties with Pas was one of the causes of the painful defeats of the party’s heavyweights such as Lim Kit Siang and Karpal Singh in Penang.

But the 2008 election was a major eye-opener. DAP won in seats that it had never dreamt of winning, thanks to substantial swing in urban Malay votes in its favour while the reversal of Indian votes was the number one factor in the victories of many Pas seats.

The cultural breakthrough for Pas to be accepted by the non-Malays and DAP by the Malays is gaining momentum, albeit the slow momentum.

A year ago — even during the March 2008 election campaign — no one could imagine seeing PAS flags in every corner of Kuala Sepetang Chinese village in Bukit Gantang, Perak. Today the flags are proudly on display for all Chinese in the village to see, without anyone complaining or protesting about it.

I still recall two years ago when I was coordinating the Machap state assembly by-election in Melaka contested by DAP, our political opponents from BN put up Pas flags in a Chinese village two days before polling – just to frighten Chinese voters!

The sea change in cultural acceptance is not to be ignored. The idea of replacing the federal ruling coalition with an alternative is as old as the existence of BN and its predecessor the Alliance.

It is only now that the idea whose time has come will appeal to the young people as well as the old guards who have been chasing the dream throughout their political life. It’s not just the physical coalition; it is really an idea of hope.

Liew Chin Tong is the DAP MP for Bukit Bendera.