Malaysia’s Opposition Coalition in Crisis

Defections and other problems probably mean the opposition will lose its ability to block legislation requiring a two-thirds vote

Asia Sentinel

It is beginning to appear that two-year of experiment with a viable opposition in Malaysia is just about over. Malaysian Insider, a Kuala Lumpur-based online news site reported last week that as many as 10 members of Pakatan Rakyat, the unwieldy coalition led by Anwar Ibrahim, could be about to defect.

Even if they don’t, the opposition is flailing. Anwar’s own trial for consensual sex with a former male aide continues and, given Malaysia’s malleable court system, is expected to result in his conviction although appeals could take as long as two years before he is sent to prison. In the latest development, High Court Judge Mohamad Zabidin Mohd Diah said he could decide by himself whether he was sufficiently neutral to continue to hear the sodomy case. He dismissed Anwar’s appeal against his hearing the matter Wednesday afternoon.

The question is where the opposition goes from here. Anwar has been unable to groom any successors, partly because the disparate nature of the three parties in the opposition makes it difficult for anybody to bridge the ideological gap. If he is jailed, it is questionable how long his martyrdom might last. When he was arrested on similar charges in 1998 – which were beyond a doubt trumped up to get rid of him – he led massive rallies in Kuala Lumpur against the government. But once he was imprisoned, the protests ultimately died away.

The major effect of the two-year opposition run appears to be a historic realignment of political parties, with Parti Islam se-Malaysia, with its roots in the rural, poor, fundamentalist northeast of the country. PAS has moved to consolidate its growing power in urban areas, particularly the area surrounding Kuala Lumpur as ethnic Malays are turned off by the continuing money politics and corruption in the United Malays National Organisation. And, say political observers in Kuala Lumpur, ethnic Chinese and Indians are turning to the party as well because of the corruption in their own coalition components.

In addition, too many of the opposition members were simply not prepared to hold office or to govern once they got there, analysts say. Some were disgruntled UMNO members who crossed to the opposition before the March 2008 elections on the opportunistic belief that Anwar, a charismatic leader, could actually gain control of the parliament. Now, the insiders say, since Anwar failed in his attempt to lure enough UMNO members to defect to the opposition, and with Anwar in the middle of a debilitating trial he seems sure to lose, they are looking for ways to cross back.

Problems within the Pakatan coalition, said a senior aide to Anwar, “have been simmering and with the case now in full force, it makes sense for the dissidents to add pressure on all fronts to create as much disunity and instability as possible.”

Whether 10 MPs will defect is uncertain. “I think it’s possible,”said the aide. “But I’m sure there is a lot of horse trading going on.”

Anwar returned to Penang on Feb. 16 to seek to shore up the coalition, the aide said. Anwar acknowledged in interviews with the local press that he had picked some of the wrong candidates in the 2008 elections.

“I selected the candidates for the parliamentary seats. PKR was new then. We had to field them,”he told reporters.

There has been a steady leakage from the coalition, made up of Anwar’s Parti Keadilan Rakyat of urban Malays, the largely Chinese Democratic Action Party, and PAS for months. Last week, Zahrain Mohd Hashim, an MP from Penang state, quit with a blast at Lim Guan Eng, the DAP head of the Penang state government. Malaysia Insider reported that others are to hold a press conference this week to announce their departure from the opposition.

Anwar shocked the Barisan Nasional in March, 2008 elections by leading 82 opposition candidates to victory and taking a stunning 46.785 percent of the popular vote. The opposition won five of the 13 statehouses, including some of the most important and populous ones. It was the first time in the 50-year history of the country that the Barisan had lost its two-thirds majority in the Dewan Rakyat, or parliament.

However, it has been virtually downhill since for the opposition, capped by Anwar’s arrest four months after the election on charges that can only be described as dubious. His accuser, Mohd Saiful Bukhari Azlan, was examined at two different hospitals by doctors who found no evidence of sexual penetration that would have indicated sodomy. Najib Tun Razak, then the deputy prime minister, acknowledged having met with Saiful before the charges were ever filed. The arrest came just a day after a live national telecast of a debate with Information Minister Shabery Chik in which Anwar basically demolished his opponent.

The question is where the coalition goes now. Forces for the Barisan, led by Najib and the United Malays National Organization, are harrying it on all sides via court challenges, criminal investigations, the Anwar trial and, if the critics are to be believed, offers of monetary inducements to opposition lawmakers to change sides.

Because the three parties are held together only by the glue of opportunism, public disagreements have surfaced repeatedly, often over religious issues, given PAS’s fundamentalist underpinnings and what critics describe as the DAP’s Chinese chauvinism.

That doesn’t mean the Barisan is any better off. The Malaysian Chinese Association, which saw its seats reduced by more than half, has since been nearly destroyed by infighting following sensational revelations of the loss of billions of dollars in the development of Port Klang. The Malaysian Indian Congress has been equally badly hurt by attempts by S Samy Vellu, the party leader, to cling to power. The other ethnic Chinese party, Gerakan, was already inconsequential and reduced even more so.

Najib, however, has worked assiduously to try to put the Barisan Nasional back on track. He has been aided by a modest economic recovery. Corporate earnings were forecast to rise by nearly 14 percent in the year ending in August, meaning a relatively healthy outlook for job growth. The banking system emerged from the 2008 credit crisis virtually unscathed and while it is subject to an alarming level of capital flight, lending for business is sound in a system flush with cash. Najib has brought about some modest reforms, seeking cut back on Malay privileges enshrined in the country’s affirmative action program for Malays, known as the New Economic Policy, which has outraged the former prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad, who has put his influence behind a new and growing movement, called Perkasa, which seeks to preserve the so-called Ketuanan Melayu.

Earlier this week, it was announced with considerable fanfare that an aide to a senior UMNO minister had been arrested in Penang on allegations he had been involved as the middleman in a series of approvals of projects, and that at least RM 2 million had been seized. However, the arrest, of a relatively small fish, points up to most people in Malaysia that major corruption in UMNO is being left unaddressed.

In particular, former Selangor State Chief minister Mohd Khir Toyo, a former dentist, has come under repeated criticism over how he was able to buy a vast mansion spread over two entire blocks with a swimming pool and playground estimated to have cost US$10 million on a state salary of RM48,000 (US$2,000) a month.

Khir Toyo said he had paid only RM3.5 million for the sprawling property.