Of the option off the ballot

Hafiz Noor Shams

There is speculation that there will be a general election in the near future. Political parties across the board are shifting gears, as if they needed to after all the by-elections.

I had a conversation with a friend several months back about the general election. Being away from Malaysia, I caught up with him, among others, to find out the latest about Malaysian politics. There is, of course, the Internet but it can get you only so far. Nothing beats face-to-face conversation. The facial expressions, the intonations and everything that matters are something that articles, podcasts and videos do not relay.

Among the topics discussed was the disillusionment that both of us had with the current political reality where both Barisan Nasional and Pakatan Rakyat dominate. Although I do believe that this is the stage for Malaysians to strengthen the newly established, effectively competitive two-party system before any further steps are taken to improve the Malaysians political system, I despise the options that I face.

It was then that I contemplated the idea of refraining from voting in the next general election.

Where I am registered to vote, it has always been a contest between UMNO and PAS.

I do not believe in UMNO. I do not believe in their core values and I do not trust them for all of their abuse, regardless of the presence of some good individuals in it. I do honestly believe that for UMNO and its partners to change, they must be out of power at the federal level.

Nothing is more powerful as a driver of change than failure itself. Without power, the worse and the corrupt will be flushed out, leaving the competent and clean to work their way up, at least hopefully.

Besides, Malaysia needs to experience a proper and peaceful change of political power. The actual experience will test the country’s institutions. The outcome of that test will inform Malaysians at large whether the institutions are capable of handling peaceful transition, or that the institutions themselves needed to be changed.

Malaysia has experienced change at the state level. There are kinks but the institutions are handling it reasonably well. Federal change, however, is likely to be a different beast altogether.

While I do not think highly of UMNO and its junior partners in Barisan Nasional, the other viable alternative is not too convincing either.

Specifically, I distrust PAS. While PAS may have allayed the fears of the non-Muslims in issues like the controversy on liquor sales, they have not done so for the more liberal Malays like me. For instance, PAS has insisted that Islamic laws should not be imposed on non-Muslims. While that is more progressive relative to a more suffocating encompassing view regarding Islam and the state, that communal thinking leaves the liberal Malays trapped.

While the status quo with BN in power is not fantastic to say the least, the way PAS and Pakatan Rakyat explain the issue of Islamic laws — about how Islamic laws affect only the Muslims, hence non-Muslims need not fear — desensitizes such communal thinking.

Of perhaps larger concern is the rumor that UMNO and PAS are discussing a possible pact, either in the name of Malay unity or an Islamic one, none of which appeals to me. I thought the issue was dead long ago but it persists. That worries me. What is the point of voting against UMNO by voting for PAS only to have PAS join UMNO?

Then there is the Pakatan Rakyat coalition in general. In Selangor recently, the Pakatan Rakyat-led state government announced that they would grant PR state lawmakers RM1 million each in preparation for election while excluding those from other parties.

The state government justified this by saying that BN also does this at the federal level. The selective provision levels the field, so the state government argues. I completely understand the crass reality of politics but I also believe that state resources belong to voters, not to the parties of the day. Seeing PR stooping to the level of BN disturbs me. It forces me to reassess my premise for voting for Pakatan Rakyat.

I fully recognize some of the good that Pakatan Rakyat state governments have done. Yet, I do not want to give them a blank check. The good work should not be used to justify other less admirable actions. I gave them a blank check in the last election because the situation then was dire. Things have changed so much since then. The situation today does not warrant old premises.

In the past, I overcame this problem by resorting to voting for the lesser evil. The lesser evil was PAS. Furthermore, the idea of giving somebody new a shot appealed to me. Since PAS was — and still is — in alliance with DAP and PKR, a vote for PAS was a vote for DAP and PKR; I thought of both DAP and PKR better than any other parties in Malaysia at that time. I worked on the premise that DAP and PKR would outnumber PAS when it matters always. PAS would be powerless where it matters.

I was wrong about power and PAS within Pakatan Rakyat.