Political Polarisation

The BN-PR political divide is polarising society. It has gone way beyond the usual loyalties associated with competing political parties in a democratic system.

By Chandra Muzaffar

There is a new, powerful divide that confronts 1Malaysia. It is a political divide that separates the Barisan Nasional, and its supporters, on the one hand, from the Pakatan Rakyat, and its followers, on the other.

There are other divides in Malaysian society: economic, social, cultural, religious, geographical and territorial. A divide by itself is not a threat to a nation’s unity or solidarity. It is when a divide causes serious polarisation that it becomes a matter of deep concern.

The BN-PR political divide is polarising society. It has gone way beyond the usual loyalties associated with competing political parties in a democratic system. Among its obvious consequences are the following:-
1) A blind, almost fanatical attachment to the interests and views of one party or coalition which disregards or dismisses completely the position of the other party or coalition.
2) A total inability to see the wrongs committed by one’s own side and a complete unwillingness to appreciate the positives on the other side.
3) A rapidly declining engagement in rational, balanced discourse on national issues on both sides of the divide.
4) The visible shrinking of the middle ground in national politics as rigid dogmatic partisan positions are adopted by individuals and groups in both camps.
5) A dramatic increase in vile, vulgar epithets and foul, filthy language on online newspapers, websites and blogs associated directly or indirectly with one side or the other which are employed against individuals who are perceived to be on the other
side of the divide.

There are those who argue that the political polarisation that is happening, however adverse its consequences, is not a big problem because it does not have communal overtones. This is true but only to an extent.

The undercurrents in this BN-PR polarisation are communal. Though the BN is an established inter-ethnic coalition, it has been portrayed as an UMNO dominant entity that has marginalised the non-Malay parties and communities. This crude portrayal of the BN and its predecessor, the Alliance, actually began in 1964 and was spearheaded by Lee Kuan Yew, then Secretary-General of the People’s Action Party (PAP), the forerunner of the DAP. It has now reached a peak point which is one of the many reasons why parties like the MCA, Gerakan, MIC and PPP lost considerable support in the 2008 General Election. It also explains to a degree the current consolidation of the Chinese position on ethnic issues around the DAP.

While the BN is perceived in some Chinese circles as Malay, there is a growing sentiment within a segment of the Malay community that PR, though drawn from different communities, is actually controlled by the DAP, the party with the most number of parliamentary seats within the PR. How PAS has yielded to the DAP on the question of an “Islamic State”, its defining ideology, and related issues, and how PKR has tailored its politics to enhance its appeal among the Chinese electorate are offered as evidence of this alleged subservience. There is thus an ethnic dimension to popular perceptions of both the
BN and PR which makes political polarisation a graver challenge than it already is.

What are the causes of this political polarisation? The intensification of the struggle for power at the federal level is undoubtedly the main factor. Because of its creditable performance in the 12th General Election in 2008, and its victories in 8 out of the 16 by-elections since then, the PR parties, each with its own agenda and goal, are convinced that they will capture Putrajaya in the 13th General Election. The BN is, of course, determined to remain in Putrajaya, hoping to regain its two-third majority in the Federal Parliament, and re-take some of the states it lost to the Opposition in the last election.

Political polarisation arising from this intense, often aggressive contest has been exacerbated by the cyber media. With the advent of a variety of channels of expression from the website and blog to facebook and the tweet, millions of citizens are not only articulating their opinions on a whole range of social and political concerns — which is a laudable development —- but are also ventilating their communal biases, their religious prejudices and their personal frustrations as never before. Since cyber communication allows anonymity, quite a few are slanderous and vicious in their comments. When freedom is exercised in such an irresponsible manner, it is inevitable that political polarisation will increase.

In this regard, elements within the mainstream print and electronic media are also culpable. There have been occasions when their stark or subtle biases have reinforced polarising tendencies in the larger society. The authorities have not checked these tendencies.

The expanding NGO community which utilises the media to the hilt has also contributed to polarisation. Most politically oriented NGOs are aligned to one side or the other. Sometimes they adopt stances on political issues that are more communal than political parties. Even some professional bodies tend to incline towards this or that political party on certain controversies.

It does not help that a number of intellectuals have also become blatantly partisan in outlook. Instead of fostering a balanced discourse through their writings some of them are rabidly biased to a point that they refuse to acknowledge the positive elements on the other side. They have tarnished their own intellectual credentials by presenting complex political challenges in stark black and white terms, often camouflaging their communal inclinations, and thus aggravating political polarisation.

Can we overcome, or at least reduce, political polarisation? It is unlikely that appeals to both sides to dialogue and to reconcile will have any impact. It is perhaps the 13th General Election that will resolve the polarisation— if it produces a decisive winner.

Dr. Chandra Muzaffar is Chairman of the Board of Trustees of Yayasan 1Malaysia and Professor of Global Studies at Universiti Sains Malaysia.