In Malaysia’s conflict-ridden politics, there is room for a third force

Pakatan Breakup

Malay Mail Online

After the 2013 general election, where the opposition Pakatan Rakyat (PR) coalition secured 51 per cent of the vote to end the ruling Barisan Nasional’s (BN) dominance, Malaysians hailed the emergence of a two-party system. However, with both BN and PR fragmented today, talk of such a system has faded away.

Within PR, the public bickering among Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS), Democratic Action Party (DAP) and Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) leaders strengthens the perception that the coalition is a marriage of convenience between three ideologically diverse parties. To be sure, the DAP’s secularism and PAS’ Islamism is a complete mismatch that PKR’s “people-powerism” (ketuanan rakyat), or the call to prioritise the rights of the masses ahead of any particular ethnic group, cannot mediate.

Similarly, the main component parties in BN — the United Malays National Organisation (Umno) and the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC) — are facing leadership struggles, while the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) is facing difficulties regaining the Chinese support it used to have. Malaysians should remain worried about their country’s political future, unless a “third force” begins to assert itself in a highly bifurcated and muddled political arena.

Splits in BN and PR

Former Premier Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad has been pressing for Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak’s resignation, arguing that Mr Najib’s unpopularity would lead to BN losing the next election. Dr Mahathir has criticised Mr Najib for failing to respond to accusations of misappropriation of public funds through the state-owned strategic development company 1Malaysia Development (1MDB) and the murder of Mongolian Altantuya Shaariibuu in 2006.

Last Thursday, Najib appeared on national television to respond to Dr Mahathir’s criticisms, and said he was answerable to Malaysians and his party, not to one person. Most analysts argue that Najib is able to fend off Dr Mahathir’s attacks because he continues to have the support of Umno leaders and there are no strong contenders within the party to replace him. However, one should not underestimate Dr Mahathir’s influence in the party and ability to galvanise grassroots support to oust Najib, as he had done with former Prime Minister Tun Abdullah Badawi.

Still, the problems in Umno are unlikely to cause BN to break up. Umno has had enough experience with leadership splits, such as Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah’s challenge to Dr Mahathir’s leadership in 1987; Anwar Ibrahim’s sacking from Umno in 1998; and Badawi’s ouster as Prime Minister in 2009. It is the instability within the MCA and the MIC that is threatening the 40-year-old coalition’s survival. The infighting among MIC leaders has been going on for years, while the MCA has been unable lately to capture the support of Chinese voters, unlike during the Mahathir era. Umno’s Islamisation drive, which intensified under the Najib government, has made it more difficult for the MCA to regain the trust of non-Malays.

On the other hand, divisions within the opposition coalition began with the so-called Kajang Move last year to install opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim as Chief Minister of Selangor, replacing Tan Sri Khalid Ibrahim. Following Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim’s jail sentence for sodomy and disqualification to run for the Kajang seat, PR’s inability to agree on who should lead Selangor led the public to question its ability to govern. The death of PAS’ spiritual leader, Datuk Nik Abdul Aziz Nik Mat, in January has exacerbated PR’s woes. Both Anwar and Nik Aziz were strong leaders who held the pact together. To add to PR’s problems, PAS has been pushing to implement Islamic criminal law, or hudud, in Kelantan, a move that its partners in PR have said is against the pact’s common policy framework. The DAP has gone so far as to accuse PAS of betraying the PR alliance and suspended ties with PAS president Abdul Hadi, prompting suggestions that PR is on the verge of breaking up.

 What the third force can do

With both BN and PR fragmented, do Malaysians have a choice? It is time for a “third force” to speak up. This third force need not necessarily emerge as a separate political party. It could be a coalition of civil activists, academics and even politicians from existing parties who understand the country’s history and social contract embodied in the Constitution. This third force should spur a rethinking of dominant political ideologies in Malaysia in two aspects.

First, it should find a middle ground in an ethnic-based political discourse, with secularism and meritocracy. Arguably, some form of affirmative action is still needed to correct decades of colonial policies that marginalised indigenous communities. Yet, meritocracy is also important as it rewards individuals, regardless of their ethnicity, for their hard work. Moreover, Malaysia must remain secular, given its complex multicultural make-up, but Malaysians must also recognise the country’s historically defined Islamic identity. Right now, political parties uncompromisingly advocate extreme forms of meritocracy, Islamism and racialised politics. The third force should consider DAP leader Lim Kit Siang’s recent proposal of a “Save Malaysia” coalition. Lim had called on progressives and moderates from BN, PR and politicians from Sabah and Sarawak to unite in defending the Federal Constitution.

Second, the third force must embrace ketuanan rakyat, a slogan promoted by the opposition. However, it must move beyond rhetoric in its implementation. There can be no ketuanan rakyat if politics continue to be monopolised by a select few, especially those with close ties to the ruling elite. Ketuanan rakyat must also struggle for the people’s interests. As the recent water crisis in PR-controlled Selangor demonstrated, politicians are more interested in scoring political points than ensuring the welfare of residents. Besides, the third force must be bold enough to speak up against nepotism, both in BN and PR.

Having heard young politicians from both camps speak, I can see their readiness to challenge existing ideas and parameters and am sanguine that they can lead this third force to drive the country forward. Some of these politicians have spoken on issues pertaining to political accountability, democracy and human rights. Nevertheless, their main challenge is to penetrate the all-pervasive racialised, religious and personality-based politics, which have coloured the political scene for decades. Though the gatekeepers of these ideologies are still entrenched in the two camps, the split within both BN and PR serves as a good opportunity for the emergence of this progressive, moderate and united third force. Its emergence will redefine Malaysian politics, pressuring senior politicians to make way for younger ones to have a greater say in running the country.