Seeds of Pakatan’s Defeat

William Leong

William Leong Jee Keen

Opposition Coalition Failure

We will never know why Sarawakians on 7 May 2016 returned Barisan Nasional as State government. This is because the opposition failed to offer a viable alternative government for voters to choose. Wisdom, humility, patience, willingness to compromise, cooperation and teamwork, essential requirements for a coalition government were clearly lacking from the opposition leadership and their rank and file.

Same Pillow Different Dreams

This episode reveals although DAP, PKR and Amanah professes to be a multiracial party, each party’s concept and strategy is different. As the Malay proverb says “tidur sebantal tetapi mimpi lain-lain.” If Pakatan Harapan is to become a viable alternative government the parties must reach consensus on the approach to end racial politics. Failure is not an option. If they cannot do this, it is better each go its separate way for the 14th General Election.

The opposition parties have tried and failed to form a coalition many times before. Pakatan Harapan is destined to join the list of failures unless the parties are able to agree upon, implement and assure voters it has a model, strategy and road map for ending racial politics. The opposition must put into place a convincing mechanism for our plural society with its diverse ethnic communities, cultures, religions and languages to live and work in harmony, at ease and at peace with each other. It must be a model that can integrate and accommodate the different ethnic groups and religions. It must allay their collective fears for change in the future brought upon by living through the history of the past. Pakatan Rakyat before this and Pakatan Harapan until now have failed to do this.

To remove a regime sustained by racial politics exercising authoritarian power where elections are not held on a level playing field, the opposition must recognize the differing ethnic or religious support each brings as building blocks to the coalition are also the stumbling blocks to success. To succeed they will need to bring their policies towards the centre avoiding extreme positions that appeal to their supporters but offend others. Each party’s leadership and rank and file need to display wisdom to accept a model for bringing the voters of different ethnicity and religions to support the cause, moderate their policies and tamper their rhetoric. They need to have humility to accept their party may not play the role the dominant partner or its leader the supreme commander of the coalition or designated prime minister. They need patience to make the coalition work, its common policies accepted and confidence in the coalition instilled in the electorate. They need to cooperate and work as a team to achieve success, there is no room for prima donnas.

Political Coalition Negotiating as an Electoral Alliance

Pakatan Harapan negotiates seat allocation like an electoral alliance not a political coalition. An electoral alliance is an agreement made before the election amongst opposition parties to ensure a straight fight between opposition candidates and the ruling party. There is no agreement on policies and government positions. If the electoral alliance wins they may or may not form a government amongst themselves. One or more of the opposition parties may instead even put their lot with the ruling party to form the government. This is what PAS said they will do in the 14GE. The party to rule the federation or the state will be the one with the most seats. This is the reason each opposition party is jockeying for winnable seats, seeking dominance to for appoint the prime minister or chief minister, federal or state ministerial posts including local councillors and village chiefs. This is the main cause for the lack of cooperation and teamwork amongst the Pakatan parties. As patience, tolerance and goodwill have human limits this negotiation system is a model for the self-destruction of Pakatan.

A political coalition on the other hand is an agreement by the political parties before election not only on the allocation of the seats but also the policies and administration of the government if it wins. There is a prior agreement on the post of the prime minister, the cabinet of the federation, the chief minister and executive members for each state, the division and allocation of government positions and including GLC directorship. If the coalition wins and one of the parties fail to win its allocation of seats or even one single seat, the power-sharing agreement is nevertheless put into effect. This ensures unity, mutual assistance and support for each party by the others in the coalition.

It is better for Pakatan to argue the seat allocation, ministerial positions and resolve the differences now than wait to negotiate when elections are called only for the coalition to collapse on nomination day.

Model for Governing a Deeply Divided Society

Pakatan must adopt a suitable model for the government of a plural society. We are all fully aware Malaysia is a society deeply divided by ethnicity, race, religion and language. These ethnic divisions produce ethnic political parties and ethnic voting. With the first past the post system of election and majority rule, UMNO as an ethnic party supported by the majority ethnic group, it can dominate minority groups seemingly in perpetuity.

Ethnic activists and political entrepreneurs make blatant communal appeals and outbid moderate politicians, mobilizing members, polarizing society and magnifying inter-ethnic group dilemmas. Non-rational factors such as emotions, historical memories and myths exacerbate the inter-ethnic tensions. In Malaysia, access to resources lies in the heart of the inter-ethnic tensions. Property rights, jobs, scholarships, education admissions, language rights, government contracts and development allocations confer benefits to the majority ethnic group. Political power is therefore of critical importance. The ethnic group that controls political power gain access to these goods and resources thereby ensuring their social and economic welfare. Where policies and programmes to aid those living in poverty and the disadvantaged is classified by ethnic origins and not class, ethnic minorities are marginalised and discriminated. In a multi-ethnic society such as ours the struggle to control state policy produces the competing ethnic interest.

It is therefore imperative Pakatan Harapan is able to present its vision for interethnic political conciliation.

Pakatan must apply Centripetalism and discard Consociationalism

Barisan Nasional boasts the best approach for achieving stability in our plural society is the BN way. It preaches that only by having race-based parties that are able to come to some degree of understanding and cooperation are we able to achieve a fragile unity and some measure of peace.

In the euphoria of winning five states, denying BN its two-third parliament majority in 2008 and 51% of the popular vote in 2013, some believe racial politics is ended by a Pakatan grand coalition replacing the BN grand coalition. PKR and PAS replace UMNO to represent the Malays and DAP replaces MCA, Gerakan, MIC and the others to represent the non-Malays. It is a simplistic idea and one that is wrong.

Consociationalism failed Malaysia

The BN grand coalition is held out as a form of consociationalist government. A consociationalist government is a model used in plural societies to manage ethnic conflict. It consists of a grand coalition government of elites from each political party representing exclusively his own ethnic group. It is based on the assumption that the elites recognise non-cooperation would lead to adverse consequences, that decisions are made by consensus and right of minority veto would allow the different groups to have a say on policy making and government decisions.

The BN grand coalition failed Malaysia. UMNO enjoys complete dominance and control of BN. The other parties have no influence over government decisions and policies. It has been shown in the past sixty years that consociationalism did not work for Malaysia and other South East Asian countries. It stratified ethnic identity and heightened ethnic differences. The temptation for the elites falling prey to corruption proved too much for many to resist. Interethnic accommodation deteriorated as the rule of law weakened due to the legal institutions’ inability to stand up to the strong political elites. Further, consociationalism proved to be incompatible with open, competitive democracy as a result of a perceived need to control political expression of ethnicity and management of communal relations. The consociational governments of Malaysia, Singapore, Cambodia (where the 1993 constitution required a two-third vote of confidence for the investiture of a new government) and Indonesia (during the 1950’s and under the presidency of Abdulrrahman Wahid between 1999 and 2001) descended into semi-democracies or outright authoritarian regimes.

Centripetalism is the correct tool

PKR believes to end racial politics, Pakatan must discard consociationlism. PKR sees centripetalism as the only model for managing our ethnic issues. The best way to mitigate the destructive patterns of a divided society is not to encourage the formation of ethnic political parties or to replicate existing ethnic divisions in the legislature and other government institutions, but rather to depoliticize ethnicity by requiring politicians and their supporters to accommodate each ethnic group, to seek support from across the ethnic divide and making voters based their choice on issues other than ethnicity.

Centripetalism is the approach to pull the different ethnic groups towards moderate, compromising policies. Politicians in a multi-ethnic party have to appeal to all segments instead of shopping for votes in his own community. Politicians from multi-ethnic parties make cross-ethnic appeals and demonstrate their capacity to represent groups besides their own. Under a centripetalist model politicians move to the centre of policy issues to attract voters from all ethnic groups. It emphasizes the importance of encouraging integration across ethno-political divides.

PKR leaders and representatives being members of a truly multiracial political party have proven their ability to reach out and attract votes from all ethnic groups besides their own, moderate their political rhetoric on potentially divisive issues and have learned to broaden their policy positions to make cross-ethnic appeals.

Anwar Ibrahim has called out from the depths of his prison cell for the party and Pakatan to persevere with the centripetalist model. He knows it works. In 2008, Anwar Ibrahim was able to take Lim Guan Eng into the kampongs and Malay majority constituencies to hold him out as a chief minister who can take care of Malay interest as well as Chinese, Indians, Kadazans, Dayak and all Malaysians.

Putting Centripetalism into practice

To end racial politics Pakatan must adopt centripetalism. This means Pakatan must reject the grand coalition of ethnic parties. DAP is in substance a Chinese-based party expanding into mixed non-Malay seats. By taking away the non-Malay seats from PKR and Amanah, their essential nature of being multi-racial parties is eroded. DAP’s demand, in effect, is for these parties to cede their non-Malay seats, consequently their non-Malay leadership, elected representatives, members and support base to DAP. DAP is pushing PKR and Amanah into becoming Malay political parties. By doing so, DAP is pushing Pakatan into adopting the BN failed consociationlist model.

Adoption and implementation of the centripetalist model is not by one party or the other in Pakatan demanding for winnable seats, it is by the distribution of all Malay-majority, Chinese-majority, mixed seats across the board to each of the three parties equally subject to the peculiar demographics of the states and constituencies. This means PKR and Amanah must be allocated Chinese-majority seats and DAP Malay-majority seats. Each of the parties have to be allocated both urban as well as rural seats. In this way each of the component parties in order to win their diverse ethnic seats has to move their policies from the extreme into the centre and their leadership and grass roots shift their rhetoric from intemperance to moderation.

Leadership and Dominance

Without in any way being disrespectful to the leadership and capabilities of Lim Kit Siang, Lim Guan Eng and all DAP leaders and members, the sad but undeniable truth is the road to end racial politics, no matter how one tries to twist and turn, must pass through the gates of the 60% Malay-Muslim majority holding the key to 114 parliamentary seats in peninsula Malaysia. Gerrymandering and malapportionment will always be there. We have to take this in our stride in the fight against racial politics and an authoritarian regime. Only a Malay-Muslim majority political party which espouses moderation, equality and multi-ethnicity can take us there.

UMNO is well aware of this and have placed great emphasis to remind Malays on the need for Malay unity to protect their race, religion and culture. To maintain their hold on Malay support, Malay leaders who dare to join multi-ethnic political parties are cut-off from the community, turned into outcasts, persecuted, imprisoned and discredited. UMNO did this to Dato Onn Jaffar, have done this to Anwar Ibrahim and will do this to the young Malay leaders, activists, academicians and student leaders. The price extracted on Malays who choose multi-ethnicity and equity is a high one. Anwar Ibrahim has broken this psychological chain used to tie the Malays to UMNO by paying the heavy price of being persecuted, loss of personal liberty and physical well-being. This precious prize so dearly won must be fully capitalized upon by Pakatan.

It is another sad and tragic truth that UMNO has tarred and feathered DAP as the bogeyman for Malays. It is obviously illogical and absolutely untrue that DAP is anti-Malay and anti-Islam. Unfortunately, ill-advised or instinctive responses to UMNO provocation, the occasional slip of the tongue by DAP leaders and the insensitive statements by overzealous grass root leaders serve to validate UMNO’s claims in the eyes of the Malays. UMNO and its media pounced on such statements to ensure Malays will not forgive and never forget such transgressions. UMNO has dehumanized DAP leaders before the Malays resulting in fear and demonization of DAP. Although DAP seeks to address this stigma by appointing Malay leaders and having elected representatives, some of whom are excellent personalities and parliamentarians, it is an uphill task. There is no chance of winning Malay hearts and minds if one cannot even get pass the door.

Until this can be accomplished DAP needs to be sensitive that expansion by them, their ascendancy and assertiveness is seen as dominance in Pakatan Rakyat before and Pakatan Harapan now. It validates UMNO’s rhetoric that the Malay leaders in PKR and PAS then and Amanah now are DAP puppets who have sold their race to the Chinese. PKR and PAS leaders’ credibility before Malay eyes are severely and irreparably damaged. DAP’s victories sow the seeds of Pakatan’s defeat.

This is attested by the 13th General Elections. DAP’s record winning number of 38 parliament seats was matched by an equal impressive win of 88 seats by UMNO. DAP won all the Chinese-majority seats. UMNO won 83.5% of rural seats containing 73.76% of rural Malay votes. PKR and PAS bore the brunt of UMNO’s resurgence. Malays saw the ascendancy of DAP as a challenge to Malay supremacy. Malays fearful of DAP’s agenda as told by UMNO returned to UMNO’s fold. Voting for the other Malay based parties, PAS and PKR was not an option, because they are part of Pakatan and a vote for Pakatan is a vote for DAP. UMNO’s racial rhetoric struck the right chord with the Malays. Irrational as it may sound the fear of Chinese domination and the Malay race disappearing from the face of the earth saw Malays voting to maintain Ketuanan Melayu despite UMNO’s record of financial scandals, poor governance and corruption. Fear after all, is never rational.

For the 14GE, Hadi Awang recognising this, steered PAS out of Pakatan to work with UMNO. PKR and Amanah have kept the faith. They are however, painfully aware that unless fundamental changes are made in Pakatan to attract Malay votes, DAP’s ascendancy hangs like an albatross over their heads to win Malay support.


DAP can win all the non-Malay majority seats but these are not enough to form the government. By taking all the non-Malay majority seats and achieving dominance in Pakatan Harapan, DAP is winning the battle but Pakatan will lose the war. The tragic truth of the racial tensions and ugly reality of our ethnic divide must be dealt with in a practical manner otherwise the cracks in Pakatan may lead to permanent fissure. Failure to learn from victories lead to defeat, failure to learn from defeat lead to destruction.

This article is the personal opinion of the writer. It does not reflect the party’s position and nothing is to be construed as such.