The end of political ideology in Malaysia?

Personality politics has led to the fluidity of political party membership. Members join and quit parties simply because they follow their masters or have disagreed with them. The danger is that disagreements are not based on issues or policy outlook. As a result, we have witnessed many political U-turns in contemporary Malaysian politics.

Norshahril Saat, The Straits Times

There was a time when political parties in Malaysia were clearly differentiated by ideology.

Umno (United Malays National Organisation) struggled for Ketuanan Melayu (Malay supremacy) through affirmative action for Malays and bumiputeras (non-Malay natives), aimed at helping these communities be on equal footing – in economics, business and education – with the Chinese and Indians.

Despite being an ethno- nationalist party, Umno was willing to share power with the Chinese and Indians, represented by the MCA (Malaysian Chinese Association) and MIC (Malaysian Indian Congress) respectively. This multi-ethnic cooperation formed the backbone of the BN (Barisan Nasional) coalition, which has been in power since Malaysia’s independence in 1957.

Among the opposition parties, PAS (Parti Islam SeMalaysia) was an Islamist party and its constituents were mainly Malay/ Muslim voters. DAP (Democratic Action Party) was a secular, multiracial party which struggled for equal rights and a Malaysian Malaysia, though a majority of its members were ethnic Chinese.

Later, there came PKR (Parti Keadilan Rakyat), a metamorphosis of PKN (National Justice Party), which was formed during the Reformasi movement. While a multi-ethnic party, it was still a Malay-dominant one and led by former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim’s family members and loyalists.

PKR struggled for human rights and social justice, fought against corruption in Umno and was bent on making Anwar the next prime minister.

But how important is the concept of party ideology in Malaysia today? To be sure, Malaysian parties continue to represent their ideologies in name. Yet, the frequency of politicians jumping ship from one camp to another raises questions about the values they really stand for.

Understandably, societies are now more complex, and parties need to accommodate diverse views and make compromises. Coalition building is a norm in modern democracies. However, in the case of Malaysia, politicians move across the political spectrum so quickly that party membership no longer seems to depend on ideology but rather, ties with certain personalities. The irony is that politicians who had for decades struggled for certain ideologies now seem willing to reverse them, or even cooperate with their ideological rivals.

Currently, we have politicians who were once staunch ethno-nationalists struggling for pluralism. There are also devoted Islamists who turned liberal, then went back back to their conservative ways. There are also Umno leaders who were once committed to multiculturalism but now behave like Islamists.

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