The history of Malay political unity

Nathaniel Tan, The Star

PRIME Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s latest call for Malays to unite under a single political party (his) has raised some eyebrows.

At the heart of the matter is the question of what Malay unity is, and how and why it is important in Malaysia.

In answering (at least part of) this question, there are significant and interesting insights we can gleam by studying the historical context.

In the beginning, there was Umno.

I say more or less because some historical narratives would have us believe that Umno was the be-all and end-all in the lead-up to Malaya’s independence in 1957.

Documentaries like Sepuluh Tahun Sebelum Merdeka offer a more complex and inclusive version of history.

In any case, Umno has been a major institution since its formation in 1946 by Datuk Onn Jaafar.

One of the more interesting historical facts about Umno is the number of splinter or breakaway parties that have originated from Umno.

Possibly the very first such splinter party was founded by Onn Jaafar himself, who left Umno to form the Independence Party of Malaya (1951), and thereafter Parti Negara (1954) – both of which espoused a multiethnic approach to politics, as opposed to a monoethnic one.

And 1951 was also the year that PAS was founded. At first, it was an interesting institution that existed in parallel with Umno – even to the point where dual membership in the two parties was allowed.

By 1953, PAS was developing into a distinct entity, and dual membership was no longer permitted. By the late 1950s, the leadership had taken a decidedly more anti-Umno bent.

In 1956, Datuk Seri Dr Burhanuddin al-Helmy became president of PAS, a post he would hold for 13 years.

In light of current PAS president Datuk Seri Abdul Hadi Awang’s rather farcical notion that asset declaration is some socialist plot pushed by the DAP, it is rather ironic to note that Burhanuddin al-Helmy would have probably himself have identified as a socialist. Such was PAS’ ideology in its founding years.

PAS grew to become easily the country’s second most prominent and enduring Malay-based party, never having entirely been off the political map throughout Malaysia’s history.

The next big change arguably came about in 1987, when Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah challenged Dr Mahathir for the Umno presidency. Among Tengku Razaleigh’s allies was then Umno deputy president Tun Musa Hitam.

This turned out to be a brutal, all-out political war, in which several significant things happened.

Firstly, the original Umno was deregistered by the courts, meaning that the Umno of today is not technically the Umno of 1946, but “Umno Baru”, as registered by Dr Mahathir in 1988.

Secondly, Tengku Razaleigh eventually formed a splinter party, Semangat 46, in 1989.

Semangat 46 formed not one but two coalitions to challenge Barisan Nasional – Gagasan Rakyat, with DAP and Parti Rakyat Malaysia; and Angkatan Perpaduan Ummah, with PAS, the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Front (Berjasa), Parti Hizbul Muslimin Malaysia (Hamim) and the Malaysian Indian Muslim Congress (Kimma).

These coalitions contested the 1990 general election, but only won eight out of 180 federal seats (but did manage to sweep all 39 state seats in Kelantan). In 1994, Semangat 46 renounced its multiethnic approach to politics, and became the monoethnic Parti Melayu Semangat 46.

After continuing to lose popularity, Tengku Razaleigh eventually disbanded Semangat 46 in 1996, rejoining Umno with most party members.

Only two years later in 1998, Umno would face its next biggest challenge, with the sacking of then Umno deputy president Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim.

This history is rather more familiar, so to make a long story short, in 1999 yet another Umno splinter party was formed in the wake of Anwar’s sacking: Parti Keadilan.

Keadilan was the latest to experiment with multiethnic politics, being the first major party in decades (or ever, arguably) to have a membership composition that was even vaguely in proportion to the actual demographics of Malaysia.

Keadilan formed Barisan Alternatif, a coalition which included PAS, DAP and Parti Rakyat Malaysia, and which made significant electoral gains in the 1999 general election.

These gains were reversed in the next general election in 2004, in which new Umno president Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi led Barisan Nasional to a resounding victory, which in turn led to the disbandment of Barisan Alternatif.

Abdullah’s tenure proved less than inspiring however, and the 2008 general election gave rise to the term “political tsunami”.

Pakatan Rakyat, consisting of PKR, DAP and PAS was then formed, and contested the general election in 2013, surrounded by great hype and excitement.

When the results failed to meet expectations, disillusionment and a breakdown of political cohesion soon followed.

The next five years saw what was arguably the height of political “splinterism” in Malaysia.

In 2015, after being wiped out in the PAS elections, a group of progressives in PAS left to found the splinter party Parti Amanah Negara – a “more progressive” version of PAS.

Almost exactly a year later, the Umno splinter party Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia – supported by Dr Mahathir – was formed a few months after then Umno deputy president Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin was sacked from Umno.

Apparently, the post of Umno deputy president is a rather iffy spot, prone to all sorts of political mishaps.

So, let’s do a quick recap. We have: Umno in 1946, PAS (Umno splinter) in the mid 1950s, Semangat 46 (Umno splinter) 1989-1996, Keadilan (Umno splinter) 1998-present, Amanah (PAS splinter) 2015-present, Bersatu (Umno splinter) 2016-present.

As an aside, it must be noted that this is far from a uniquely Malay problem. Gerakan for instance was arguably an MCA splinter party.

On the whole, history suggests that splintering and dividing is a key feature of Malay and Malaysian politics.

Most Malays today will probably think of the 1970s and 1980s as the glory days of Malay political unity, where Malay political power was divided only between Umno, and to a much smaller extent, PAS.

In comparison to those two, there are now no fewer than five Malay political parties that can be considered significant.

As I argued previously, having Malay political power split across five different parties creates considerable anxiety – conscious or subconscious.

This is in many ways the real context and roots of the incessant use of divisive racial and religious rhetoric by politicians.

This too is the likely context of Dr Mahathir’s latest call for Malays to unite under one (his) political party, the way they “should”, and he is not sentimental about which name that party bears.

Ultimately, the implication here is that the current division of the Malay vote across five different political parties may not be entirely sustainable.

The question of course is what system or structure should take its place?

Dr Mahathir is showing relatively clear signs that he prefers the old Barisan Nasional model, with one strong Malay party unambiguously in pole position.

There is obvious historical precedent that can be used as arguments supporting this approach.

There is insufficient space in this article to discuss these further at length, but the fundamental question this then raises is: just because it worked in the past, does it mean it is the best model for the future?

And if not, what model should we be looking towards?

By way of epilogue: political scientist Wong Chin Huat once remarked in a lecture that there should be no such thing as complete political “unity”, as this would imply zero political choice for citizens. If that was what we wanted, he quipped, we should all become like North Korea.

This, oddly enough, prompts me to end yet another (unrelated) article with the same question: Do we want to be like North Korea?