Do Malaysian political parties have real values or direction?

Nathaniel Tan, The Star

AT the National Economic Forum 2019 in Kuala Lumpur, Former Minister Mustapa Mohamed asked attendees to raise their hands if they agreed that there was too much internal politicking right now in Malaysia.

Some 600 hands – nearly everyone in attendance – shot up.

When asked if anyone disagreed, Deputy Agriculture Minister Sim Tze Tzin was the only person who put up his hand – but one assumes this was for comic relief more than anything else.

I imagine this sentiment and trend would repeat itself if asked in any forum in the country. I can’t for the life of me imagine anyone sitting around and thinking to themselves: “You know what I think Malaysia needs? More internal politicking.”

Politicians tend to fight most among themselves most frequently when there is an absence of firm, well articulated direction from the top.

If a nation’s political leadership does not have a crystal clear vision of what it intends to achieve, the result is what we see in Malaysia today: endless bickering over things that have little or no bearing on the lives of ordinary citizens.

It is not enough that the person or people in charge have a clear vision in their own heads as to what they want to achieve, no matter how noble or genuine. If that vision stays only in one head or a few, the result is essentially political chaos.


‘It wasn’t me’: Redzuan has denied that he had released a video of him belittling a Chinese reporter for not knowing the Rukun Negara at a press conference but some are still urging him to apologise for his racist remarks.What the nation needs as a whole is a functioning national narrative.

A fundamental truth that does not seem to be properly understood yet by our government is that humans understand the world in terms of stories.

For the past year, we have struggled to answer a simple question: what is the actual story of this “New Malaysia”?

Many of us had high and lofty dreams of what the story of this New Malaysia could be. It soon became clear though, that the new government was not willing to invest in articulating this story properly from the top.

In psychology, the term “schema” describes the framework or thought patterns through which people understand the world.

It is essentially impossible for humans to operate without a schema, as one’s world would somewhat literally make no sense.

The absence of a schema is a psychologically intolerable vacuum that the mind will always seek to fill, one way or another. Failure to do so would lead to the extremely uncomfortable experience of cognitive dissonance – again, the feeling that things don’t make sense.

This process is paralleled in Malaysian politics. If there is no clear narrative articulated at the top which serves as the meta story for our national journey as a whole, this creates a vacuum that is just as psychologically intolerable.

In simpler terms, if our leaders don’t provide a watertight story as to where all of us are headed together, then everyone under them will start pushing and pulling in a hundred different selfish directions – resulting in the political equivalent of chaotic Brownian motion.

We see this manifest in how the lack of a locked-in succession timeline is creating endless anxiety and speculation – not only as to when the Prime Minister will hand over power as originally agreed, but if the original agreement will come to pass at all.

From this core question stems an endless stream of intrigue after political intrigue, as political fealties are in constant flux, everyone lobbying for one potential successor or another.

Maybe for old times’ sake, someone even decided to throw in a gay sex scandal in there for good measure. The end result, again, is political chaos.

The dearth of a clearly articulated ideological core for Pakatan Harapan is a problem that cannot be understated.

At the core of this matter is a simple question: do politicians or political parties in Malaysia truly stand for anything, other than themselves?

Do they exist to build a better Malaysia based on well defined core principles and values? Or do they exist just to put certain individuals in power instead of other individuals? (The fact that is a viable question at all means that someone has failed to do their job properly.)

If we compare parties like Umno and Bersatu or MCA and DAP, are these parties different because they have distinctly different visions for Malaysia? Or are they essentially fighting for the same thing, just in different political camps?

Are they different because one is inherently corrupt, and the other is inherently not corrupt? Or is being corrupt defined mostly by who is in power and who is not?

As I argued previously, sometimes it feels very much like the actors have swapped roles, but somebody forgot to change the script.

One of the worst consequences of this is how we have reverted back to fighting constantly about race and religion.

National political discourse, like human beings, needs a schema and an overarching narrative.

When the new government failed to provide these, we filled the resulting intolerable vacuum with what Malaysians historically ‘knew best’ – fighting about race and religion.

This is the backdrop which produced the wildly disproportionate uproar about khat and Dr Zakir Naik.

This is also the backdrop in which Entrepreneur Development Minister Redzuan Yusof deplorably saw fit to racially profile and belittle a reporter at a press conference, and then publish (or allow to be published) a video repeating this attack on Facebook.

Is this the attitude of Bersatu as a whole? If it is not, why was Redzuan not taken to task by his party leaders? Surely this is a bigger issue than speculating as to who would win a general election if it were called today.

DAP Secretary General Lim Guan Eng recently spoke at the Social Democratic Asia Conference in Kuala Lumpur.

Essentially, his message there seemed to be: first, we take care of the economy, and then we can worry about all this fluffy “social” and “democratic” stuff.

There’s nothing wrong with focusing on the economy, especially if done in the context of a focused narrative. What Lim is probably really saying though, is that DAP’s ideological roots are no longer relevant; or at the very least, that they are certainly far from a priority.

Lim’s position reflects a longstanding trend in Malaysia where essentially the only political ideology that “matters” concerns race and religion.

Everybody talks about the feud between the PKR president and deputy president. PKR seems to have failed to get anyone interested in talking about what the party stands for, what ideological goals it is looking to further, or what kind of Malaysia it wants to build. Indeed, one wonders if people within PKR themselves care about any of these things.

If the only difference between Bersatu and Umno is supposed to be about how corrupt they are, then how long will they really be on opposite sides of the political divide?

If bringing down Najib Razak and Barisan Nasional was the only idea holding Pakatan Harapan together, then I suppose it is little wonder that the coalition finds itself wandering and flailing aimlessly in an ideological wilderness, full of sound and fury.

Without a distinct vision for the nation informed and motivated by a very firm set of principles and values, a government will always be vulnerable to the most inane internal bickering and divisive, sordid brand of politics.

Unless Lim’s management of the economy magically doubles the monthly income of working Malaysians, working on the economy will not be enough.

This is the era of Donald Trump and Brexit – where questions of identity and emotional politics will always be at the forefront.

If a government does not define the national narrative on these questions, rest assured, someone will define it for them – and those people aren’t likely to have the nation’s best interests at heart.

Ultimately, if Pakatan Harapan wishes to stay relevant and keep the dream of New Malaysia from turning into a nightmare, they need to answer some very fundamental questions about who they are, and what it is exactly that they really stand for.