Should Anwar step down?

Wong Chin Huat, KTEmoc Konsiders

Should Anwar step down? The short answer is “yes” because no political leader is indispensable. We really do not need another Dr Mahathir Mohamad who thinks otherwise.

For the record, Anwar’s career as Malaysia’s opposition leader effectively started on this day exactly 23 years ago, when he was sacked by Mahathir as deputy prime minister.

The longer and the more relevant answer is two inter-related questions: “When?” and “How?”

These questions need to be contemplated by both opposition supporters and other Malaysians who want a healthy multiparty democracy.

The calls for Anwar’s withdrawal have grown stronger with his failure to take power after Muhyiddin Yassin’s resignation.

Some have compared Anwar’s failure to British or Australian opposition leaders who resign after their party failed to win elections to both assume responsibility and allow renewal.

Such logic is principally correct but a proper application needs to be contextualised in at least two ways.

First, what caused the Malaysian opposition’s defeat under Anwar? Second, how were replacements in the British and Australian parties found?

Responsibility for opposition’s defeats

Anwar has had the record of two electoral defeats (1999 when he was in jail and 2013) and four attempts to seize or reclaim power by way of parliamentarian support (September 2008, February 2020, September-December 2020, and finally August 2021).

I don’t know if anyone would fault him for losing the 1999 election as a jailed leader or the 2013 election for losing the election despite winning the popular vote.

So, the basis for Anwar to take responsibility must come down to his failure in getting MPs to cross over.

Should he be punished because courting MPs’ crossover is as immoral as opposition supporters passionately believe when they talk about the “backdoor government”?

If so, Anwar’s qualified successor must be someone who principally opposes party-hopping. The only name that comes to mind, unfortunately, is the late Karpal Singh.

Now, if Anwar’s fault is not about courting MPs to cross over, but only his failure of doing this excellently, unlike his help for Mahathir in bringing down the PBS state government in 1994, then two alternatives can be considered – Shafie Apdal and Mahathir.

Immediately after Anwar’s loss to Ismail Sabri Yaakob, Shafie asserted that the opposition could have won power if he was the opposition’s candidate because “There were colleagues coming from Bersatu, from PKR and from Umno too. They are quite close to me too. And there were also some from Sarawak.”

This assertion is as credible as Anwar’s claim of a “strong, formidable and convincing majority”.

Why should Umno parliamentarians enthrone Anwar or Shafie, who will be buried by angry Umno grassroots the next election, instead of one of their own? Likewise, why should Bersatu or GPS parliamentarians abandon their powers and perks in an Ismail Sabri government to make Shafie the first East Malaysian PM?

Anwar is indeed guilty for repeatedly selling his political fairy tales but will the opposition do better by opting for another chaser of “number bubble”?

Where are his replacements?

Let’s move on to the next question. Can we emulate the British and Australian parties? Of course, you can but you might first want the opposition to emulate their British and Australian counterparts by forming a shadow cabinet.

Take, for example, British Labour, whose leaders Ed Miliband and Jeremy Corbyn resigned after their party’s electoral defeats in 2015 and 2020. But where did their successors come from?

Ed Miliband was shadow secretary of state for energy and climate change in acting leader Harriet Harman’s shadow cabinet (May – September 2010). In turn, Harman, who took over after Ed Miliband’s resignation, was his deputy for five years (2010 – 2015).

Jeremy Corbyn was the first and so far the sole outsider parliamentary opposition leader. However, Corbyn’s successor Keir Starmer was his shadow secretary of state for exiting the European Union (2016-2020).

Why must there be a shadow cabinet? Why can’t British parties just choose the best political talent?

Simple. The UK is not a presidential system and parliamentary democracies require teamwork and lay down two constraints on the choice of party leader.

First, the leader should be a sitting MP. Second, the leader must command the support of his/her parliamentary colleagues and can work well with senior colleagues. That’s why leadership succession in British parties do not happen in a vacuum.

The situation is only more complicated for Malaysia where parties form pre-election coalitions, where leadership changes may happen with the passing of the baton from one party to another. When that happens, will the new leader privilege his own party over others?

This is not at all saying the next opposition leader must come from PKR. No party or individual must be given such a monopolistic claim.

In Germany, the conservative bloc was twice led by the leader from the Bavaria-based CSU rather than the national CDU. This didn’t cause the coalition to break up like how Mahathir’s and Muhyiddin’s governments ended because rules are clearly laid.

For the opposition to have an orderly and peaceful transition, there must be a shadow cabinet. Ironically, this was rejected by not only Anwar and other Pakatan Harapan parties, but also by Shafie’s Warisan, who dismissed the call for a shadow cabinet as “politicking”.

Harapan’s ‘deep society’ challenge

Many think that Anwar must go for the opposition to win GE15, never mind if it takes a bloody and messy fight.

Some see Anwar as a damaged good, “too liberal” to be acceptable by Malay-Muslim nationalists in both the political establishment and society.

Others don’t trust Anwar for his Islamist roots. Many liberals who see East Malaysia as the last line of defence for inclusion and multiculturalism are rooting for a new leader from the East, and Shafie appears to be the man of the hour.

However, if Shafie’s election tagline that charms the liberals, “we are here to build a nation, not a particular race or religion” were to appear on banners in every Malay kampung in the peninsula, would Shafie become as toxic as Anwar for the Malay-Muslim market?

Pakatan Harapan’s ultimate problem lies not in the “deep state”, but in the “deep society”. Malaysia is so deeply divided along ethnoreligious lines that Malay-Muslims and ethnic minorities may be united by their rejection of Umno’s authoritarianism and corruption, but they can be easily split over NEP and Islamisation.

To win a solid majority, the opposition would need to mellow its stance on interethnic equality and cultural freedom but that, in turn, would alienate its non-Muslim and liberal base.

The way out of this trap is not to win a good-versus-evil war against the Malay-Muslim parties. Instead, it requires institutional reforms that transform politics from ethnoreligious jealousy to professional competition over policies that cut across, not along, communal lines.

The pandemic actually offers a golden opportunity to reorient Malaysian politics, when Malay unity turns out to be a false promise that cannot prevent #kerajaangagal and #duadarjat. However, the federal opposition and its three state governments have failed to offer a clear alternative.

Not only did it adamantly resist calls to form a shadow cabinet, but it also could not present a shadow budget, which it did for seven years before winning power.

In the naked pursuit of vast incumbent advantages to win GE15, Harapan’s futile attempt to restore the GE14 mandate without offering alternative governance programmes only makes it self-serving and disconnected.

Now, talking about GE15, Harapan still shows no sign that it would get serious on governance as a real government-in-waiting.

Be a bridge to the future, not a roadblock

The biggest problem for Harapan is not Anwar, but a sense of pseudo-realism that seeks quick fixes, craves incumbent advantages, takes policy matters lightly when in opposition and gets obsessed with personalities.

Harapan needs a leader who can form a shadow cabinet, beat the government with better policies and delivery, bring its Muslim and minority-liberal constituencies to agree on strategic compromises and prepare an orderly transition when the time is up. He/she should be a bridge to a better future, not a roadblock.

This leader needs not to be Anwar. It also does not need to be anyone but Anwar, as long as he or she is younger, never mind if he or she would fix or continue Harapan’s problems and flaws. Nor should the change be a messy fight at all cost.

It is time to be realistic, replacement must not be worse than the incumbent.

WONG CHIN HUAT is an Essex-trained political scientist working on political institutions and group conflicts. Mindful of humans’ self-interest motivation while pursuing a better world, he is a principled opportunist.