Can an effective new political force emerge?
Many are now turning their hopes and aspirations towards other political alternatives.
Murray Hunter, Free Malaysia Today
The same political leaders have dominated top office in Malaysia over the last 40 years. Personality politics has dominated political discussion over this period.
While the major economic issues have been debated on the basis of entitlement, race and religion, governance has been trivialised into who can and can’t call god Allah, what a whisky can be named, and whether Malays can deliver food orders that contain pork to customers.
The major issues and challenges facing Malaysia’s future have been totally neglected, epitomised by the recent floods.
The political environment has been devoid of discussion over which way the country should progress, while it is quickly slipping behind its neighbours. More Malaysians are finding it much more rewarding to work overseas in search of better opportunities.
The short Pakatan Harapan stint in government was disappointing for those who voted for it. This was reflected in the poor performance in by-elections when it was still in government and subsequent state elections.
With a government bankrupt of any vision for the country, the middle class is rapidly falling into poverty due to government mishandling of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Many are now turning their hopes and aspirations towards other political alternatives.
Aspiration to change
Over the last few months, a number of independent social and political movements have been taking form. They have an aspiration to change the nature of politics in Malaysia. The rest of this article will look at these movements.
Malaysian United Democratic Alliance (Muda): Syed Saddiq Syed Abdul Rahman has redeemed his image from his days as a minister in the PH government, and was the primary co-founder of Muda, last September. Initial government rejection of the group’s application to be registered as a political party, and PKR and DAP’s poor electoral performance, has enabled Syed Saddiq to gain some spotlight.
Muda is a youth-orientated party, inspired by the now defunct Future Forward Party in Thailand. It is multiracial and was active within the community raising funds for and providing flood relief to victims.
Syed Saddiq is planning a nationwide “listening tour” to find out the aspirations of voters to create a platform.
Although Syed Saddiq failed to gain PKR’s Nurul Izzah Anwar and Rafizi Ramli as foundation members, to his disappointment, there is a wide range of youth within the Muda pro tem committee.
On Dec 17, Shafie Apdal’s Sabah-based Warisan announced it would enter national politics and form an alliance with Muda.
Warisan, although a relatively new political party, is strong within Sabah and in 2018, allied with PH in government. Last year, former prime minister Dr Mahathir Mohamed proposed Shafie as a prime ministerial candidate in a coalition he tried to create.
Warisan announced that it would take on DAP and PKR in some of their electoral strongholds in the next general election.
Together with Muda, this coalition can do some electoral damage to PH. Certainly, without Warisan’s support from Sabah, PH will have little chance of forming any federal government.
However, some pundits feel that if Muda and Warisan don’t collaborate with PH in the peninsula, their electoral prospects will be very poor. In this scenario, Muda and Warisan would just become spoilers for PH in many constituencies.
Gerak Independent: At the same time there is an initiative launched by the Malaysians for Justice and Unity Foundation (Maju) to support a number of independent candidates for Parliament to put a third voice in the political arena.
Several high-profile candidates including human rights lawyer Siti Kassim, former Umno MP Tawfik Ismail, former journalist Charles CJ Chow, Raveenthereran Suntheralingam, activist KJ John, and Sabah-based lawyer Roland Cheng will contest the next general election.
Parti Kuasa Rakyat: Kuasa was founded last October by Kamarazaman Yaakob, brother of Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob. Although the party expresses itself as multiracial, politically it supports the current government.
Parti Bangsa Malaysia (PBM): On Dec 21, PBM claimed some 53,000 NGO members from Peggerak Kommuniti Negara (PKN) had pledged loyalty to the party. PBM has set out an agenda, “The Great Reset 2030”, to correct what they have described as 30 years of stagnation and political immaturity.
Although PBM claims to be citizen-centric, the party platform promotes the development of Industry 4.0, a policy which will primarily benefit large corporations rather than Malaysia’s 1.2 million MSMEs. It claims to be a multiracial political party, but is supportive of the current Ismail Sabri government.
Prima facie, PBM looks to be a future political platform for the Azmin Ali group within the current government.
As has been seen in the recent Sarawak election, money and extensive grassroots resources are required to have any meaningful electoral impact.
Even Parti Socialis Malaysia (PSM), with extensive grassroot links to community groups and labour unions, could only achieve parliamentary representation with the assistance of DAP and PKR, losing the Sungei Siput seat in 2018 when PKR ran a candidate against the incumbent Michael Jayakumar Devaraj.
Likewise, the political fortunes of the one-issue Parti Bumi Kenyalang (PBK) in the recent Sarawak state elections were completely decimated, where all candidates lost their election deposits. This occurred regardless of the strong vocal support that the party’s secession issue received prior to the polls.
For Gerak Independent, running a limited number of high-profile candidates, if well supported financially with resources on the ground, it is not impossible for a couple of them to win their constituencies in Malaysia’s “first past the post” (FPTP) system. The same situation may exist for Muda, particularly if it collaborates with PKR.
This might allow a small group of independents in Parliament. However, any independent will struggle inside the house with the stringent standing orders favouring the government of the day.
However, the prestige of being an MP may assist in raising their profile outside Parliament.
A compliant culture
Probably the most potent movement is #Lawan, which has spontaneously grown out of the #Blackflag movement.
#Lawan is a movement attuned towards the young using non-traditional methods to express their message. It has so far escaped from falling into the cult of personality, which most political parties embrace.
#Lawan may one day become the precursor of a totally non-racial and secular approach to politics.
Personality politics destroyed the spirit of reformasi in PKR, and the vison of a Malaysian Malaysia within DAP.
With Malaysia quickly sliding economically, and looking more like a fundamentalist state that is repressive towards new ideas, there is an opening for a third force.
This is what is happening in Thailand. However, the authorities have seen the threat to the establishment and are harshly clamping down on the movement, charging and jailing most of the leaders.
The authorities in Malaysia have taken a similar approach to the threat of #Lawan.
It is difficult to see any similar mass movement on the streets in Malaysia grow to hundreds of thousands.
Malaysia has traditionally a much more compliant culture. Consequently, into the immediate future, Malaysia is stuck with the old leadership that is not doing any favours for the nation.
The FPTP system restricts plural representation in the lower house of parliament, and the Senate is a totally undemocratic house.
One of the major impediments on any third political force are institutional barriers. Any new political grouping will have great difficulty being registered as a political party. There is also an institutional bias that scares many Malays from speaking up for what they really believe.
Malaysia has dropped from 101 to 118 in the World Press Freedom Index in 2021, and police are extremely active questioning anyone who makes provocative statements or criticisms on social media.
There are Malay groups which are trying to teach others the actual meaning of the Quran, exposing corruption, and promoting a Bangsa Malaysia identity, that are continually monitored by the authorities.
When the #Benderaputih or #Whiteflag campaign sporadically arose, it was harshly suppressed by the authorities.
Popular movements tend to collapse in Malaysia. The reformasi movement became political and lost its spirit, and Bersih was continually attacked and hounded by the authorities. #Lawan is the latest.
However, the Malaysian political environment is very different from 2018. The Malay-centric parties are now fragmented. The religious elements within the government are making decisions that affect non-Muslims.
The Ismail Sabri government’s economic policies have been exposed for being overly ethnic-biased.
The 2018 general election showed that the government can be defeated. Anwar Ibrahim’s poor handling of opposition strategy and the resulting poor electoral performance has opened up a political void there is now a mad scramble to fill.
Murray Hunter is is an independent researcher and former professor with the Prince of Songkhla University and Universiti Malaysia Perlis.