Malaysia’s political theatre: it’s all about power

From Murray Hunter, Free Malaysia Today

There is one thing in common with the “Sheraton Putsch” that removed Pakatan Harapan from power, the substitution of Muhyiddin Yassin with Ismail Sabri Yaakob as prime minister and the dissolution of the state assemblies of Sabah, Melaka, and now, Johor.

These events were solely about who should rule. They were not about any fundamental disagreements over policy. They were tactical lunges for power.

The Malaysian political arena is structured in such a way that encourages power plays. Government and politics in Malaysia require various parties to collaborate on mutual objectives, yet compete with each other at the same time. Alliances are made and broken on a regular basis on both sides of politics.

The Malay political environment is influenced by history, a resulting culture that resonates a disposition towards power fixation, a behaviour consistent with these beliefs, and corresponding outcomes based upon power dynamics.

The Machiavellian frame is a good paradigm or window to view the antics and manoeuvring within Malaysian politics. The window enables us to interpret the rhetoric, actions, and outcomes as acts designed to achieve, maintain, and fend off others from power.

The publicity orientated mass political party defections common before elections shows the acting and theatre involved in Malaysian politics. The Ketuanan Melayu or Malay supremacy narrative shows Malaysia’s dark and narcissistic Machiavellian expression.

Niccolo Machiavelli was born in Florence, Italy in 1469. He entered the Florentine government as a secretary and rose dramatically until he was in charge of diplomatic missions.

Machiavelli was himself dismissed from office with a political change and began writing books about government, leadership and power. Machiavelli’s views completely lack sentimentality, were amoral, and took a pragmatic line about being effective in achieving outcomes. He viewed political skills as the most important talent a leader should have.

The Machiavellian frame is a political paradigm that sees leadership and governance within a political arena, where overt and covert agendas, tactics and treachery make theatre.

Leaders who think ‘We are the law’

These concepts and ideas were utilised by former Umno politician and deputy minister Afifuddin Omar who wrote a novel about the intrigue of Malaysian politics called Paradoks.

Afifuddin through his novel exposed the hidden hypocrisy of upright Malay politicians who preached Islamic values only to engage in extra-marital sex, corruption and abuse of power.

In Paradoks, the ruling political party became so powerful it became arrogant, with leaders believing they were above the law. “We are the law” is a common catch-cry within Umno. Leaders surrounded by a corrupt environment have no way to go but to become morally corrupt themselves.

This is a theme that Shahnon Ahmad in his novel SHIT expanded upon. The ruling class uses all of its political apparatus to rule at the expense of moral and religious values. In this light, the formation of Jakim wasn’t about Islam, but was an effort of Dr Mahathir Mohamad to check the powers of the royal households.

Afifuddin espoused that it is the goal of every elected Malay parliamentarian to serve in the Cabinet. As a consequence, a politician’s public persona is very different from their private aspirations. Politicians are masters of switching their personas at any time.

Mahathir’s many faces

It’s not difficult to find examples of this. Mahathir was a master of changing his narratives according to his audiences. Anwar Ibrahim can speak as an Islamist and as a liberal democrat.

Azmin Ali played multiple roles behind the political scene, and has maintained a senior ministerial portfolio across three administrations.

Many ministers and state chief ministers hold massive corrupt portfolios and businesses by proxy, while advocating Islam and ethics of government.

The people can’t be sure who their politicians really are and what they stand for. Even the bright young hope of Muda, Syed Saddiq Syed Abdul Rahman, advocating a fair and non-discriminatory society, once flirted with Zakir Naik, who holds extreme views about the rights of non-Muslims in Malaysia.

Machiavellian politics can also be used on a macro level. The ruling elite have continually divided the Malaysian people over race and religion.

Elite ‘guardians’ who rob the masses

The Malay elite have pretended to be the guardians and defenders of the Malays and robbed them blind through the misappropriation and corruption of public funds. The elite have created fictional enemies to create fear and keep them in power.

Malaysian leaders are masters at acting in the most pious manner, being faithful towards Islam, but behind the scenes intentionally start rumours and disseminate misinformation to destroy the reputations of their political competitors.

Malaysian politicians by nature rarely expose their true intentions. These only become visible when it is the right time to do so.

Mahathir allowed the illusion that he had changed and wanted to right his past wrongs to develop during the 2018 general election campaign when he rode to victory under Pakatan Harapan’s reform platform.

It’s all about power

Malaysian politics is a power game. The selection of political candidates for public office is a prize for the prime minister to select. This is leading to a dire power struggle within Umno today.

The party president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi has the right to select candidates over prime minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob. This is the source of the struggle with a general election due next year.

Umno’s current political upheaval has nothing to do with ideology, just power. Umno is a party full of powerbrokers, warlords, divisional chiefs and families who pledge their loyalties to anyone who will provide them with the most advantages and favours.

Cabinet positions, membership in agency and GLC boards, and commercial contracts are the spoils of war. Winners usually play zero-sum games and everyone knows this.

Consequently, creating regulations, monopoly concessions, and restrictive licensing for cronies is a necessary fact of the current political system. These business spoils also fill election war-chests to ensure they win.

Making sure politics pays

The electors within the Malay heartlands see their politicians as hero Robin Hoods. They steal from the rakyat and give tokens back during election time. Power is a great investment. Spend during an election campaign and win the power to get returns many times back.

Bending and breaking the rules have no ethical consequences to Machiavellian politicians. It’s part of their cultural programming. Corruption is partly just a means to an end.

The whole country has slipped into the Machiavellian paradigm. While audiences around the world watch Frank Underwood in the House of Cards manipulate and cheat his way to the presidency, even committing a murder, Malaysians chat all day in coffee shops and in Whatsapp groups about the latest scandal.

Malay politicians are expected to provide entertainment, so behaving that way fails to shock. Scandals that break are usually quickly forgotten and the politicians get away.

These antics divert public attention away from the real issues of the nation such as inflation, growing poverty, public health, lack of provisions for retirement and poor infrastructure throughout much of the country.

Roots of Malay Machiavellianism

Malay Machiavellianism has deep historical and cultural roots. The Malay Sultanates pre-colonial days were centred around loyalty to the monarch, rather than loyalty to a state that was very vaguely defined geographically.

Subjects had a wa’adat or social contract with the ruler. The people accepted the right of the sultan to rule, and the sultan would protect them. Disobedience to the ruler was considered an act of treason. Power was the concept of Malay sovereignty, not territories that colonial administrations created during British rule.

The concept of ‘kerajaan’ or a government of the Sultan is culturally deeply accepted among the Malays. This installed a respectful subservience in the population, publicly unquestionable.

The first prime minister Tunku Abdul Rahman said without protecting the influence of the rulers, the Malays would lose whatever semblance of belonging they might have in the land of their birth.

The political leadership partly hijacked this concept of authority, which installed them as the effective power of the nation. Opportunistic Malay politicians nurtured the narrative of Ketuanan Melayu, or Malay supremacy, to self-legitimise power.

Power that corrupts

Machiavellianism in Malaysia is about preserving the current power structure within society. These Machiavellian leaders don’t give any importance to community advancement or what is right for the country. They focus on winning for themselves.

However, there is some hope for Malaysia. Machiavelli was never fully understood. He did leave some hope.

Machiavelli was blunt and honest in his appraisal of basic human nature, stripped of moral overtones. Machiavelli’s premise was that power is neutral, and good or evil is generated by the way it is used.

However, this is where the problem lies. When one acquires power, it’s most likely that one will become corrupt as well. This is Malaysia’s tragedy.

Murray Hunter is an independent researcher and former professor with the Prince of Songkhla University and Universiti Malaysia Perlis.