PENANG: Malaysia’s Barisan Nasional (BN) government survived the general elections of 2008 and 2013, fending off strong attacks from the Pakatan Rakyat. But then, in 2018, it suddenly fell — at the hands of the newly formed Pakatan Harapan.
Certain new elements coming into play appeared to make the difference: The 1MDB scandal growing to enormous proportions; the GST pushing consumer prices upwards; and the emergence of Bersatu and a wider, formidable opposition force coalescing under the leadership of Dr Mahathir Mohamad.
But beyond that immediate story, there is another set of dynamics to consider: The options that lie ahead for the country in its attempt to a find a developmental narrative that, though continuing in effect to champion the majority Malays, does not cripple the economy’s future and the innovative strength of its multiethnic population.
THE REBIRTH OF THE OPPOSITION
One fact to consider is that whenever the Democratic Action Party (DAP), largely backed by the Malaysian Chinese population, had worked together with the Islamist Parti Agama SeMalaysia (PAS), either formally or merely tactically, the rise in support had never been big enough or stable enough to topple the BN.
Furthermore, this awkward alliance, with little in common apart from their opposition of the BN, tended to provide the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), with ready racially and religiously charged narratives to divide this opposition whenever it needed to and undermine them.
And so, former prime minister Najib Razak’s success in splitting the Pakatan Rakyat in 2015 may have broken up the coalition, but this move backfired on him by 2018, by allowing for a new coalition of opposition parties, now rid of potentially divisive religious issues to challenge him, and to finally defeat him.
To be sure, the non-Islamic opposition to the BN had never been able to mount a proper challenge before 2018.
Another is the fact that non-Malays, over the last three elections, encouraged by the new rhetoric coined by Malay leaders such as Anwar Ibrahim and by the rise of Reformasi activists, found themselves congregating around Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) and the DAP under inclusive, non-race based slogans acceptable to all communities, namely “good governance”, “transparency”, institutional reforms”, “fair elections”, and the like.
This now reliably anti-BN non-Malay constituency provided the opposition as a whole with a stable base upon which to strategise further.
BATTLE FOR THE MALAY GROUND
From that point on, the battle was about the Malay ground. The number of major Malay parties growing to five in the last few years is evidence of that. “Malay disunity”, or “Malay diversity” to be more correct, turned out not to be bad for the Malays or for the country; it was just bad for UMNO and the BN.
This political miscellany was more an expression of political maturity and discontent than a harbinger of communal strife. In effect, it allowed for a corrupt government to crumble.
Since that now-fallen government had claimed to be the champion of Malay rights, its collapse also morally bankrupted race-championing agendas — at least for the immediate future.
The divisiveness sown by UMNO had allowed for a serious mismanagement of the country and for corruption to reach the shocking levels it did during Najib’s second term.
Predictably, the fall of UMNO and BN from power quickly precipitated their post-election disintegration. Without a moral compass, the ship spiralled into a whirlpool; and Malaysian politics has been proven to be more about patronage than most people, even critics, had wanted to assume.
A NEW MORAL COMPASS NEEDED
It is clear that the badly diminished UMNO must now find a new moral compass or risk obliteration.
What should also be clear is that the armada of four parties that sank the BN on May 9 is seriously in need of a framework that can unite them in policymaking and governing the way fighting the BN had united them in electoral campaigning.
Such a new framework cannot ignore the special needs of the Malay community in their effort to be competitive in the world, just as it cannot ignore the fact that Malaysia cannot develop if it continues to treat inter-ethnic relations like a zero-sum game.
Nor can it ignore the fact that whatever the direction chosen, the journey will be a painful one. National institutions have suffered far too long from malaise, and too much suspicion and distrust have been propagated among the Malaysian population to the benefit of politicians.
In short, too much race baiting and racial prejudices had been encouraged in the past decades for a new and inspiring Malaysia to arise without the need for a lot of soul searching and bold policy shifts.
THE ROAD AHEAD
With the range of political parties now available to the Malay community, one should expect an effervescent period in Malay politics, hopefully marked by a confidence that will make a wholehearted acceptance of the multicultural nature of Malaysia more likely. It is only with that acceptance that the country can move forward without distractive and destructive internal squabbles.
The big challenge for leaders of Pakatan in the coming months is to dare to think long term, to banish bad habits of political sophistry, and propagate a new narrative for Malaysians in the next phase of the country’s development.
Sadly, this is also a time of easy populism, and resorting to short-term populist methods to get by can be a temptation members of the new government find hard to resist.
Dr Ooi Kee Beng is the Executive Director of Penang Institute. His latest book is Catharsis: A Second Chance for Democracy in Malaysia (ISEAS, Penang Institute & SIRD: 2018).