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Reconfiguring Malaysia’s Democracy: Looking Beyond 2020

Written by Halmie Azrie, Junior Associate of IDEAS

Updated on 10th May (Originally written on 15th April)

Extinguishing Dimmed Hopes

After a mere twenty-one months, Malaysia Baharu seems to have suffered a destined demise. The implosion of Pakatan Harapan (PH) had been orchestrated by elements from within as well as external opportunists, all of which gradually caused coalition tensions that finally ended a government that came into power after a remarkable electoral result on 9 May 2018. Such internal conflict was foreseen by many due to the varying political interests and differing ideological beliefs that existed in PH.

PKR, DAP, AMANAH and BERSATU were unified in opposition against a common enemy in the form of the heavily tainted Najib Razak administration but were fragmented as a government and were unable to solve their internal disputes. Looming over these conflicts was the renewed clash of personalities between former arch enemies Anwar Ibrahim’s followers and Dr Mahathir Mohamed’s supporters, as well as doubts on the status of succession planning.

Meanwhile, the Opposition wasted no time in forming the Muafakat Nasional (MN) pact, which encompassed top party representatives from a defeated yet still influential Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition led by the United Malays National Organization (UMNO) and the Gagasan Sejahtera (GS) coalition marshalled by Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS).

Conspiring with several representatives from the Malaysian United Indigenous Party (BERSATU) and the largest party in PH, the People’s Justice Party (PKR), the MN pact succeeded to subvert the PH government and outwit Dr Mahathir, preventing him from finishing his second tenure in office. Furthermore, the fall of PH resulted in dismantling ongoing reforms and deny Anwar Ibrahim’s twenty-two-year wait for the premiership.

It gave Muhyiddin Yassin a chance to forge a new hybrid coalition and take the helm as Malaysia’s 8th Prime Minister through what is labelled by critics as ‘backdoor’ dealings plotted among elites and virtually rescinded the democratic worth of Malaysia Baharu. The chaotic ‘game of thrones’ scenario that ensued in late February this year was prolonged by power-plays among actors and advisors alike, although that has been quickly replaced by a more pressing matter.

As the drama unfolded, the Covid-19 pandemic arrived in Malaysia and created the most unprecedented public health challenge in recent memory. It shocked the market by halting the entire demand-supply chain, further deteriorating a lacklustre macro economy already threatened by the trade war between USA and China.

A post Covid-19 situation would need to focus on dealing with recessions, salvaging businesses and handle mounting unemployment. While the newly installed Perikatan Nasional (PN) government of Muhyiddin Yassin scrambled to contain the fallout from Covid-19, his ministers’ performances were being subjected to intense scrutiny and ridicule by political commentators and the public alike.

This ‘new but old’ political arrangement is also convenient for PN’s partners in Borneo through the Sarawak Parties Coalition (GPS) that was instrumental in providing the number of parliamentary seats needed to form a simple, but disputed majority in favour of Muhyiddin Yassin.

The upcoming Sarawak state election certainly played a vital part in political calculations besides offering more leveraging power for Sarawak politicians to pursue their ambitious plan to expand state autonomy that has gained momentum in recent years, referring to the Malaysian Agreement 1963 (MA63) documents.

Recognising The Problems

In the aftermath of a political crisis that was resolved through intervention by the royal institution, the PH coalition remains intact but is severely weakened and reduced to its three original component parties with Anwar Ibrahim’s PKR conducting a massive purge within its rank and file, Lim Guan Eng’s DAP suffering bad publicity from disgruntled Malay-Muslims and also frustrated Chinese supporters, while Mohamad Sabu’s AMANAH embarrassingly lost its own Youth Chief in the following confusion.

The allegiance of the Sabah Heritage Party (WARISAN) and loyalists aligned to Dr Mahathir in BERSATU are still unclear until resumption of the postponed Parliamentary session, which will see PH returning to its familiar role as the main opposition in challenging the legitimacy and mandate of Muhyiddin Yassin’s PN government. With considerable instability, some Malaysians have argued that the once feasible PH formula had failed.

Several factors waned the admiration for the PH government. From a communications angle, the coalition suffered from an incoherent media and public engagement plan. Economic-wise, PH implemented fiscal austerity measures that were extremely unpopular with their core supporters. They were also slammed by stakeholders in civil society for sluggish delivery of manifesto pledges, at times outrightly dismissing even the need to fulfil their promises.

The PH democratic model of ideal consensus also did not sit well with Dr Mahathir’s well-known autocratic style of leadership. He was made to second guess every decision and was constantly overshadowed by the presence of Anwar Ibrahim’s clout in the coalition. This power tussle had exhausted many Malaysians fed up with never-ending politicking, sex scandals, unnecessary banter, and worn-out politicians whose style of leadership did not sit well with the reinvigorating spirit of Malaysia Baharu.

Making matters worse, a nervous PH government was frequently viewed as indecisive when making ‘U-turns’ on their reform proposals in education, religious affairs, national unity, and foreign policy after receiving pushback from conservative groups. The PH ministers would buckle at fierce backlash and were forced to ‘play safe’ by way of careful appeasement to handle the resentments, which in turn had irritated some of their own supporters.

Furthermore, their inexperience in tackling essential ‘bread and butter’ issues such as rising costs of living, student debt and unaffordable housing prices had cost PH much of the goodwill they received upon their victory. Combined with the glaring differences between coalition partners, PH was a fragile ‘house of cards’ waiting to collapse. Apart from the very real shortcomings by PH governance-wise, the then opposition was working hard to galvanise anxieties that were felt by some sections of the Malay-Muslim population.

Tipping Over Tempers

The cooperation between UMNO-PAS using the MN pact as a platform received considerable notice when they convincingly came forth to provoke and mobilise their huge combined membership, advocating on a variety of delicate issues such as the death of fireman Muhammad Adib during the Sri Maha Mariamman temple riots, the anti-ICERD mass protests, Chinese education group Dong Jiao Zong’s resistance to khat calligraphy and Jawi, controversy surrounding Islamic preacher Zakir Naik, the Tabung Haji fiasco, and ‘Buy Muslim First’ boycott campaign.

It was obvious that PH was losing ground across the Malay hinterlands to a far more passionate UMNO-PAS. Delving into grievances expressed by a large portion of rural folks, it is not difficult to realise that local communities are seriously concern, perhaps even hesitant about abrupt changes. They were also offended by the lack of sensitivity from tactless leaders in PH like former minister Waytha Moorthy, Penang state Deputy Chief Dr P. Ramasamy and Selangor state assemblyman Ronnie Liu that habitually spoke bluntly out of line.

Opinion polls published by ILHAM Centre in late 2018, Merdeka Center in mid-2019 and EMIR Research in late 2019 indicated that a vast majority of Malay-Muslims were still unconvinced and distrustful towards PH’s reform policies conceptualised by Malaysia Baharu. Some found the policies to be eroding the recognised ‘social contract’, which resonated with parochial campaigning carried out by UMNO-PAS. Despite a historic transition of power from the long ruling BN regime, PH’s victory at the federal level did not reflect actual sentiments at the ground level as it suffered defeats in several rounds of by-elections.

Initially, numerous pundits predicted the end of UMNO and its BN coalition post GE14. However, UMNO quickly decided to regress itself from being a moderate nationalist party into an assertive ethnocentric party that is more than willing to change tones to appear confrontational. Meanwhile, PAS had always been confined electorally to the eastern coast and northern regions of Peninsular Malaysia, thus chose to revert its party back to religious orthodoxy that enables them to aggressively vie for grassroot backing while operating through extensive networks of mosques, suraus and ceramahs to depict PH as anti-Islam, secularly oriented and inclined to liberal tendencies.

A new roster of embolden Malay ‘warriors’ and Muslim ‘protectors’ were pushed into the spotlight to rebrand the image of their respective parties and extend its propaganda scope using sensational polarisation tactics. Cybertroopers equipped with counter-narratives created strong momentum to distract audiences away from the disgraceful graft charges, by linking the Malay-Muslim destiny with their parties’ return to power.

To top it all off, Dr Mahathir gave the keynote address at the special Malay Dignity Congress on 6th October 2019 that was attended by top officials from both the PH government and MN pact. The emergence of a purely Malay-Muslim bloc was hinted at a month later with the second attempt at crossing over fellow politicians, arranged by PKR’s Azmin Ali and UMNO’s Hishammuddin Hussein.

The defections were aimed at laying the groundwork to safeguard BERSATU’s long term existence with increased parliamentary seats, to signal the impending departure of Azmin Ali’s faction from PKR, to casually help UMNO back into a favourable position, and to reward PAS with a greater role at federal level. This eventually would turn out to be the skeleton composition for Muhyiddin Yassin’s PN government.

Addressing Domestic Challenges

A symbolic unification between the two largest and oldest parties in Malaysia captured the public’s imagination whose endorsement of MN was a much-needed outlet to channel their bitter objections against the ‘un-Malay’ and ‘anti-Islamic’ PH government. Preying on people’s fear of losing special privileges, the ‘nativists’ and ‘Islamists’ of MN sought to regain control of national politics by merging with mutinous PH leaders wanting to guarantee that their political careers survives in a post-Malaysia Baharu.

Nevertheless, the ordinary rakyat are generally more concerned about their livelihoods and an economy badly affected by the depreciating ringgit, while vulnerable groups face mundane earnings, striving to make ends meet with inadequate nourishment and basic shelter. The lack of access to subsidised handouts and termination of ‘gravy train’ patronage system due to PH’s stricter enforcement and adherence to regulations gave no visible improvement to the rakyat’s income pocket. Consequently, there was hardly ample condemnation emanating from the general populace at PH’s eventual breakdown.

Despite numerous initiatives by PH to demarcate healthier separation of powers, it was not able to dispel pertinent fears that had escalated within the Malay-Muslim population. Fixated on carrying out their rescue plan for Malaysia, along with prominent activists co-opted into government to formulate policies, PH became somewhat out of touch and could not heed the ‘mood’ of the rakyat. This is precisely what the PN government aims to avoid by appointing professional technocrats and pious public figures as new senators with ministerial portfolios.

Fundamentally, far more intricate challenges are ahead as PN must prudently oversee its very fragile alliance and grasp the reality that the different parties cater to almost similar ethnic and religious profiles. It won’t be easy to satisfy everyone’s interests which could cause the coalition to disintegrate into hostility when dispensing seat allocations or sharing the ‘spoils of war’ as currently witnessed with the changing of the guard in government-linked companies (GLC) and several intense statements issued by disgruntled leaders indicating turbulence.

Moreover, a heightened sense of division, not only across our pluralistic social fabric but also through widening socio-economic gaps will pose serious question marks upon PN’s leadership. Not only must they surpass the achievements of PH but must also immediately produce a uniting national narrative which can heal the scars caused by decades of racial and religious undertones manipulated by politicians inside their parties.

In previous writings, I’ve mentioned that the main test for PH would be to handle soaring expectations and prevent a dangerous relapse towards ‘Mahathirism’. As for PN, it is to overhaul its tarnished reputation of power struggle, divisive tactics, and corruption. For now, the government enjoys support from many Malay-Muslim purists seeking to alleviate their financial circumstance and social status.

Nevertheless, that can change instantly in today’s reality where the 24-hour news cycle and social media leaves little room for politicians to manoeuvre if they make mistakes. Now with greater democratisation of knowledge in the public sphere, the age when government knows best, and authorities regulates all has passed.

Politically speaking, any sitting government faces a myriad of obstacles in handling perception. From an economic standpoint however, it is paramount for leaders to collectively figure out an innovative plan that ensures no section of society is disenfranchised. The pride and nostalgia felt at being dubbed an ‘Asian economic tiger’ back in the late 80’s and early 90’s is of little use if today Malaysia risks being left behind other promising ASEAN nations.

Navigating International Trends

In today’s reality of rapid transformation, the fluctuating nature of work and modern life has resulted in greater uncertainty and a growing sense of isolation. A new normal emerges in tandem with exponential change that is pervasive and unsettling to most. Emerging traits of customised choices and revolutionary tribe-like units appear in between genuine class inequalities owing to the discontent towards capitalism as it is currently practiced.

This creates a situation ripe for exploitation by demagogues. Across the globe, we see the rise of identity politics and rhetorical fascism replacing liberal democracies. At present, it is very gratifying to be stylishly populist and toxically controversial as a ‘means to an end’. International communities and its apparatuses struggle with a groundswell of individuals occupying the far-right of the political spectrum.

Additionally, the setting becomes increasingly complex with the decline of the western hegemonic order shifting into an international structure of multiple polarities and rising power pivots. We also see a return to protectionism due to the failures of globalization to provide mutual prosperity. As more countries assert their separate pursuits, a trust deficit widens among the masses whilst establishments suffer decay at the hands of technological disruptors.

Reading through numerous works by political scientists and diplomats, an insightful person will observe that humanity is experiencing a sharp increase in widespread uprisings via dissenting movements, terrorism committed by violent extremists and forced displacement to escape homelands ruined by conflict and war. These dangerous flashpoints are the outcomes derived from encroaching despotism and greedy accumulation of resources practised by abusive yet formidable political leaders.

In the context of global interdependency, what transpires elsewhere in one part of the world will subsequently have some manner of ramification to Malaysia and vice versa. The more apparent that exposure is, the more impact it inadvertently wields. As everyone frantically combats the deadly Covid-19 contagion, it also dawns upon many of us on how valuable our freedoms truly are when urgent restrictions are put into place.

Similarly, we realise that our existing infrastructures were not built to withstand sudden emergencies despite having trained specialists with technical expertise. During moments of fierce turmoil, having cross-border ‘lenses’ helps us to notice flaws in response coordination and learn lessons from our worthy neighbours to pioneer more resilient institutions.

Malaysia cannot insulate itself nor escape from the troubles happening abroad, for instance pertaining to issues of political fatigue, economic crossroads, aging population, work-life balance, or even sustainable development that distresses policymakers everywhere. These are essential trends that must be clearly understood by our chosen representatives who must then think of intelligent, creative solutions to these pressing challenges of our time while respecting institutions and the democratic mandate of the rakyat.

Admirable writings by Kishore Mahbubani (Can Asians Think? & Has The West Lost It?) are brilliant readings that affirm the recent estimations posited by Parag Khanna in his book (The Future Is Asian) that the world is reshaping itself to advantageously favour Asian countries at the expense of Western malfunctions. With historic civilizations, sizeable populations and budding economies, the continent is anticipated to lead imminent changes.

Rather than be embroiled in a spat for fame, money and power, our brand of politics must urgently upgrade itself to much higher standards. Only then can we unlock Malaysian ingenuity and offer ideas that can seize the moment, ushering vibrant dimensions of progress as a middle-power nation that raises its diplomatic merit to solve political adversities.

Building Alternative Visions

PH’s appraisal as a mandated government had some notable achievements, particularly in reforming Parliament through elevated accountability and rigorous checks and balances. That was clearly shown through the creation of Parliamentary Select Committees. Secondly, electoral systems were overhauled with better transparency and revamped fairness, and thirdly executive or administrative systems rehabilitated with tougher anti-bribery mechanisms and guiding principles favouring good governance and democratic attitudes.

In retrospect, the reform process had halted on three matters that lingers as missed opportunities. Firstly, on judicial systems that necessitates stronger impartiality and upholding rule of law. Secondly, on civil liberties that stopped halfway in negotiating greater fundamental rights, and thirdly on economic systems that has not coped sufficiently to integrate our commodity-driven industries with digitalization-based commerce.

PN’s assessment as a government depends on how sincere it commits at restoring reform efforts and empower the people to allay apprehensions. Secondly, PN must demonstrate sheer competence to propel Malaysia forward to compete at par with other advanced nations. It needs to resolve glaring mismatches between market requirements and stream of labour force, coupled with deficiencies in terms of decent wages, social mobility and just distribution before investing in potential ventures that generate multiple sectors for all Malaysians.

Visualizing Malaysia’s horizon beyond 2020, there must be courageous and firm plans to refine three incredibly difficult areas of our nation’s pillars. Firstly, our education system should be capable of inspiring the next generation of Malaysians to imagine a progressive vision for this country based on firm foundations placed in key markers of nationhood.

It must also inculcate noble values like peace-making and idealism, besides instilling a strong sense of integrity in our future generation. Seeing as many youths will be newly eligible voters in the next general election, more democrats should be assembled as role-models to clarify how to best lead an ecosystem of multilateral cooperation instead of selfish competition.

Secondly, we cannot continue merely ‘accommodating’ differences instead we must celebrate the rich cultural diversities in a harmonious and participatory manner. There ought to be a reframing of our worldviews that can remove barriers and flatten hierarchical constructs. Racist views across any media must be penalised. Lastly, to reinforce democratic institutions by means of nurturing consensus-making to balance stability and sovereignty. Malaysia’s nonviolent form of democracy is suitable to be emulated by any other maturing democracies.

An in-depth study and enlightening conversations must be facilitated by our local universities to ascertain what approach fits at complementing democracy. Is our traditional power-sharing consociationalism based on ethnicity still relevant, or an intricate distribution through centripetalism realistically possible, or even a configuring of sophisticated cohesion resembling cosmopolitanism needed to grow our democracy?

Democracy is never perfect but is a continuous work of reform. It is about choice, and the chance to make deliberate corrections through engagement that can get more persons with centrist thoughts into the decision-making fold. It must be a tool that is inclusively designed for diverse trajectories in a shared landscape.

2020-05-18T11:16:13+08:00 18th May 2020|Opinion|Comments Off on Reconfiguring Malaysia’s Democracy: Looking Beyond 2020