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The More Things Change, the More Things May Actually Change

Change ahead sign

By Ooi Kee Beng for The Edge, 28 August 2017

THE ELECTIONS are coming, and the array of political parties facing each other across the widening divide can be stupefying for any observer newly arrived on the Malaysian scene.

It would seem therefore that a quick look at the historical context in which some of Malaysia’s major political parties came into being would provide some badly needed understanding of where the country’s politics is heading.

Let’s start with UMNO. The United Malays National Organisation started out in 1946 in reaction to Britain’s fateful eagerness to rearrange its colonies into a manageable form following its diminished capacity to rule an empire following the Second World War.

The hasty and underhanded manner in which it implemented the Malayan Union that year, partially based on a faulty understanding of the basis of its authority in Malaya, led to a revolt by the Malay community. Occurring as it did at a time when the rest of the Malay Archipelago was undergoing a surge of republican, leftist and anti-colonial violence, the British quickly had second thoughts and swung as hastily in the other direction. And so, the Federation of Malaya quickly came into being in early 1948.

The chaotic reality on the ground, however, soon forced the architects of the Federation to Malaya Agreement to search for a middle ground where ethnic relations and ideology were concerned. On the side of the Chinese community, the political situation over recent decades had left them with influential local branches of political parties that had been fighting the Japanese in Mainland China, while the Indian community had on the one hand been excited by India’s independence in 1947 and on the other radicalised by the Subhas Chandra Bose’s Indian National Army during the war.

To cut a long story short, the Malayan Chinese Association (MCA) was formed in 1949 to organise and unite anti-communist elements from among the Straits Chinese and from the local Kuomintang under one umbrella; and the Malayan Indian Congress (MIC), inspired by Mahatma Gandhi’s Indian National Congress, came into being just after the war. UMNO and MCA, with MIC joining in 1955, became the backbone of the consociational system we know as the Alliance, which won the election so convincingly that year that the British had little official reason left not to grant independence to its assortment of colonies on the peninsula.

UMNO however saw its more religious following break away in late 1951 to form Persatuan Islam Se-Malaya (PAS). Apparently, the religiously neutral attitude which allowed for all the necessary inter-ethnic and cross-ideological compromises were not to their liking.

The 1960s that followed were turbulent times of a different order, which saw disarray among leftist parties like the Labour Party and those that formed the Socialist Front. That period also saw Singapore’s PAP joining the fray in 1963, and then leaving it in 1965, all the while fronting the “Malaysian Malaysia” concept. Singapore’s withdrawal from Malaysia necessitate the founding of the Democratic Action Party (DAP), while internal struggles in the MCA led to the formation of the tiny United Democratic Party in 1962 and then the much more successful Parti Gerakan Rakyat Malaysia in 1968.

The arrival of these new parties proved to be a strong challenge to the Alliance, and after the racial riots that followed the electoral defeats it suffered in 1969, inter-party confrontations were brought almost to as standstill through the formation of the Barisan Nasional. This roped in all parties that would agree to join from both East and West Malaysia, sometimes under duress. This included Gerakan. Even PAS became a member until it broke away in dismay in December 1977. The only prominent party that refused to be incorporated was the DAP.

In the state of Perak, the People’s Progressive Party that was founded in 1953, joined the Alliance for a year but withdrew in 1955 over disagreements over the allotment of seats. Popularly supported by the Chinese population and led by Indian lawyers, it would have formed the state government in Perak with the help of other opposition parties were it not for the defection of two of its members. The party felt compelled to join the BN in 1973, only to lose all its seats in the elections the following year.

The only occasions when significant challenges to the BN could be mounted were when there were splits in UMNO. The first time was in 1990 when Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah took on then-Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad through the formation a year earlier of Semangat ’46, and its two coalitions—Gagasan Rakyat formed with the DAP and Parti Rakyat Malaysia (PRM); and Angkatan Perpaduan Ummah made up of PAS, Berjasa and Hamim as well as the newly formed Malaysian Indian Muslim Congress (KIMMA). The PRM was a party established already in 1955 whose democratic socialist roots were in the anti-colonial movements of the pre-war years. The dual coalitional challenge had an impact but failed nevertheless, as would the next anti-BN challenge two elections later, which was of course in the wake of Anwar Ibrahim’s sacking as Deputy Prime Minister in 1998.

The repercussions of that momentous split in 1998 between Malaysia’s two most powerful leaders opened flood gates that pulled along all in its path.

Since Anwar’s sacking and imprisonment in 1998-9, three new parties have come into being. The Reformasi movement surrounding Anwar led to the formation of the multiracial Parti Keadilan Nasional in 1999, which in 2003 merged with PRM to form Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR). In the 1999 elections, Keadilan, PAS and DAP contested as Barisan Alternatif, which gave the BN a run for its money. The results of the 2004 elections, however, saw the BN making a strong comeback after Mahathir’s retirement the year before.

In 2008, it was suddenly the opposition’s turn. PKR, PAS and DAP won surprising successes at the state level and took power in five states. The Pakatan Rakyat coalition consequently formed by them continued putting pressure on the BN federal government to the extent of winning the popular vote in 2013.

Since then, further splits have taken place. First, Pakatan Rakyat fell apart in June 2015 following PAS insistence on pushing the hudud issue. Then PAS itself split when its group of progressives broke away after losing badly in party elections, to take over and transform the small Parti Pekerja-Perkerja Malaysia into Parti Islam Amanah Negara (Amanah) in September 2015.

The newest party on the Malaysian scene is the one founded in September 2016 by Mahathir together with sacked and disenchanted members of UMNO. It has since joined the DAP, PKR and Amanah to form the new coalition—Pakatan Harapan.

What quick lessons can we learn from this quick sketch of political parties? For starters, the difference between PKR and Bersatu is of great interest. When Anwar refused to exit the scene and chose to fight Mahathir in 1998, he and his followers understandably took a stance that was the polar opposite to what UMNO under Mahathir then stood for. They adopted slogans highlighting good governance, justice, transparency and accountability. When the time came for the retired Mahathir to challenge UMNO, he positioned it as close to it as possible ideologically. It was a “same-same-but-different” strategy, in contrast to Keadilan’s idealistically “totally-something-else” approach.

What we now have then, is a recognizable and common showdown between two coalitions. But something is novel here, nevertheless. We have for the first time in West Malaysian history, five Malay-based or Malay-led parties contending for the Malay vote. On one side, we have UMNO and PAS, two race-based parties founded before independence, and who have had a love-hate relationship witht each other or as long as one can remember; and on the other, we have three parties—PKR, Amanah and Bersatu—all founded recently following splits form the first two parties.

The DAP today may appear to represent the large portion of the greatly-reduced minority Chinese, but as always, it is the Malay majority that will determine much of what happens politically. That community’s apparent splintering into groups may bode ill for agendas that rely on intra-ethnic loyalty and on singularity in political support, but it suggests a confidence in the community which is now not easily shaken by claims that the Malays as a race are under threat from their non-Malay compatriots. Of course, it also reflects a serious loss of faith in the old BN model’s ability to achieve for the race, and the country, a global stature Malays can be proud of.

This willingness among the Malays to split so drastically may actually make race-based politicking less effective in the future. To be sure, it may be in response to this Malay race-championing since the 2013 electoral scare suffered by BN and Prime Minister Najib Razak has turned so much into narrow Muslim faith-championing instead.

Dato’ Dr Ooi Kee Beng is the Executive Director of Penang Institute. His recent books include Merdeka for the Mind: Essays on Malaysian Struggles in the 21st Century.


About Ooi Kee Beng

Dr OOI KEE BENG is the Executive Director of Penang Institute (George Town, Penang, Malaysia). He was born and raised in Penang, and was the Deputy Director of ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute (formerly the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, ISEAS). He is the founder-editor of the Penang Monthly (published by Penang Institute), ISEAS Perspective (published by ISEAS) and ISSUES (published by Penang Institute). He is also editor of Trends in Southeast Asia, and a columnist for The Edge, Malaysia.


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