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Expect more mischief by Malaysian political elites unless there is a devolution of power

By OOI KEE BENG, for TODAYONLINE, Singapore, 26 FEBRUARY, 2020

The grab for power attempted over the period of Feb 22 to 24 at Malaysia’s centre of power was a totally elite enterprise. It was a game of numbers among parliamentarians done behind locked doors.

This caught everyone not involved in the plotting by surprise. But of course, this is the nature of such matters. What deepened the shock for the public in general was the supposition on the part of the coup-makers that the coup would not lead to social violence and economic chaos, and the total disregard for it.

Cynicism runs deep among Malaysians, but this turn of events confounded even them. How could a coup take place which aimed to replace a whole government but the prime minister?

Much blame has to be put on the slow — and naïve — manner in which the reform agenda of the Pakatan Harapan (PH) government was being carried out, as if they had all the time in the world and as if their enemies, with all evidence pointing to the contrary, would play by the rules.

Most probably, it was the delicate nature of the PH coalition that won the elections in 2018 that was at fault. PH won under the leadership of the once-all-powerful leader of the coalition that it toppled and that was in essence an electoral tactic more than a meeting of like-minded people.

PH’s weakness stemmed from various issues:
1. The deal for a mid-term transfer of power between two former adversaries;

2. Its major party Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) being riddled with unsolvable internal rivalries, and

3. Having the Chinese and Indian constituencies strongly represented within it through the Democratic Action Party (DAP) disallowed PH from pushing reforms for fear of certain racial and religious backlash.

Added to this were the protracted trials of the corrupt former rulers of the country. They could continue to undermine the new government, not only for political purposes, but in desperate attempts to stay out of jail. The fact that these old leaders were not replaced by their own parties was a warning sign that the PH should have heeded, and not ignored.

At the time of writing, how the game will end is impossible to predict. Much will depend on the King and on Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s own agenda now that he is freed of the agreement to hand over power mid-term.

The intrigues of the moment bring into focus the difficult nature of the Malaysian polity, and perhaps the reform that is most needed, and that should have been prioritised by the PH government during its 21 months in power: A devolution of power.

A country as diverse as Malaysia is in history, culture and economics makes it prone to endless intrigues — within parties, coalitions and parliament. Concentrating power at the centre, as had been increasingly done over the decades, allows for intrigues to have bigger consequences than they need to have.


Malaysia is a federation for good reasons. In fact, it is a federation built upon another federation. The Federation of Malaya formed in 1948 was in essence a federation of sultanates, fashioned by the British to rectify the bad political mistakes that the Malayan Union amounted to. (Penang and Malacca had no say in this issue).

The Federation of Malaysia came into being in 1963 in a hasty manner to merge the British Borneo territories plus Singapore with the earlier federation to form an anti-communist unit that could sustain itself while the colonialists retreated. As we quickly learned, that configuration was certainly not stable enough, and Singapore split away in 1965 to make its own fate.

Externally, Indonesia under Soekarno was making things extremely difficult for the new federation to consolidate itself. The Philippines was also making trouble through counterclaims over Sabah. It should also be remembered that the Alliance coalition ruling Malaya in 1963 had done badly in the first election after independence; in the 1959 general elections, signs that not all was well with the Merdeka formula were clearly showing.

Inter-ethnic rioting was starting — in Singapore in 1964, in Penang in 1967, and finally, the explosion on May 13, 1969 in Kuala Lumpur. Centralisation went into full gear after that.

The impressive economic growth rates of the 1990s allowed for some reprieve in these dynamics but all that changed after the Asian financial crisis. The Reform Movement that started in 1998 was a reaction to the long-term ills of the centralisation of power and amounted to a call for the country to revert to a nation-building agenda that is open and inclusive. Coming to power after 20 years is not a bad showing by any reform movement, but its lethargy in taking advantage of its time in government to decentralise power was its undoing — and its moral failure.

The point of having a federation is to maintain a point where the power of the constituent states or provinces and those of the central authorities are balanced for maximum benefit to the country and its constituent parts. The trend in Malaysia since its beginning had been in unhindered fashion moving towards centralisation without much regard for local culture and interests.

Watching from the vantage point afforded by the events of Feb 22 to 24, the irony is that things have come to such a ridiculous point that this diverse country is now run by a government — interim, no doubt — consisting of one man, an independent parliamentarian even.

Has the pendulum reached the end and must now swing back? Will a devolution of power come out of this? If Malaysian politics were single-dimensioned, then one would dare predict its future that positively. But it is not. It is instead a complex creature.

Perhaps it is not a pendulum flatly swinging from one end to another that we see, but one that is rotating, round and round and round — without any real end.

Dr Ooi Kee Beng is the Executive Director of Penang Institute. He is also a Visiting Senior Fellow at Iseas–Yusof Ishak Institute. His latest books include “Catharsis: A Second Chance for Democracy in Malaysia”.
Read more at https://www.todayonline.com/commentary/expect-more-mischief-malaysian-political-elites-unless-there-devolution-power


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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