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Articles, Commentaries, The Edge

Leaders who Divide to Rule End up too Divided to Rule

By Ooi Kee Beng, for The Edge Malaysia, August 30- Sept 5, 2021

ONE HEARS ABOUT countries that are ungovernable. These are societies too divided, too unintegrated and too unregimented for a government to knit together. We can call them failed states for being on the verge of crumbling into separate political entities or we can call them proto-states that need an ideology or a strong hand to weld into a functioning economic and political unit.

To be sure, the term “failed state” suggests a top-down malfunction, and not social disunity as such, and is therefore not appropriate to this context. Societies pushed together beyond their usefulness to each other generate tension and conflict. Finding common ground for integration, especially economic mutualism, becomes the job of the nation-builder; in fact, of the state-builder.

But what is the word to use for a society that cannot form a stable government, not because its people are ungovernable but because its politicians are too opportunistic, too scheming and too lacking in end-goals to come together?

In many cases, this is a situation that democracies commonly end up in; a hole that its internal dynamics spiral into over time. And once you are in such a hole, getting out is not easy.

Malaysia before 2018 had been a country ruled by a coalition led by a hegemon party since 1957. It became a federation so centralized its own people tended to forget that they in fact lived within two federations—one called Malaya and another called Malaysia. And since 1970, its policies had been dictated by ethnocentric logic layered with Islamist trappings despite the cultural diversity of its people and its globalized economy.

Easy to Stop Smoking

It had its first change of federal government in May 2018. But as incorrigible smokers say, giving up smoking is easy; they can do it every day. And so, in April 2020, the new government fell at the hands of its seconds-in-command, through a realignment of loyalties and the support of the former hegemon party, UMNO. The strange chain of events that culminated in Mahiaddin Yassin becoming Prime Minister (he was known as Muhyiddin Yassin then) cannot really be called a “parliamentary coup” because there was no parliamentary process involved; no counting of hands; just a formal decision from the Agung.

In any case, the group of MPs who connived to become the new government, quickly inflated in number to deepen loyalty, was rewarded with the dubious task of managing the Covid-19 crisis. Governments at state level began falling as well, culminating with the fall of the Pakatan Harapan government in the East Malaysian state of Sabah. The state election that followed, held in late September 2020, continues to be blamed for worsening the pandemic situation to what it is today, with Malaysian society being ranked proportionately among the worst hit countries in the world.

With public ire rising, topped by anger from the Palace, UMNO decided on 3 August 2021 to withdraw its support for Mahiaddin. Despite this leading to disobedience on the part of certain UMNO leaders, especially those who held ministerial positions, the math clearly was not on the Prime Minister’s side. He had lost his majority.

And so, on 16 August, he decided to resign after his final attempts to stay in power failed.

Thus, a third change in federal government since May 2018 took place. From being one of the countries in the world with the longest serving government, Malaysia quickly went the other way and changed government thrice in as many years.

No stable solution is at hand, and more changes in government may be expected. Constitutionally, elections have to be held by mid-2023, and so any new government sewn together after the fall of Mahiaddin is necessarily a temporary one with no clear goal other than to minimize the impact of the pandemic, and to lay the ground to its advantage before that election.

Divided and unruly

Malaysian history has shown that dividing in order to rule is an indomitable dogma to follow. But the fall of the Barisan Nasional government at the ballot box in 2018 did show that Malaysian society is no longer as easily governed that way as had been the case for over 60 years.

But in not giving in to that deep shift in social sentiment, one that had been growing since the 1997-98 financial crisis which gave birth to the Reformasi Movement, those opposed to reform, in forming the opportunistic Perikatan Nasional government under Mahiaddin, turned a simple democratic change in government into a structural crisis.

To be sure, the country is far from ungovernable, Malaysian society being basically a peaceful one despite the divisive sermons of its leaders. It is however the inability of the old political class to adapt to socio-economic and generational changes that has led to the present impasse.

The need for the Agung to collate the views of all the members of parliament in order to choose a successor to Mahiaddin showcased the weak support that all possible candidates to be prime minister had. Being a game played among MPs, the people’s views after 18 pandemic months were not influential in any way. What succeeded instead was a precarious balancing of disparate shards into the shape of a vase, but accomplished without any glue.

Now that Ismail Sabri is named Malaysia’s new Prime Minister, optimistic analysts will try to cast him as Janus, the Roman God of Doors, commanding the past and the future. Is he defender of the old, or progenitor of a new era? Can he find the adhesive that Malaysia needs to heal its history of disunity? Or does he even think that necessary? Doubt, as always, outweighs Hope.

Dato’ Dr Ooi Kee Beng is the Executive Director of Penang Institute. His recent books include Catharsis: A Second Chance for Democracy in Malaysia (ISEAS and Penang Institute, 2018). Homepage: wikibeng.com.


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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