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Articles, Commentaries, The Edge

Pakatan Harapan Must Rejuvenate or Perish


This article first appeared in Forum, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on November 29, 2021 – December 05, 2021.

One can, of course, say Pakatan Harapan (PH) did badly in the Melaka state election because of the low voter turnout. And that Covid-19 is to blame for people staying home or for Melakans not coming home to vote. The inability to campaign the normal way, I would agree, works against reformist agendas and favours status quo thinking.

Having said all that, there is a bigger picture to be drawn here, which hopefully provides a better understanding of what ails PH. In simple terms, it is its inability to inspire. Voters do not go the extra mile if they do not see any extra mile to go.

Having gone all the way from winning five states in 2008, to winning the popular vote in 2013, to toppling the Barisan Nasional (BN) federal government in 2018, PH failed to govern as a reformist government should on gaining power. It quickly forgot that there is little difference between reformism and revolution. Slow reform is no reform at all because it allows the deposed status quo to regroup and, with their deep statecraft and their knowledge of concealed tunnels within the political system — and the Constitution, in fact — the conservative forces outside and within PH all too easily pulled the carpet from under PH’s feet.

This ended a very impressive run, by any measure, by a reformist movement fighting a deeply entrenched political hegemony.

What PH has accomplished since 1998 — and this was very much thanks to Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim — is the development of a viable political alternative to BN. Its strength lay in the fact that it had been based on a strong partnership between a Malay-led multi-ethnic party, Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR), and a non-Malay-led multi-ethnic party, the Democratic Action Party (DAP), backed first by the Islamist PAS under the far-sighted Nik Aziz Nik Mat, and later by the PAS breakaway, Parti Amanah Negara.

Running both Selangor and Penang since 2008, PH presumes itself to represent progressive forces in these states sufficiently well to continue in power. However, the honeymoon period for the PH governments ended a long time ago in both states, and PH’s general inability to inspire Malaysians throughout the country in support of its already-waning agenda is becoming increasingly obvious, even in these supposed “home bases”; this runs parallel to PH’s failure in the Sabah and Melaka state elections. The Sarawak state election, due to be held on Dec 18, is not expected to challenge this trend.

Winning again in the next general election, and thus lasting four mandates at state level in Penang and Selangor, would be a momentous achievement by PH, especially given the wind that is now in BN’s sails. There is little doubt that BN will do all it can to ensure it never loses power again, and this will involve the initiating of strong and broad-based offensives against the governments of these PH states.

Where PH has seriously lost the plot is in the aftermath of its fall from power in early 2020. One can understand the shock paralysing its ability to react strategically and effectively, but what has stumped the coalition more is its lack of unity and its apparent loss of purpose.

Failure to inspire

Where PKR is concerned, the wish to become prime minister on the part of Anwar weighs heavily on his shoulders and understandably limits his vision. And being shown the door after having sat again at the main table of state for a mere 22 months, all the while biding his time to sit at the head of the table, would cloud anyone’s sense of strategy.

Where Lim Kit Siang is concerned, one strong idealism he possesses is his belief in the parliamentary system, and his conviction that the paramountcy of parliament must be respected.

Putting these two passions together, one can understand the confusion and flat-footedness that followed PH’s loss of power. Banging on the shuttered gates of power and straining to get back in — and not in unison either — became the response of the individual members of PH.

Instead of constructing a retreat strategy to win another day, they insist on trying to win back yesterday’s prize as quickly as possible. Instead of reorganising and consolidating their ranks and building on the strengths that got them to Putrajaya, they allow their home bases to continue in comfort as if Putrajaya has not fallen, while their main forces loiter on the bloody battlefield despite having lost their bearings and their formation.

The Sabah state election, coming just six months after PH lost federal power, can with hindsight be seen as an attempt to turn the rising tide. But Melaka, happening 14 months after Sabah, showed the true weakness of PH 18 months after the Sheraton Move that overthrew them. The slide downhill continues.

PH has so far refused to regroup. The frontline refuses to return to base to re-strategise and re-deploy personnel; and the backline refuses to let them. The next offensive from BN, with all its resources at its disposal again, will be the 15th General Election.

And the way it looks, with BN deciding on the timing and other vital factors affecting the general election, and with Covid-19 discouraging outstation voters from returning, PH will have no ace up its sleeve, no defence plan and no proper offensive at its disposal to counteract. Game and Set. Will the Match end for PH at the next election?

Only by understanding and exploiting the novel factor of young voters, and rejuvenating itself as an inspirational force can it awe and shock its way back to power.

Datuk Dr Ooi Kee Beng is executive director of Penang Institute. His recent books include Catharsis: A Second Chance for Democracy in Malaysia.


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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