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Articles, Commentaries, Picking on the Present, The Edge

For the Unity Government, a Search for the Middle Ground

By Ooi Kee Beng, Picking on the Present column in The Edge Malaysia, 26 December 2022

A UNITY GOVERNMENT never sounds like something one should be opposed to, and for good reasons. What is interesting about such a government though, is that they become necessary in a democracy when the posturing and the stances taken by different parties have reached a point where any government formed by one side is totally unacceptable to the other side or sides.

In such a situation, and especially after failed attempts at forming weak governments, major parties may come to their senses and decide to put certain differences aside. Another motivation for a unity government to be formed is when an extremist party has become so powerful that the other parties, whatever their differences, also coming to their senses, and decide to collaborate for fear of a bigger threat.

In the case of Malaysia then, where its apparently first-ever unity government opened parliament on 19 December 2022, what dynamics led to the necessity of it being formed?

Was it to avoid religious extremism? Was it simply opportunism on the part of its constituent parties, just classic democratic horse trading at work? Or was it mere compliance with the wishes of the Yang DiPertuan Agung and the sultans?

I am quite certain that most readers will suggest that it was because of “all the above”. And they would be correct. But that Malaysia, a country that was built on, and that once defined for the world what consociationalism is, could reach such a stage, calls for some serious reflection.

The middle ground denied

First of all, is this really Malaysia’s first unity government? In a phrase, a unity government being formed is often an out-of-the-box solution to a stalemate, and an urgent search for—or a return to, whatever the case may be—society’s middle ground. But has Malaysia not always sought a unity government?

What this middle ground may be can shift over time, and in a critical sense, the job of governments over time is to not lose sight of it. And this can happen quite easily, given the populism that democracies tend to encourage. Once lost sight of, forms of extremism develop in silence, and are noticed only when they become threatening. We have seen this happen in the developed countries in the West in recent decades, where political correctness had disallowed disaffection and dissatisfaction to find easy expression, thu letting it fester.

In Malaysia, it has more been mainstream tolerance of racial and religious hate speech that has encouraged extremism. And given the deeply multicultural nature of the country, hate speech does not need to go far beyond racial and religious slurs to appear extremist.

So, we are talking not so much about losing sight of the middle ground as about denying it for too long.

Going back to the federation’s early beginnings, i.e., to 1946, we note how the Malayan Union adopted by the British colonialists, for lack of understanding of local politics and sentiments, failed to get off the ground. For all its apparent wish to form a stable and fair post-war society, it led instead to a strong opposition from the majority population on the peninsula. Thus, UMNO exploded on the scene as an expression of the sudden rise of political activism in Malay communities.

One could say the middle ground shifted, and an approach we know as the Federation of Malaya Agreement 1948 came into being. But it quickly became clear, most significantly to Onn Jaafar, the founder of UMNO, that no stability could come if the non-Malay population was not given a voice. Failing to get his followers to realise that they had positioned themselves too far off centre, and that they should regain the real middle ground, he resigned.

With the coming of municipal elections in the early 1950s, it became easier to calibrate where the middle ground now was. The electoral pact between the Malayan Chinese Association (MCA) branch in Kuala Lumpur and Selangor UMNO showed a way forward in winning by a landslide. Thus, the beginning of the consociationalism we know as the Alliance of born.

This lasted until 1969 after facing huge challenges involving the communist insurgency, confrontation with Indonesia, Singapore’s departure, and internal tensions in the Alliance itself. The results of the general elections that year expressed the political faults that had emerged over the first decade or so after independence. One could cogently argue that it was the failure of the political system to express the middle ground that resulted in racial rioting, and the damage control that ensued involved heavy limitations on freedom of speech and association, parliamentary power and attempted to balance racial and religious divides with socioeconomic development.

From the 1974 elections until 2018, we saw the Barisan Nasional, an Alliance expanded to become an UMNO-dominated coalition, calling the shots and deciding what the middle ground was. But already in the midst of the Asian Financial Crisis in 1997-98, it became apparent that things were not well as the total split between the two top leaders of the country led to the rise of the Reformasi Movement.

From then on, politics in Malaysia changed, fuelled by the internet and a series of disruptive information and communication technologies and the retirement of Mahathir Mohamad. In electoral terms, opposition politics became properly substantive from 2008 onwards, and the fall of the Barisan Nasional from its position of supremacy began.

It fell from power in 2018 but managed to topple the new Pakatan Harapan administration after 22 months. Deals with recent dissidents of UMNO now in that government saw UMNO regain relevance in government in 2020.

The 2022 general election saw a Malaysia that appeared unable to rule itself. What the unity government called for by the Agung signified is how the divisiveness of Malaysian politics over the decades had led to political discourses that were so partisan that they could not possibly serve the nation-building process. On the contrary, only further divisiveness lay ahead. To avoid the conflicts that awaited, a unity government came into being.

What this means is that a new discourse that does not essentially seek to divide the country for political aims has to be minted, and Anwar Ibrahim has been given that role. He will now have to forge sufficient understanding and agreement among the political class—and the bureaucracy—on the country’s democratic, federalist and multicultural nature. His job is to redirect the nation-building process of the country 65 years after its independence to make it a bolder and less introverted society more willing to contribute to global development.

One key lesson to be learned from the history of democracy is how interferences to the one-man-one-vote ideal—be this through gerrymandering or constituency malapportionment—both denies and conceals the middle ground, and instead leads to political discourses becoming increasingly detached from the socioeconomic challenges faced by the voting population.

Datuk Dr Ooi Kee Beng is the Executive Director of Penang Institute. His recent books include Catharsis. A Second Chance for Democracy in Malaysia (Penang Institute, SIRD & ISEAS, 2018).

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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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