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Articles, Commentaries, The Edge

Anwar Must Pull Malaysia out of its Self-made Hole

By Ooi Kee Beng, “Picking on the Present”, column for The Edge Malaysia, 28 January to 3 February 2023

It had seemed obvious to some observers of Malaysian politics back in 2008, after the fateful elections that saw five states fall into the hands of the opposition and the Barisan Nasional (BN) lose its super-majority for the first time since its founding in the early 1970s, that a long-term stability that would allow for proper nation building in light of 21st century challenges could be secured in this multi-ethnic country only through a coalition comprised of Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim’s supporters and the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), the core party in the long-dominant BN.

That proposition was however easily brushed off as being ignorant of how deep the emotions that divide Malaysian society actually run.

But 14 years and three general elections later, that is essentially what has come to pass. The so-called Unity Government formed in November 2022 is indeed made up of Anwar’s Pakatan Rakyat, and the UMNO-led BN, made possible by the support of the ruling coalitions from the East Malaysian states of Sabah (Gabungan Bersatu Sabah, GBS) and Sarawak (Gabungan Parti Sarawak, GPS).

What is interesting at this point in time, as Anwar’s government works hard to make this innovative alliance work, is for us to consider several related questions: (1) Why was what is now a fact impossible back in 2008; (2) What happened in Malaysian politics between 2008 and 2022 to make the impossible become the reality and; (3) What deep-seated long-term problems have become undeniable or been revealed by the rollercoaster ride of the last 14 years?

UMNO’s Sluggish Fall

These are big questions to ask, and the following discussion cannot be considered anything other than an initial enquiry, albeit done with the hope that it will provide some understanding of the nature of the new unity government, and of Malaysia itself post-2020.

Why such a unity government was not possible in 2008 is a question that is not difficult to answer. The dominance of BN did not allow for thoughts of defeat or even political compromise, on their part. The bad blood thickened by jail sentences for opposition leaders, deaths and disappearances of civil society activists, and violence, insults and altercations, not to mention ideological disagreements, could not be disregarded. And no strategist on any side would have seriously suggested the idea of a unity government.

Besides, numerous ways to load the electoral dice remained for the BN to ensure that they would not lose power in coming elections. Therein lay the hubris that saw them losing power in Pakatan Harapan in 2018.

As things turned out, the Perak State government fell back to the BN quickly enough after the 2008 election, due to defections. In 2013, Pakatan managed to hold onto three state governments, but despite winning the popular vote, it failed to seize federal power. And in 2015, its Islamist partner, PAS, decided to split away. Pakatan Harapan was now formed, with Parti Amanah Negara as its truncated Islamic partner. As the 2018 elections approached, it definitely did not look like Pakatan would be a real challenger for federal power.

Then came Mahathir Mohamad into the picture, determined to topple Najib Razak. He founded a new party—Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (Bersatu)—in order to attract UMNO supporters ready to move to a new Malay party and Malay voters unwilling to support UMNO. The Pakatan Harapan won in 2018, in cohort with Mahathir; fellow travellers in their wish to defeat Najib.

The fall of BN needed to run its sluggish course, as it were. And that course had to involve powerful figures leaving the political stage, either through retirement, jail sentences or electoral defeat. As is often noted, change is generational, and political personalities in Malaysian history have tended to overstay their time in power, or in the spotlight.

Najib Razak and his not-so-behind-the-scene spouse Rosmah Mansor left in disgrace, imprisoned on corruption convictions, with Najib’s financial misconduct largely blamed for UMNO finally losing power in 2018.

Lim Kit Siang, the opposition icon who had been challenging UMNO since the early 1960s, having turned 80 years of age, decided not to contest in the 2022 elections. Over the years, no opposition leader had been as strategically and unfairly painted as Lim had been by Malay nationalists as the embodiment of anti-Malay politics. His nemesis for decades, former Prime Minister twice over, the 97-year-old Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, ended his career in electoral disgrace in 2022, heading a new Malay nationalist party which failed so badly in the elections that he lost his candidacy deposit.

Between April 2020, when a parliamentary coup pushed the Pakatan government off the stage, and November 2022, when Pakatan Harapan came back to power, the country had to endure over 30 months of governance that ranged from mediocre to incompetent, aided by the strong wish to comply with government directives during the worst months of the Covid-19 pandemic. With Pakatan Harapan now back in power, one could roguishly call that confused time an “interim period” best forgotten.

The Enormity of Change

Thus, the pressure is on for the Anwar Ibrahim government to deliver. But what is it he must deliver to be considered a success? That is the key question, the answers to which may light the way forward post-2022 for the Reformasi Movement that came into being when Anwar was sacked in 1998.

First, we cannot escape the conclusion that only after being stripped time and again of supporters by the other Malay-based parties did UMNO discard its hubris in order to work with PH. For some, party president Zahid Hamidi, in manoeuvring UMNO to shared power with PH, has given it a chance to revive its fortunes. But even for many among these, the recent party decision to leave the top two positions uncontested is a lost chance for UMNO to reform itself from within. But given UMNO’s long history of intrigues and its untold resources, no future scenario for the party is definite.

Second, the key role that GPS and GBS now plays at the heart of Malaysian governance is a game changer. Finally, Malaysia manifests itself better than ever before as a multicultural nation—however oxymoronic that term may be. The Malayan understanding of the population as a Malay-Chinese-Indian contest is perhaps now, six decades after the Federation of Malaysia was formed in 1963, to be replaced by a Malaysian self-image where its multiethnicity is too complicated to entertain a path of dominance by the elite of one ethnicity.

Third, the new scenario post-GE15 requires constant appropriation of the wisdom, the efficacy and the potential inherent in the federal structure the country inherited from its founding fathers. The tensions between theocratic leanings and parliamentarianism—which became most apparent in November 2022—appears best confronted within a federalist framework.

Fourth, the defensive style of governance informed and applied for six decades by Malay ethnocentrism has undermined the country’s ability to excel on the global stage; Its institutions have been compromised to a very serious degree. Its civil service is highly bureaucratised and oversized, its educational system has underperformed across the board, and its ability to escape the Middle Income Trap rendered highly dubious.

Lastly, but most importantly in the immediate term, the primacy of economic growth in policy making has to be acknowledged. Here, the answer seems simple. As with so many successful national economy building programmes in Asia, alignment with the demands of international trade and investments is key.

Modernising the civil service, [MOU1] heightening the ability of local companies to absorb new technology, reforming the education system for employability through promotion of TVET and of the sciences and skills in English, Chinese, Arabic and other powerful international languages, rebuilding the reputation of the legal system and advancing corporate governance and attracting foreign investments, and so on and so forth—these, I believe, will be the important and the most difficult undertakings for any government wishing to save Malaysia from decades of neglect in nation- and state building.

The winds are certainly blowing in the right direction for Anwar Ibrahim. The Reformasi Movement, albeit now a shadow of its former self, is in power. The global situation appears to be in Malaysia’s favour, judging from the huge foreign investments now looking for new destinations in the region. Malaysia is in the right place and the right time, post-Covid, and it should not lose itself again in damaging domestic politics but instead take advantage of the regional and international initiatives that are in play.

Datuk Dr Ooi Kee Beng is the Executive Director of Penang Institute. His recent books include Catharsis. A Second Chance for Democracy in Malaysia (Gerakbudaya, ISEAS & Penang Institute, 2008).

 [MOU1]Some other word here?


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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