What is a ‘unity govt’? Will it unite Malaysia?

  • All the pieces matter
  • Thursday, 27 Feb 2020

Breaking days of silence in which he kept millions of Malaysians in suspense, interim Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohammad finally addressed the nation and gave some hint as to what political future he was trying to build.

In his speech, Dr Mahathir proposed the concept of what people seem to be calling a ‘unity government’. This term is not new, but it is not particularly well understood or fleshed out - a state of affairs that Dr Mahathir’s short speech did little to change.

It should be noted however, that Dr Mahathir did not technically use the term ‘kerajaan perpaduan’ in his speech; the words he used were ‘pemerintahan yang tidak memihak kepada mana-mana parti’, which may make ‘non-partisan government’ a more accurate term. Nevertheless, the term ‘unity government’ appears to be the one currently dominating public discourse.

To quote Dr Mahathir:“Politicians and political parties prioritise politics too much until they forget about the country, which is facing economic and health problems.

I am of the opinion that whether it is right or not, politics and party politics have to be set aside for the time being. If I am allowed to, I will form a government that will not side with any party. Only the interest of the nation will be prioritised.

If I am given permission, this is what I will try.”

To be perfectly honest, these three paragraphs, taken out of the present context, in many ways represents exactly the type of sociopolitical innovation I have been writing about repeatedly for weeks and months now.

The depoliticisation of democracy is something needed not just in Malaysia, but throughout the world.

Shouldn’t those like me thus be rejoicing at Dr Mahathir’s speech?

While Dr Mahathir said many of the right things, the context in which he said them raises many serious concerns - four in particular, specifically.

The first problem concerns the timing of Dr Mahathir’s proposal.

If Dr Mahathir put forward these ideas weeks or months ago, when he was unquestioningly in control, and after carefully laying the foundational groundwork for such a concept, I think the effort would be seen as considerably more sincere.

As it is, Dr Mahathir put forth this suggestion only now, when it is becoming abundantly clear that he no longer commands a majority of support in Parliament.

This makes it look like he has chosen to jump on the ‘there is too much politicking’ bandwagon only when it suits him; and that the whole ‘unity government’ concept may be nothing more than a fallback plan that was chosen only when the current leadership was ultimately unable to get the political deal that they wanted following the coup attempt.

I am not arguing conclusively that Dr Mahathir is sincere or insincere; but from a perception perspective, surely some would be justified in asking: Are you talking about an non-partisan unity government because you truly believe in it, or because that’s the only lifeline available to you now that may result in you staying in power?

Secondly, Dr Mahathir also made many comments about how he had resigned in order to prove that he wasn’t obsessed about power.

Again, one has the locus to reasonably make that point if one has actually and completely given up power. As it is, one is reminded of the time Bilbo Baggins was finally persuaded to leave the One Ring, and made a big speech about how he was going to let it go to Frodo - only to try and leave his house while ‘forgetting’ to actually leave the ring.

Dr Mahathir has resigned-but-not-resigned not once, but twice in his career. If you are still in a position of power, and are now in fact essentially arguing (with however much humility, real or affected) that you should continue to be given power, then all this talk about how ‘this proves I am not obsessed with being in power’ may ring a little hollow.

Thirdly, another obvious question is: Who would a ‘unity government’ actually consist of in practice?

The type of ‘unity government’ Dr Mahathir is alluding to could laudably be the type in which technocrats instead of politicians are put in key decision making positions.

Again, this is a system which I have actually been trying to work on and conceptualise for some weeks and months now, so a part of me obviously supports such an effort.

That said, I would rather not do something at all, then do it in a rushed and potentially illegitimate manner.

There are two main problems with this approach - let’s call them problems 3A and 3B.

It’s easy and crowd-pleasing to talk about a non-partisan government. But problem 3A is that if Dr Mahathir only chooses technocrats as ministers, with none of the current Members of Parliament included in his government (due to being politicians), then those MPs would be very much incentivised to eventually select another PM - one who would include them in his or her government. This makes for almost permanent instability.

If at least some existing MPs are to be appointed ministers, then what criteria does one use to determine which ones are selected and which ones are not? Can you imagine how it would look if the Backdoor Boys, whose betrayal started this whole mess, were reinstated into the Cabinet?

I suppose one could argue that ministers can be chosen purely on merit, instead of party affiliation.

This leads to problem 3B, which begins with the question: Who then, will be the judge of an individual’s merit?

Within our current legal and political system, it would appear that if Dr Mahathir goes down this route, then Dr Mahathir and Dr Mahathir alone will be the 'judge' of a potential appointee’s merit - be they a politician or not. In essence, he would not have to accommodate anyone, nor be accountable to anyone.

In most places around the world, this overconcentration of power is called a dictatorship - no matter how 'benign’ one might argue it to be.

Should Dr Mahathir decide to relinquish this power - say by appointing an independent council representing a diverse cross-section of non-partisan Malaysian leaders from civil society to make key appointments - that may be a different scenario entirely.

Indeed, this may be the only way to legitimately pursue the non-partisan unity government route.

Speaking of which, the fourth problem is the problem of legitimacy.

The word ‘betrayal’ is very aptly used in reference to the backdoor coup which sought to subvert the democratic decision that was made by the rakyat during GE 14 in voting in Pakatan Harapan - based on their manifesto, and on the public promise made then that Dr Mahathir would hand over power to Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim before the end of his term.

I’m not saying that Pakatan Harapan has been the best government in the world. Far from it.

But Pakatan Harapan was voted in legitimately for a five-year term. No matter how critical one may be of Pakatan Harapan, and even though I am not personally a fan of our electoral system, the fact remains that subverting this mandate in any way is almost certain treachery. I want to change the rules of the game, but to break the rules before the nation collectively agrees to change them is cheating.

I would thus argue that in the long-term, it is perfectly legitimate to campaign for the type of non-partisan unity government that Dr Mahathir described - especially in a measured way, over time, using the right channels; indeed, that is precisely what I am likely to spend my own time and effort doing for some time to come.

However, it is almost certain that any move by Dr Mahathir at this point to deviate from the script that was agreed upon and proclaimed to the rakyat in GE 14 would suffer from a severe, crippling legitimacy deficit.

In much the same way that evidence obtained illegally by the police (no matter how damning) cannot be used to convict someone, illegitimate means that subverting the democratic will of the people cannot be used to legitimise political innovation - regardless of how attractive that innovation may seem to be.

In terms of moral and democratic legitimacy stemming from GE 14, the only candidates for Prime Minister that are justifiable are Dr Mahathir or Anwar, and the only parties from which ministers should be chosen are parties that were part of the Pakatan Harapan coalition in early 2018.

Of course, with Bersatu’s rash decision to leave the Pakatan Harapan coalition, including them into the government moving forward could be very awkward indeed.

Finally, we can also test whether or not this ‘unity government’ actually unites Malaysians by glancing through social media. My own limited straw polling seems to indicate that those who are pro-BN, pro-Datuk Seri Azmin Ali, and pro-Dr Mahathir are all pushing the idea, whereas those who are pro-Anwar and pro-Pakatan Harapan are largely against it.

It can thus be argued that instead of unifying anything or anyone, this version of a ‘unity government’ is simply encouraging the same political disunity as before, just in a different package.

While politicians - including some of the most partisan the nation has ever seen - suddenly want to start pretending to be non-partisan, and throw all kinds of spaghetti at the wall hoping it’ll stick, the rest of the nation continues to be dragged out in an awkward limbo, waiting for Godot.

I have a great love for the people of Sabah and Sarawak, but this does not necessarily translate to a great love for all of their MPs. Had they been men or women of honour, they would have chosen to support one coalition or another by now, to end this impasse.

Refusing to commit by this point will only raise perception that they are merely holding out for the ‘highest bidder’, trying to get a better and better deal.

As we wait as well with bated breath for the Yang di-Pertuan Agong’s announcement, we hope that the decision he reaches is based on a transparent process that is consistent with convention and the letter of the law.

So yes, while I theoretically have great respect for the innovative ideas that Dr Mahathir presented, it seems exceedingly unlikely that hastily cobbling together a ‘unity government’ at the wrong time, for the wrong reasons, with the wrong people, is going to lead to the right future.

Dr Mahathir specifically tried to show that he is a man who is not obsessed with power, but one who - in his own words on yesterday - only uses power as a ‘means to an end’.

Remembering the election promises he made to the rakyat in 2018, including the one about the transition of power, let us never forget though: The ends do not justify the means.

NATHANIEL TAN is a strategic communications consultant. He can be reached at nat@engage.my.

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