A new formula for unity


We have a historic opportunity to phase out old, toxic politics and completely redefine Malaysia’s political landscape.

MALAYSIA now faces a simple choice.

We can keep doing politics the same way we’ve always done politics. Or we can use this historic opportunity to change Malaysia’s forever.

The true question facing us today is: Who is the enemy now?

There’s always the old model, where political enemies are neatly divided: One set of politicians doing everything they can to stay in power, and another set of politicians doing everything they can to take over power. This old model has led to non-stop fighting between politicians and their supporters, dividing Malaysia bitterly as a result – especially along the lines of race and religion.

Conventional analysis suggests that the main political division in Peninsular Malaysia will now be Pakatan Harapan and Barisan Nasional on one side, and Perikatan Nasional on the other – old players swapping around roles, but in the same old script of constantly warring enemies.

In this configuration, Pakatan will be led by Prime Minister Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim’s multiracial PKR, against the Malay-only Bersatu and, more importantly, the Muslim-only PAS – the party with the most seats in Parliament.

It doesn’t take a genius to see how this will play out.

With their backs against the wall and eager to protect their strongholds, PAS is likely to move even further to the right in order to differentiate themselves from the “liberal” PKR, and whatever it is Umno will eventually decide to identify themselves as.

Bersatu will surely follow PAS, and become even more likely to take up the mantle of the ultra- Malay party now that Umno is allied to Pakatan. What this bodes is even more racial and religious extremism and enmity.

In 2018, we saw the anti-Icerd (The International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination) gathering, the Malay unity congress, and Muafakat Nasional. In the last week alone, we are seeing videos about May 13, attempts to portray horse-riding youth as some sort of jihadists, and so on.

Academic Bridget Welsh estimates that roughly 54% of Malays supported Perikatan, 33% supported Barisan, and only a meagre 11% supported Pakatan.

Anyone – including Perikatan – will surely see this as a powder keg just waiting to be ignited.

Without change, Perikatan will surely go into the next round of state elections and probably the 16th General Election (GE16) pushing a racial and religious line harder and harder – sowing even more division and hate to defend their power in the Malay belt.

Do we really have to be stuck in this vicious, toxic cycle forever? Or is there a new, better way forward?

I believe there is. And I believe it starts with redefining who the “enemy” is. The enemy isn’t PAS, or Bersatu, or Barisan, or Pakatan. The enemy is poverty, injustice, and corruption.

Can you imagine if Malaysians stopped fighting each other and started working together against these true enemies?

Surely some will find this idea ridiculously naive; but there are actually ways of making this work politically.

It starts with understanding what political division has always really been about in Malaysia. In short, it’s 10% about ideology and 90% about which individuals get to control which resources. This is a bold claim, but it can be empirically backed.

If political conflict was truly about ideology, how can a party like PAS go from a vehemently anti-Umno and anti-DAP party to joining DAP as part of Pakatan Rakyat in 2008, to joining Umno in Muafakat Nasional in 2019, to breaking with Umno again in 2022?

Similarly, vehemently anti-DAP Umno is now working with DAP in government.

Any seriously detailed analysis of Malaysian political history will show that time and time again, ideology is used to justify political alliances after the fact, not vice versa. You first decide which leader you want to support, and only then decide which “ideology” to use to justify your decision retrospectively.

Thus we only need think about how to share power in Malaysia in a way that encourages cooperation and benefits the rakyat. The Yang di-Pertuan Agong has said twice now in the last few years: in politics, the winners should not win everything and the losers should not lose everything.

I think Pakatan would do well to respect the fact that PAS (more so than Bersatu) essentially made a solid sweep of Kelantan, Tereng-ganu and Kedah, and made a strong showing in many other states.

What if in future elections Pakatan decided to field candidates in fewer than half the seats in the states currently held by PAS? On top of this, PAS can also be represented in some capacity at the federal level, and in states they do not run. Similarly, PAS state governments should include some form of representation by non-PAS representatives.

These would be strong incentives for PAS and their supporters not to wage an all-out war against Pakatan that would be full of racial and religious incitement – not because PAS members are inherently hateful and divisive but because their leaders fear they would lose all power otherwise.

The window of opportunity to do this is small, as doing it later may seem like capitulation. This strategy is founded on the idea of inclusiveness and is not without precedent in Malaysia.

After the May 13, 1969, race riots, Tun Abdul Razak convened the National Consultative Council, which eventually led to the co-opting of parties like PAS, Gerakan, the PPP, and parties from Sabah and Sarawak into what became Barisan Nasional – the grand coalition that governed Malaysia from 1957 to 2018.

Co-opting the best from every side will leave only a small minority of true extremists out in the cold. We can later go one step further and explore how internal party politics with parties dominated by one race affect our landscape as a whole. In summary, merging and streamlining parties within a coalition may have a profound effect on reducing how race is used in Malaysian politics.

Barisan’s eventual problem was of course that absolute, unchecked power inevitably breeds corruption. The conventional wisdom is that this is why a strong Opposition is needed. I propose the unconventional instead.

I fully agree that we need a robust set of checks and balances; but I do not agree that a political Opposition whose primary interest is to replace the current government is the best possible form of check and balance.

It is absolutely necessary for the full-time, properly compensated job of a large group of people to be constantly probing the government for corruption and pushing for the maximum level of governmental transparency possible.

It is not necessary that this group of people be elected parliamentarians whose primary interest is a political victory over those that they oppose. In pursuit of the latter, checks and balances get mixed up with political hatemongering and the instigation of social divisiveness. We need only use our imagination and make some key institutions truly independent to achieve an equal (or even greater) measure of productive checks and balances.

There are two possible paths ahead of us.

In a world where the defining conflict is that of Pakatan and Barisan versus Perikatan, there is little doubt in my mind that we will be once again be thrown into more and more hate, incitement, and division. The answer to this is never to try and clamp down and stamp out these voices (which only makes them stronger), but to build a completely different narrative and landscape which will render them irrelevant.

If we leave behind the old ways in favour of innovating new ones where the defining conflict is all of Malaysia’s leaders fighting against poverty, injustice, and corruption – without having to fear for their political survival or rice bowls –then Malaysia’s future potential will be truly limitless.

Nathaniel Tan is a freelance strategic communications consultant working with Projek #BangsaMalaysia. The views expressed here are solely his own.

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