ANALYSING Malaysian politics is a must for those in the media and academia and especially those active on social media, observed Prof Shamsul Amri Baharuddin, who heads the Institute of Ethnic Studies at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia.
“It’s a favourite Malaysian past-time conducted between sips of teh tarik and bites of rojak in a Mamak shop offering a cosmopolitan menu, ” he noted.
However, Shamsul Amri contends that these analyses often suffer from epistemological flaws or are based on wrong basic assumptions. “As such, the rest of the analysis is then rendered amorphous, nebulous and, indeed, misleading, ” he said.
The political analyst said the prominent features of Malaysian politics covered by analysts, based locally and abroad, are:
1) Family dynasty struggles represented by elitist public personalities;
2) Deep inter-ethnic differences represented by ethnic-based political parties;
3) Strong intra-ethnic contestation represented by different mono-ethnic political parties;
4) Open state/federal unresolved issues;
5) Extremely rich political proxies within and outside Malaysia;
6) Unresolved and highly influential contemporary issues.
“Generally, the analyses touch on the above mentioned features by privileging a psephological aspect of Malaysian politics, that is, the statistical study of elections, trends in voting and financing of elections.
“Analyses of Malaysian politics is ‘crowded’ with the psephology of things political. A number of epistemological flaws inform such analyses, often subterranean in nature and taken-for-granted as truth or correct, ” he said.
The professor said the first common flaw – that is not discussed and, indeed, is often taken for granted as correct – is the notion that Malaysia practices a two-party system akin to Australian, British, and US systems. However, in those Western systems, the two parties are not made up of coalitions of various other parties.
In Malaysia, it is not a two-party system but a two-coalition system that began with the December 1952 local council elections in several towns when Umno and MCA became a coalition called the Alliance Party, Shamsul Amri pointed out.
“It is not a single party power but combined parties power. Malaysian politics is based on coalitions because of the ethnic demographic factor. No single Malay party can form the government, no single Chinese party can form the government. That is the DNA of Malaysian politics, ” he said.
The two-coalition system became clearer in 2008,2013 and 2018, he noted. For example, Pakatan Harapan – made up of PKR, DAP, Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia and Amanah – almost mirrors Barisan Nasional with its main parties of Umno, MCA and MIC. In GE14 in 2018, the Opposition coalition, Pakatan, took over the Federal government when it defeated Barisan.
Recently, Shamsul Amri texted me to comment on my article hankering for a third force in Malaysian politics (“Wishing for a third force”, Dec 22; online at bit.ly/star_third), saying that there can’t be a third force party as Malaysia does not practise the two-party system.
“What we have is a two-coalition system with each coalition loosely structured enough that any party can join or leave to go its own way. This loosely structured feature, which can jump across coalitions, parties and personalities of all races, structurally can’t give rise to the so-called third force, ” he said.
Shamsul Amri forecasts that the Rubik’s Cube of coalition politics could be turned this year.
“The present coalition (Pakatan) is weakened and the other is shaky. Shake, shake, shake, shake and a new coalition will be formed, ” he said.
“The realignment and repositioning of Pakatan are still being discussed, and whether a new coalition will be formed. The repositioning will continue to the extent that there might even be a change of government.”
The political analyst won’t be surprised if A (Pakatan) plus B (Barisan and Muafakat Nasional) will result in C (a new ruling coalition consisting of Bersatu, Umno, PAS, Datuk Seri Azmin Ali’s PKR faction, Sabah and Sarawak parties and other parties. Coalition D (which will be the Opposition block) could consist of those not invited into the new ruling coalition such as Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim’s PKR faction and DAP.
“That’s the beauty of a coalition. Any party can leave or join, ” he said.
Shamsul Amri sees new coalitions being formed with more choices for voters as an upside of a maturing democracy. But the downside is greater political instability and uncertainty for investors, with shorter tenures for newly formed governments due to constant realignments of political parties and coalitions, he said.
The political analyst said there is a possibility of different coalitions controlling different state assemblies.
“Federal and state governments might have different Rubik’s Cube colour combinations, ” he said.
The Rubik’s Cube of Malaysian coalition politics is spinning.