Potential departure from race-based politics

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Aliran member Toh Kin Woon looks at the possibility of a two-coalition system emerging in the future that would involve more multiracial parties.



A major political tsunami occurred on 8 March 2008, when the country held its 12th General Election. The Barisan Nasional was first denied its two-thirds’ majority, which has been set as a goal to be achieved in every election. Until the recent election, the BN coalition has always succeeded in attainting this goal in all elections after 1969. The significance of having a two-thirds’ majority lies in the power it will have to amend the constitution, without the necessity to seek opposition support.

Next, the BN lost control of four states -. Kedah, Penang, Perak and Selangor. It also failed in its attempt to regain power in Kelantan, where Pas won with a much-increased majority. Equally dismal was its performance in Kuala Lumpur, where the opposition swept 10 out of 11 parliamentary seats at stake. In all, the BN failed to win power in two of the richest states -. Selangor and Penang – and the two Malay heartland states of Kelantan and Kedah. Support for the BN came mainly from the rest of the Peninsula, Sabah and Sarawak.

It is worthwhile to note that the BN did not win a majority of the popular vote in Peninsular Malaysia. It obtained only 49 per cent of the popular vote compared to 51 per cent obtained by the combined Opposition. Only when we include Sabah and Sarawak did the BN win a majority. Even then, at 50.8 per cent compared to 49.2 per cent for the Opposition, it was a razor-thin majority.

Why the erosion of support for BN?

The poor performance of the BN in the recent election was reminiscent of that of 1969. In fact, some claimed that its recent performance was even worse than in 1969. What accounted for this considerable loss of support for the BN among all ethnic groups? There are several factors, almost all of which are already known.

Rising costs
The first was the rise in the cost of living. With nominal incomes rising at a pace much less than the rate of inflation actually experienced by the middle- and lower-income groups, especially the urban salariat, real standards of living for a significant proportion of the population actually fell over the last few years.

Growing disparity
This was exacerbated by the dissatisfaction and discontent of many ordinary citizens over the widening gap between them and the rich. While the government has done quite well in reducing the incidence of absolute poverty, it has not addressed the issue of relative poverty seriously. It often glosses over the issue in many plan documents by making only passing reference to it. Indeed, many of the economic measures that have been taken over the years tend to make the disparity yawn ever wider. Examples include privatisation of many important services; the change in the taxation structure by deliberately increasing the share of government revenue from indirect taxes, which tend to burden the poor more, while reducing direct taxes, especially income tax, which tend to make the rich pay progressively more; withdrawal or reducing subsidies and unequal distribution of income-yielding assets; including knowledge.

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Rising Crime Rate
The rising crime rate has also angered many Malaysians. Many now feel unsafe and insecure, especially women and children.

Tarnished Image of the BN
Perceived widespread corruption, numerous scandals and the arrogance of those in power have alienated the BN further from the voters. By the time the General Election was held, people were generally angry, disenchanted and frustrated.

Anwar’s charisma
To all these must be added the charisma of Dato Seri Anwar Ibrahim, the de facto leader of the combined Opposition. Wherever he went, he charmed thousands with his oratorical skills. His consistency in calling for the abolition of the New Economic Policy won a lot of support from among the non-Malays, without at the same time alienating the Malays. Overall, the election machinery of all the opposition parties was run efficiently and smoothly. While this machinery was operating at full gear shortly after nomination day, the BN was still bogged down with internal feuds over candidacies and positions.

A two coalition system for the future?

While supporters of the major component parties, Umno, MCA, MIC and Gerakan – lament the considerable erosion of support for their parties, many others, however, welcome the outcome of the election. They see this significant shift in support for the combined opposition parties of PKR-DAP-Pas as the possible beginning of a two-party or coalition system in this country. If this is indeed the case, Malaysia will henceforth see the emergence of a more competitive political system, replacing the previous system where there was an overwhelming concentration of power in the ruling BN coalition, in particular, Umno.

But for this to happen, the three-party opposition alliance must be further strengthened. Thus far, their coming together has been premised largely on ensuring one-to-one contests between any one of these parties and the BN. But this won’t suffice, if it is to present itself as a viable alternative to the BN in the contest for control of the Dewan Rakyat, Malaysia’s lower house of parliament, and hence the Federal Government, in the next general election. A closer alliance, based on common political goals and ideals, and preferably using a common symbol, may be necessary. This may be too much for the DAP to swallow, however, especially when the alliance involves Pas. A merger between PKR and DAP may well be possible.

Departure from race-based politics

More significantly, the outcome of the 12th General Election also signals a potential departure from race-based politics and the rise of multi-racial parties. Parti Keadilan Rakyat or PKR did particularly well, with 31 members of parliament comprising Malays, Chinese and Indians.

What was impressive was the success registered by PKR and DAP in mixed constituencies, traditionally regarded as BN strongholds. In past elections, Pas and DAP were relatively strong in predominantly Malay and Chinese seats respectively. While they retained their ground, significant inroads were made by DAP and PKR into the so-called middle ground. This time around, the BN performed relatively badly in these constituencies.

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The fact that multiracial parties such as PKR and to a lesser extent the DAP could perform well in constituencies covering the middle ground, suggests that people from all races now support these two parties and even Pas. They are now prepared to accept parties that propound a socio-economic agenda that is not race-based but is based more on needs. If this is indeed the case, this marks a refreshing and welcome change from the past, where electoral success was often based on narrow ethnic appeals. It is to be hoped that the ruling BN coalition will take note of this shift and make the necessary changes to past policies that run counter to what seems to be the wishes of all communities for a more non-communal and needs-based approach.

What of Parti Gerakan?

Strictly, this significant political change should be welcomed by parties that profess to be multiracial, including Parti Gerakan Rakyat Malaysia, long a member of the ruling BN. For after all, multiracialism was what was advocated by the founders of the party. Besides stressing multiracialism, the party’s constitution that was drafted by the founders also propounded a social democratic platform.

Since joining the BN in the early 70s, however, the party has increasingly lost its multi-ethnic character. It is increasingly being perceived by many outside the party to be just another Chinese-based party, its Indian membership notwithstanding. Worse, it has not been consistent in following a truly non-racial Malaysian line. It often vacillates from the racial to the non-racial and back. The electoral pressures coming from many of the largely Chinese constituencies it has been asked to contest, especially in Penang, and perhaps the limited space for multiracial parties within the BN, which is dominated by three major race-based parties, may have contributed to this Gerakan trend.

In the recent election, the party did badly. It achieved a lowly 16 per cent success rate in parliamentary elections. But more devastating was the total annihilation of the party in both state and parliamentary elections in Penang, the party’s power base, where it lost in all seats contested.

With this major electoral setback, there is hardly anything to celebrate in this year’s 40th anniversary of the founding of the party. Instead, this anniversary might be better devoted to some honest soul-searching on where the party has gone wrong. Ways must be sought to bring the party back to its glorious past that is best remembered for the party’s doubtless contribution to the economic development of Penang over nearly four decades.

Going forward, the party needs to return to basics as advocated by the party’s founders. This implies that the party needs to stay firm and true to a non-racial approach that eschews racism. It must continue to adopt a social democratic agenda for progress in the economy, politics, education, health, transportation and housing. Assuming that this is accepted in principle by the leadership and the party at large, it must next mull over the strategic options that it must follow in order to realise this basic socio-economic and political party agenda. To me, there are several possible options:

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• Stay in the BN and have more of the same, with the party unable to abandon totally its ethnic character. This to me is the least desirable for it may lead to the party becoming an irrelevant force.
• Stay but seek reforms from within. One major reform, and one which has been earlier advocated by the party’s youth chief, is for all component parties to merge to form a truly multiracial BN. Besides doing away with racial calls, this will also avert the seeming lack of parity in the relationship between Umno and the rest. It was this that has in part cost the MCA, MIC and Gerakan dearly in the recent election. The party must, however, give itself a certain time span to pursue this major change.
• Should it fail to achieve the above within the time span set, it must then seriously consider leaving the BN and to independently develop the party as a serious multiracial social democratic party. If need be, it could join forces with other like-minded parties outside the BN to forge an even larger multiracial movement for greater democracy, ethnic equality, gender parity, and social justice.

Ultimately, of course, it is up to the leaders and members of the party to consider these and other options for the revival for the party. But reform and change it must, if it is to remain a force that can fulfill the ever-rising tide of expectations of the Malaysian electorate in a rapidly changing world.

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Toh Kin Woon was a former Associate Professor of Economics at the Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia and former Penang State Executive Councillor. He is presently Executive Chairman of the Socioeconomic and Environmental Research Institute (Seri) and Advisor to the Institute of Training and Development in Penang.

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