The Citizens’ Declaration calling for Najib’s removal even if initiated by the “wrong forces” does add a new element of hope and agency to the goal of progressive political change in Malaysia, says Johan Saravanamuttu.
One could hardly imagine witnessing the spectacle of the coming together of bitter political opponents and political enemies led by a discredited former prime minister attempting to remove a much more harmful incumbent, much less civil society actors supporting such a move.
Desperate times call for desperate measures, it would seem! Malaysia’s convoluted politics saw the launching of a “Citizens’ Declaration” on 4 March 2016 calling for the removal of the incumbent prime minster, Najib Razak.
The launch featured the 91-year-old former prime minister of Malaysia. The fact that Anwar Ibrahim, his former deputy in Umno and government, who was put away in jail for four years, endorsed the declaration made the event even more bizarre. Well, it happened.
The coming together of civil society actors with their long-time nemesis in Malaysia is surely a testament to the truism that there are only permanent interests and no permanent friends or enemies in politics.
The fact that such an event occurred epitomises the extreme state of impasse in Malaysian politics today. Some observers of the “third sector” have condemned the action by civil society activists as “opportunism“. The opposition political party, PSM, also considered the move to be hasty and ill advised. There is also an ongoing debate among civil society actors about the wisdom of such a move.
What are the pros and cons of supporting such a move by civil forces? Let me first briefly review the “opportunism” charge most strongly argued by former Suaram director Kua Kia Soong. The most powerful point made is that the declaration has targeted the individual (i.e. Najib) not the repressive political regime, which the prime mover Mahathir was instrumental in installing in the first place.
Second, there is no guarantee of any prospect of institutional reform in this move, and civil society actors who support it are exhibiting sheer naiveté.
I do not entirely agree and would like to suggest that in a time of extreme political impasse, progressive forces could arguably forge multiple alliances as long as there is clear sight of ultimate goals based on long-held principles and overall objectives that are not fully aligned with those of the political class.
Or to put it differently, civil actors must always guard against being co-opted for the self-serving agendas of the political class but should be ready to make tactical moves. In so doing, civil forces must thus maintain autonomous lines of action for continuing progressive agendas of their own.
Admittedly, how this latest move could lead to democratic reform remains a moot question. Mahathir, who initiated the move, made it absolutely clear during the Q & A session that the primary goal of the Citizens’ Declaration was the removal of Najib. I doubt if there is any real intention or spirit of championing the reform of the badly mauled institutions of the state by the primary movers.
Mahathir’s son Mukhriz has made it abundantly clear that he would not want a change of the BN government despite his dismissal by Najib. So too Muhyiddin, who probably hopes to assume the reins of Umno should Najib fall.
The DAP and Amanah leaders were also there for their own purposes, which are not entirely transparent to me. The PKR’s Azmin and Rafizi, known to be political opponents within their own party, may also have their own individual agendas.
Civil society, however, can exploit these differences to its advantage if it could lead to the collapse of the hegemony of the power bloc.
Since it is unlikely that Najib will step down any time soon as there was no mechanism in the declaration for what steps are to be taken to remove him, the continuous pressure on him could force him to make more political mistakes and wreck the BN’s hegemony.
I also see this move by civil society as a way to forge creative alliances and to extend its agency in a time of extreme political impasse. Liew Chin Tong has given us interesting scenarios of Najib being forced by this move to take more extreme self-defeating measures such as instituting emergency rule, or the possibility of a countervailing action of a Zahid Hamidi coup in Umno.
These are extreme speculations on the unintended reflexivity of the political situation and while counterfactual, who is to say that they could not happen in such a time of political crisis?
We should be firm that civil society’s goal would be for the ultimate unseating of the BN ruling coalition in the next general election, barring no major move by a besieged Najib to cancel the next general election.
We do know that the Election Commission is now busy redelineating constituencies for GE 14 and must continue to be vigilant about the possible effects of delineations affecting electoral outcomes negatively for the opposition.
Civil society’s strength is in its multiple engagements and alliances to check executive abuses of power and to propel progressive change. Were it not for civil society’s involvement in the electoral process, we may not have seen the crucial shift to a two-coalition politics since March 2008.
Its main objective must be to continue to fashion and cull alliances with all forces for political and social progress, by which I mean the following:
- Help to check the fragmentation of the Pakatan and rebuild its strength.
- Effect actions that could weaken the BN edifice.
- Recognise Anwar Ibrahim’s plight and his continuing indispensable role in the opposition alliance, as only he appears able to hold together the refurbished Pakatan coalition as the enduring symbolic victim.
- Address the weakness of opposition politics in Sabah and Sarawak and focus on forging new coalitions; civil society itself remains weak and unable to meld into opposition politics in East Malaysia.
- Forge and rejuvenate multiple alliances within a civil society, somewhat broken and fragmented, post-GE13.
I do admit that the Citizens’ Declaration calling for Najib’s removal even if initiated by the “wrong forces” does add a new element of hope and agency to the goal of progressive political change in Malaysia. Clearly this will not come just with the removal of Najib as prime minister but rather with the rejuvenation of an effective agenda for reform of the Malaysian political regime.
Finally, I would add that the agency of Bersih as a leading force in civil society remains of paramount importance in this time of extreme impasse as we head towards GE14.
Co-editor, Aliran newsletter
10 March 2016