Beyond the back door: 5 home truths of Malaysian politics

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Muhyiddin Yassin's coalition - Photograph: Bernama/Malay Mail

We have to rebuild and come up with new vehicles to deliver the New Politics that has been hijacked from us temporarily, writes Francis Loh.

The intrigues, treachery and backstabbing which led to a “backdoor government” – who did what, to whom and when – and the subsequent leapfrogging from one party to another have all been reported and commented on by many in the media. 

I have no ilham (inspiration) or special insights into these unsavoury developments.

Aliran issued a couple of media statements in the midst of the crisis: “Resist attempted coup in Malaysia!” and “Allow Parliament to test new PM’s support”. The best analysis of recent events is Dr Jeyakumar Devaraj’s “The meltdown of Pakatan Harapan”.

Many news reports have looked at the cabinet that the eighth Prime Minister, Muhyiddin Yassin, has cobbled together. Let me comment briefly here.

It is indeed a huge cabinet comprising 32 ministers (including the PM and four “senior ministers”) and 38 deputies – all to accommodate the many component parties of Perikatan Nasional (PN). The new coalition comprises Bersatu, Umno, Pas, Gabungan Parti Sarawak (GPS), Parti Bersatu Sabah (PBS), the MCA, the MIC and a few independents to boot.

Apparently, those MPs who abandoned PH and the Umno MPs have been the biggest beneficiaries. Together, they account for two-thirds of the 70 ministerial and deputy ministerial positions.

The Sabah and Sarawak MPs, including those who had earlier pledged themselves to Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s side, have also benefited. The number of East Malaysian ministers and deputy ministers as a proportion of the total 70 is disproportionate to the number of MPs from these two states who have aligned themselves to Muhyiddin. Grumblings have emerged from a couple of peninsula-based parties

To prevent immediate competition among the three principal Malay parties and perhaps to stave off any challenge to himself, Muhyiddin has strategically appointed four so-called senior ministers to assist him instead of a single deputy prime minister which has been the convention.

Umno’s Hishammuddin Hussein, who was tipped to become deputy PM, has apparently lost out. He was only appointed as foreign minister – not even senior minister.

Yes, Azmin Ali has been made one of the senior ministers. But, in fact, he has been “demoted” to international trade and industry minister (and at a time of a potential meltdown in the global economy). Compared to his previous Ministry of Economic Affairs, his present portfolio is rather lightweight. Azmin, who had worked with Muhyiddin to break up PH, has been upended by his co-conspirator.

Instead, Muhyiddin has transferred the economics portfolio back to the Prime Minister’s Department. So the new minister, Mustapa Mohamed, now an independent, reports directly to him.

So too the new Finance Minister, Tengku Zafrul Tengku Abdul Aziz, former CEO of CIMB Holdings Group Bhd. Muhyiddin has presented him as a technocrat since he is not affiliated to any party. That might be so. But many do not think Zafrul is devoid of political loyalties – for in the run-up to the 2018 general election, he was one of the “superstar singers” in a music video that he and the CEOs of other companies specially prepared for Najib Razak.

It is Muhyiddin who has won big-time. He is not just a PM without a deputy; he controls both the Ministry of Finance and the economic affairs department. He also heads the new Economic Action Council, which brings together the portfolios of finance, economic affairs and international trade and industry. So, he has full control over development expenditure and can determine the priorities in the upcoming 12th Malaysian Five-Year Plan, 2021-2025.

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And we have just been told by the new Communications and Multimedia Minister, Saifuddin Abdullah, that the PN government still has no clue how it will be governing. Didn’t the PM recently recover from a major illness? Is it really such a good idea to allow him to overburden himself? He should trust his ministers. But does he dare do that? They came in by the back door, didn’t they?

Let’s now refocus on the wider context, the major trends and fault lines and the structural constraints which have and will continue to frame political developments in Malaysia after the formation of the backdoor PN government. The intrigues, treachery and backstabbing have taken place within this wider context.

I am reminded of five major home truths.

1. Ethno-religious sentiments remain; bankrupt politicians will exploit them

The ethnic or ethno-religious factor remains all important. Yes, it is old politics associated with the prevalence of mono-ethnic and mono-religious parties, whose leaders have no qualms in exaggerating and manipulating ethno-religious issues for their own selfish power-grab ends.

One of the worst examples is how Umno and Pas accuse the DAP of being anti-Malay and anti-Islam, that they have stopped or halted allocations for Malay concerns, that the  DAP is out to Christianise the country. Such propaganda filled the pages of dailies like Utusan Malaysia and Harakah, and TV stations such as RTM, TV3, Bernama and Astro Awani in the run-up to the 2018 general election.

The propaganda and misinformation persisted even after the PH government won power. Although Mahathir was in charge and led a Malay-majority cabinet, the DAP was portrayed as the “dalang” (mastermind) that dominated PH decision-making: Islam and Malay economic interests purportedly were being undermined, and the DAP had an agenda to transform Malaysia from a Muslim into a Christian country.

So it is not surprising that Azmin Ali’s PKR faction and Muhyiddin’s Bersatu were prepared to work with Umno, Pas and GPS (comprising Sarawak parties) to cobble together an all-Malay coalition without the DAP.

In an article entitled “Islam and its Racial Dynamics in Malaysia’s 14th GE”, Ahmad Fauzi and Che Hamdan had warned us of this home truth of Malaysian politics:

If the PH government cannot reassure Malay-Muslim voters that it will protect their interests, the coalition risks losing what support it has from Malaysia’s majority racial and religious group. Such an eventuality is a recipe for political short-termism. Within months of the polls, worries were being openly expressed at the brashness with which ‘liberal’ elements in PH were pushing their agenda. Even Anwar Ibrahim soon warned against ‘super-liberal’ elements out to hijack his moderate Reformasi agenda – a programme that respects Malaysia’s Malay-Muslim and Islamic ethos… Before the dust had fully settled, reports started to emerge indicating intense mobilisation of the part of Malay-Muslim ethnocrats from both Umno and Pas to galvanise the Malay masses into defending what they perceive as their inalienable birthright.. Those pressures make it all the more important that PH tread its path carefully and find new ways to promote its civic-nationalist vision without stoking Malay-Muslim fears, lest concerned Malaysians’ hard-earned GE14 triumph be derailed when it has still yet barely begun.

[The article appears in Towards a New Malaysia: The 2018 Election and its Aftermath (2020) edited by Meredith Weiss and Faisal S Hazis, Singapore: National University of Singapore Press, 2020, pp161-62]

2. Developmentalism – growth and equity

The second home truth has to do with maintaining stable economic development, which has generally characterised Malaysia since independence.

Elsewhere, I have argued that rapid economic development and the trickling down of that development especially to Malays under the New Economic Policy, but also to non-Malay middle-class types vis the Chinese parties in the BN, gave rise to the discourse of “developmentalism”, an appreciation of economic growth with also a measure of equity especially for the Malays.

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What happened in the last years of Najib’s government was that developmentalism was undermined by corruption and mismanagement of the economy. Out went development and equity. In 2018 PH inherited an economy riddled with foreign debts and characterised by the unprecedented levels of corruption. Many government-linked companies like 1MDB, Felda Global Ventures, the Armed Forces Fund Board (LTAT) were in the red.

Reportedly, the bottom 40% lower-income classes were more concerned that subsidies to rubber smallholders and fishermen had been stopped than by accounts and even ongoing court cases involving corruption and mismanagement.

Without serious attempts by PH to counter the propaganda targeting the DAP, serious animus against the allegedly anti-Malay, anti-Islam party grew. Remember, only 22% of Malays, largely in the urban areas of the west coast of peninsula Malaysia, voted for PH in 2018. PH’s support in the peninsula came from 22% of the Malays, over 90% of the Chinese and around 80% of the Indians.  

One wonders how Muhyiddin’s government will fare in running the economy. It is not inconceivable that the worsening global economy will be a poisoned chalice for the new PM. How is he going to kickstart the economy? How will he attract back foreign direct investment given the downturn in the global economy caused by the coronavirus pandemic, trade wars and the bad press associated with 1MDB? Foreign investors will not be enamoured that Muhyiddin’s government had ousted a duly elected sitting government through a backdoor coup. No doubt, the pandemic and falling stock and oil prices will affect the new PN government’s performance.

Unfortunately, if the PN government fails to improve the economy, it is most likely that the extremists within the coalition will “membatu-apikan perasaan perkauman” (further incite ethnic sentiments) to rationalise why they must remain in office.   

3. Supporting roles, bogeymen in public domain

The Chinese-based parties and politicians have played minimal roles in the recent manoeuvring to get rid of PH and replace it with PN. Elected MPs and state assembly members have thrown their lot behind Mahathir and Anwar Ibrahim in particular. The Chinese-based parties and politicians play important roles as supporters and have been useful as bogeymen for Umno-BN and now the PN extremists. It needs stressing that they are NOT key players in the realm of formal politics.

Over the years, big Chinese capitalists developed their own direct lines to Mahathir and/or to particular ministers to secure their economic interests – an arrangement that had been developed from the BN days, before PH appeared on the scene. Truth be told, the MCA, Gerakan and the MIC were rather ineffective.

At a more general level, this is the reality of Malaysian politics and in the public domain generally. The New Economic Policy quota system has percolated deep down, ensuring that politics, government departments, agencies and universities are led by Malays. And they dominate political decision-making and, of course, political manoeuvring. 

4. Whither civil society organisations?

Rapid economic growth has undoubtedly transformed Malaysian society. Thanks to the NEP, a multi-ethnic middle class is discernible. In recent decades, civil society organisations (CSOs) have sprouted, largely independent of government and the private sector.

Thanks to these CSOs, we have seen the advancement of human rights, gender equality, respect for consumer rights, greater concern for the environment, and demands for sustainable development and yes, free and fair elections (under the Bersih umbrella). That said, the CSOs did NOT play any significant role in the recent manoeuvrings or counter-manoeuvrings.

READ MORE:  Why is Muhyiddin avoiding Parliament?

So a wide chasm exists between “Big P” Power Politics, dominated by the political parties, and “small p” people-oriented politics.

One plays the ethno-religious game and must also be prepared to engage in intrigues, treachery, backstabbing and, yes, leapfrogging in Big P Power Politics.

Small p politics is usually pursued to advance single issues eg human rights, gender equality or Undi Bersih. Support can be enthusiastic, but also ephemeral – for it depends on volunteerism and fundraising. In the moral order of things, the CSOs may top the politicians and political parties.

But the CSOs offer no contest to political parties like Umno, the MCA and the MIC – which own property in choice urban areas, hold stakes in media empires and run colleges and universities – in the realm of powerplay and realpolitik. And so the CSOs have been relatively unimportant players these past few weeks.

5. Rule by law vs rule of law

Throughout our post-Independence history, we have prided ourselves on having preserved our system of parliamentary democracy (except for the 1969-71 period of emergency rule). Yes, and we have held general elections on schedule, the last being the 2018 general election.

In fact, our Constitution has been amended 60-plus times, and we have enacted many coercive laws, some of which (like the Internal Security Act, which lasted over 50 years) actually contradict the civil liberties guaranteed in the Federal Constitution of 1957. Not surprisingly, Malaysia has been described as a “bureaucratic-authoritarian”, “quasi-democratic”, “statist democratic” and recently “electoral-authoritarian” state.

Yes, we have held elections on time. But, except for 2018, the Umno-BN coalition had ruled for over 60 years. And now, after a two-year interregnum, a version of that Umno-led coalition has displaced PH.

The point is we have never really practised constitutional democracy in Malaysia. Instead, we have been more concerned about “rule by law “(including the use of coercive laws), imbued with legalism and the letter of the Law.

The rule of law by extension implies constitutional democracy with its guarantee of fundamental rights, checks and balances between different branches of government, transparency and accountability in policymaking, consultation and good governance, and of course the holding of elections every four to five years. But this rule of law has not been practised.

Instead, we have only practised the Letter of the Law, not the Spirit of the Law in our electoral authoritarianism. Even PH, with its promises of Reformasi, struggled with moving from Rule by Law to Rule of Law.

Where do we go from here?

We have to rebuild.

We have to recover the Spirit of the ferment of the 1980s, the mass awakening brought by Reformasi, the mobilisation under the Bersih umbrella and aspects of the 2018 general election campaign.

But we have to choose our leaders more carefully. Reject all who resort to the ethno-religious game and corruption.

We have to reach down to the bottom 40% lower-income group, regardless of race, and represent their equity concerns – not just the demands of the urban-educated middle class.

And we must build new vehicles that connect the CSOs to the political parties, Big P to small p politics. Our new vehicles must deliver the New Politics that we have been waiting for, which has been hijacked from us temporarily by the Muhyiddin-Azmin clique and their PN collaborators. 

Francis Loh
Co-editor, Aliran newsletter
13 March 2020
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A old saying…….2 is a company / 3 is a crowd or too many cooks spoil the soup.
Currently we have 6 parties + few Independent MPs forming the Government.
Resulting into 70 Ministers, 70 Political Sec, 70 Bungalows, 140 official Vehicles, Thousands of additional support staffs which ultimately the rakyat need to pay for…….

That Signals ~ High grade Basmati Rice grains overcooked into hopeless porridge.
The innocent Rakyat are Cheated, Abused, Side lined, Ignored & Sacrificed for the personnel Greed, Power Hunger & Abuse of Power by Shameless Leaders.
What a Mockery…….