Beyond the end of ‘new politics’ in Malaysia … is there hope?

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Photograph: Eric Thoo

Although the forces behind new politics look a pale shadow of themselves, Johan Saravanamuttu is encouraged by the emergence of an idealistic group.

Allow me to share some frank thoughts about what has happened to the promise of ‘new politics’, the crumbling of ‘New Malaysia’ circa 2020, and the political future.

New politics hit a peak on 9 May 2018, when Pakatan Harapan defeated Barisan Nasional, which had ruled for six decades. Within 21 months, however, the hope for a New Malaysia dissipated in a puff with the Sheraton Move on 23 February 2020.

I need not rehash the rapid-fire sequence of events of that fateful one week in February that changed Malaysia. In short, a new coalition government, Perikatan Nasional, under Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, was installed. It has stabilised in six short months and gained substantially in confidence and overall political support, not least due to its competent handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

In Merdeka Center’s latest survey, 51% of some 3,415 respondents felt the country was moving in the right direction, and a whopping 93% gave the government full marks for managing the pandemic. The PM received a 69% approval rating and his governing coalition, PN, got a 51% thumbs up, far outstripping PH (25%).

If PH is taken to be the purveyor of new politics, then the verdict of this survey has dealt it a devastating, possibly mortal, blow.

For the ordinary person on the street, PN’s handling of the Covid-19 situation appears to have trumped all other considerations.

Still, 58.8% of respondents considered economic concerns to be the biggest problem facing the country. “Politics” only interested a mere 2.6% of respondents!

Another interesting finding is that 61% of respondents agreed with the High Court corruption verdict on Najib Razak’s abuse of power.

Quo vadis, new politics?

Let’s briefly revisit the idea of new politics and raise some obvious questions. What do we mean by the term and what were its critical moments? Why and how did the promise of new politics dissipate? What does the future hold?

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In the book New Politics in Malaysia, co-edited with Francis Loh in 2003, we saw it as the driving narrative behind the opposition forces in the 1999 general election.

Francis Loh in Old vs New Politics (2009) pointed out that ‘old politics’ was characterised by money politics and coercive laws while new politics demands “more democratic participation and social justice, accountability and transparency, and is multi-ethnic in orientation”.

In my Power Sharing in a Divided Nation (2016), new politics is defined as “an ongoing participatory politics of civil engagement in the public sphere with the objective of valorising democratic values and human rights over and above ethnic interests”. The critical conjuncture of new politics took place in 2008, when the BN lost its two-thirds parliamentary majority. Three three elections later, it lost power to the forces of new politics.

Under the 22-month long PH government, perhaps there were promising developments for new politics premised on creating a New Malaysia. We had a multiracial government driving change along the lines described above, albeit with some missteps along the way.

However, the Mahathir-Anwar leadership tussle and internal feuding in PKR and Bersatu eroded whatever modest gains that were achieved. Much political commentary over the past two years on Aliran’s website and elsewhere will attest to this.

In the end, the Sheraton Move released the repressed countervailing forces and emotions into the open at the end of February. And since March, we have seen a sequence of events and developments that have reversed many positive directions of new politics. 

New political landscape

But are we back to the old politics of the past? Many political analysts seem to believe that the politics of ketuanan Melayu has returned, as implied by Henry Loh. This is largely true, given that Muafakat Nasional, comprising Malay parties Umno and Pas, provide the largest group of PN backers. Even Muhyiddin’s party Bersatu has opted to join the pact.

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But the political terrain is slippery with tainted politicians facing corruption trials. It is also infested with political frogs and a much-discredited Opposition. The ruling bloc is now predominantly Malay and survives with the support of Sarawak’s more diverse Gabungan Parti Sarawak (GPS).

What final shape the new political ‘animal’ of Malaysia will take remains uncertain. The most recent parliamentary vote on a supply bill saw a wafer-thin margin of approval: 111-106, with five absentees. A vote on the budget later in the year could be another close call for PN.

Government parties have won three by-elections since the installation of PN in early March. The Slim River by-election on 29 August in a 75% Malay-majority seat in Perak saw the Umno candidate win some 85% of the votes against a candidate endorsed by Mahathir’s new party Pejuang.

But this is not necessarily a firm sign of PN’s ultimate strength in a general election. The fluid landscape of Malaysian politics makes the future unpredictable.

Meanwhile, the political flux has roiled Sabah. The prospect of defections from the ruling Warisan party forced Chief Minister Shafie Apdal to dissolve the state assembly, paving the way for a snap election on 26 September 2020.

Sarawak will soon hold a state election, due by 2021 but speculated to be called by the end of 2020.

It would seem that Malaysia has remained in an ongoing vortex of political change or even turmoil since the 2018 general election.

The Sabah election will be a real test for the PN coalition, which remains unproven on East Malaysian soil, while the old force of Umno has been dogged by its corrupt leaders.

The GPS coalition, which backs PN, seems fairly stable and is unlikely to lose in the Sarawak state election.

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With these two impending state elections, Malaysia’s overall landscape may change yet again in the months to come.

Clearly, the new politics as we know it has evaporated – as the forces that brought it to the fore are now weak and pale shadows of the past. 

Youthful hope 

Let’s turn to the new movements of the youth. The holding of Parlimen Digital (Digital Parliament) – an initiative by youth groups Undi18, Challenger Malaysia and Liga Rakyat Demokratik – impressed many political observers.

This event saw a multi-ethnic virtual gathering of 222 youths for two full days in a simulation exercise of the Malaysian Parliament. Participants debated, discussed and approved bills and policies.

Here are some brief facts about the composition of these young ‘parliamentarians’:

  • They were aged between 15 and 35, with those eventually picked averaging 21 years
  • 58% of them had not voted in elections
  • Some 30% of them were women, with diversity represented by people with disabilities, the Orang Asli and the ethnic Thai community
  • representatives of indigenous communities made up 64% of the Sabah and Sarawak seats

By all accounts, Digital Parliament proved to be highly inspiring with Malaysian youth displaying sterling performances. They even outshone their real-life counterparts, many of whom have habitually bickered and exhibited uncouth behaviour in the august halls of Dewan Rakyat. 

Perhaps because of the success of Digital Parliament, the youngest real-life MP, Syed Saddiq Syed Abdul Rahman, has mooted a multiracial and multi-religious youth party or movement (Malaysia Muda). Some young professionals have already signed up and are ready to pursue the idea of economic reform – without the usual cronyism.

Given current developments among Malaysian youth, we should feel encouraged that a future progressive Malaysian political landscape is in the making.

Johan Saravanamuttu
Co-editor, Aliran newsletter
4 September 2020
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