In the first of a two-part series, Francis Loh explores how New Politics in Malaysia has fared in 2020.
Special thanks to the Yang di-Pertuan Agong (YDPA) al-Sultan Abdullah for wisely rejecting Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin’s proposal to declare a state of emergency. (Read Aliran’s statement: Rejection of emergency rule – a victory for parliamentary democracy!).
Apparently, the PM had been egged on to proclaim the emergency by Trade and Industry Minister Azmin Ali and Home Minister Hamzah Zainuddin.
The latter in particular, the Bersatu secretary general, has acted as Muhyiddin’s chief henchman and fixer and was, reportedly, the prime mover of the Sheraton backdoor coup. Thereafter, he has been pushing for the consolidation of an all-Malay government and trying to attract other Malay MPs to leapfrog into Bersatu, to no avail – except for one individual.
MP Liew Chin Tong is right (see his article): Hamzah Zainuddin has planned and plotted as though Muhyiddin’s new ruling coalition, Perikatan Nasional, like the Umno-BN coalition of old, commands a two-thirds majority. If at all, Muhyiddin only commands a wafer-thin majority in Parliament – which is why he fears his Budget 2021 might not be passed, preferring to seek a declaration of emergency instead.
In truth, PN should be reaching out to seek the cooperation of the other parties to fight the pandemic, reboot the economy and usher in political stability. Or Muhyiddin should resign!
Yes, Muhyiddin’s Bersatu, Barisan Nasional and various Sabah parties – involved in yet another new coalition, Gabungan Rakyat Sabah – did defeat Shafee Apdal’s Warisan-plus government in Sabah. But it now appears this was a pyrrhic victory for Muhyiddin: Umno, its partner in the federal PN government, has now demanded a renegotiation of the terms of its continued participation in the federal government.
Umno believes it should have been given more seats to contest in the Sabah state election and its candidate, Bung Moktar Radin, should have been appointed chief minister, not Bersatu’s Hajiji Noor. (And since we are talking about the Sabah chief ministership, we ought to remind ourselves that former Umno Chief Minister Musa Aman, inexplicably, had all his charges of corruption dropped by the new attorney general a few months back. So, his sycophants were promoting himself as a comeback chief minister.)
No – leapfrogging, a record number of independent candidates, new parties and new coalitions, and comeback attempts do not surprise the rakyat anymore.
After being slighted in Sabah, Umno is demanding that it should be given more ministerial positions in the federal government. Presently, it already heads nine of the 32 ministries, ie defence; federal territories; health; foreign affairs; higher education; energy and natural resources; science, technology and innovation; youth and sports; and national unity.
Umno has 39 MPs, to Bersatu’s 31, and Pas’ 18. On that basis it demands more including, perhaps, the post of deputy prime minister.
As we now know, Najib and Zahid were pushing for Umno to support Anwar Ibrahim’s bid to become PM. They were also prepared to join a government headed by Anwar, which would also have included Anwar’s ally the DAP. So, Umno, having given its support for one backdoor government through the Sheraton backdoor coup, was now prepared to support a second backdoor coup.
Poor YDPA, through no fault of his (and this needs stressing), his reign will be associated with unscrupulous political leaders, a period of much political instability and intrigue, backstabbing and leapfrogging, an attempted emergency, backdoor government, and let’s not forget, widespread corruption committed by these political leaders who have also caused Malaysia to accumulate massive debts.
No, it is not because of the coronavirus pandemic that Malaysian politics has taken such an ugly turn. Not at all.
We agree with the Agong that Malaysia has done rather well in combating the pandemic. It was for this reason that the wise King rejected Muhyiddin’s request for a declaration of emergency. And he continued, since the problems are political, solve them in the usual political give-and-take manner, not through an emergency.
There is certainly room for improvement in combating Covid-9. Yes, we fare better than Trump’s America, Bolsonaro’s Brazil and Modi’s India. But we lag behind our Asian neighbours like South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, indeed China itself, where the coronavirus originated. However, how Malaysia is combating the virus in comparison to other countries is not our topic of discussion.
New economy, new society
Instead, we are talking about the arrival of a politics characterised by instability, intrigue, backdoor government, an attempt at the emergency exit…. Let us call this New Politics version 2.0.
As a scholar-activist who studies Malaysian politics, I have awaited the arrival of new politics in Malaysia for a long time.
The economy has been transformed beyond recognition. Whereas economic growth and the country’s revenue and growth were previously based on the production and export of commodities – initially rubber and tin, then tropical timber and palm oil, later offshore oil and gas – nowadays the economy depends on the services and manufacturing (especially electrical and electronics) sectors. These two sectors contribute most to Malaysia’s revenue and attract most foreign direct investments into the country.
As a result of this dramatic transformation of the nation’s economy, the structure of Malaysian society also changed. Above all, fewer people are employed in the agricultural sector nowadays. More people are employed in manufacturing and services. We now have more managers and administrators, registered professionals and technicians.
The bureaucracy has also expanded to 1.8 million strong, perhaps too big for a population of 30-odd million people.
In 2016, the enrolment rate for primary school was 97%; for upper secondary school 94%; and for post-secondary school 17%. In 2012, an estimated half a million teachers and administrators were employed in 10,000 schools, educating five million students throughout the country. This is a massive improvement from the past.
As well, there were five public universities in 1980. In 2015, there were 27, plus 32 polytechnics and 84 public community colleges. And today, there are also 47 private universities and university colleges. Upwards of half-a-million students are registered for tertiary education currently.
Not surprisingly, it has been estimated that the educated middle class living in urban areas accounts for one-third of the population of Malaysia.
And thanks to the New Economic Policy, this middle class is extremely multi-ethnic. This was not the case previously because the educated middle class in pre-NEP days were largely non-Malay.
Over the past 50 years since the NEP, we witnessed the making of a New Economy and a New Society. So, where was the New Politics?
New Politics 2.0
I have argued that Malaysia’s Old Politics was dominated by a small group of elites who presided over ethnic-based political parties, linked through a multi-ethnic coalition at the top.
All of the BN parties also began to get involved in various business activities – the running of banks, media empires, construction conglomerates and educational enterprises.
So long as these parties doubled up as systems of patronage which provided for the members down the pyramid, the control of the elites over the rest was assured. Sometimes we referred to all these as the prevalence of “money politics” in Malaysia.
New Politics, one hoped, would be multi-ethnic, would rid itself of money politics and patronage, allow for free and fair elections, and facilitate democratic participation.
Above all, one hoped that Umno-BN, already in power for 50-plus years, would be displaced by an alternative multi-ethnic coalition.
So, we got very excited when the 2018 general election occurred and ushered in the Pakatan Harapan coalition led by Dr Mahathir Mohamad.
One hoped there might be a deepening of democracy through the reintroduction of free and fair elections and elected local government, and the reform of key institutions like the judiciary, especially at the top end, the police, the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission, the universities and the entire educational system. All coercive laws should also be repealed.
Perhaps we would see more consultation with the rakyat prior to policymaking through the creation of parliamentary select committees. At the very least, we must adopt evidence-based policymaking.
Or maybe there could be new royal commissions of inquiry created to investigate a host of chronic problems faced, perhaps starting with widespread corruption and money politics.
We surely need a commission to relook into the workings of the civil service which had lost its autonomy and compromised its professionalism as a result of 60 years of Umno-BN rule.
And maybe, we would witness a rotation of ruling parties (like in Western liberal democracies).
Alas, what has occurred has been the very opposite!
The 2018 general election outcome has been compromised through the Sheraton backdoor coup. Since then, political intrigue and instability have set in.
Instead of decisions being made transparently in Parliament or through the polls, politicians are resorting to making deals among themselves. Suddenly, new breakaway parties are formed, and new coalitions called Gabungan-this and something-plus emerge.
Thank heavens for the alternative media where we can express our dissatisfaction – not that it changes things. Because so many of our institutions have been compromised, we have very little room to manoeuvre to safeguard our democracy.
So, like Muhyiddin, Anwar Ibrahim and Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah, the rakyat too have turned increasingly to the Agong to redress the situation. This is the New Politics 2.0 we will be facing in Malaysia.
Co-editor, Aliran newsletter
29 October 2020