To solve Malaysia’s problems, we need to go where no one else has gone before, says Ronnie Ooi.
You may remember me from the time we worked together in Majlis Belia Malaysia when I was chair of MBM Penang and worked with your late brother Rani and others.
I left for the UK in 1990 mainly because of disillusionment with the political situation. I returned in 2008 as Najib was in his liberal phase and things looked quite hopeful.
I feel somewhat guilty that, as a friend, I had not come forward earlier to offer to help, but I wanted a quiet life. I now put pen to paper with some reluctance but unfortunately, I think the warning lights are flashing for Pakatan Harapan (PH). I feel I cannot in good conscience keep quiet any longer. I point to these warning signs not to discourage people from continuing or joining the fight, but as an indication that PH has weaknesses which must be reviewed.
I am making this letter public as I do not know how else I can be certain of getting my views to you. Besides these proposals will be of interest to the rakyat.
The resignation of three founding members of Bersatu on the grounds that the leadership is unable to accept criticism is worrying. One bad apple is to be expected, but three all at once? The Merdeka Centre Youth Opinion Survey shows that high dissatisfaction with the government is not translating into support for the opposition. Most telling of all is Zaid Ibrahim, Mahathir’s greatest cheerleader, now advises Malays to emigrate if they have the chance.
The weaknesses of Pakatan Harapan
There is reliance on one man, Dr Mahathir, in the belief that his name plus the 1MDB and other financial scandals will be sufficient to trigger a Malay tsunami. I truly admire him for coming out of a comfortable and privileged retirement to lead the opposition. But I do worry whether his age prevents him from understanding the demands and aspirations of today’s voters, especially the youth.
There is reliance on only one policy plank. Label Najib a kleptocrat and attack him nonstop on 1MDB. In strategic terms, it is an instance of what Wong Chin Huat terms “strategic ambiguity” – avoid the thorny issues and focus on safe issues like corruption and living costs. Mahathir’s strategy goes even further – “topple Najib first, leave everything for later”.
It is easy to see why PH is adopting this strategy. Wong calls it “communal incoordination”. In more simple language, it means if you try to please the Chinese, you lose Malay votes; if you try to please the Malays, you lose Chinese votes. So just concentrate on the issues both sides can agree on, ie corruption.
Politics of hope vs Politics of hate
I do not want to hurt your feelings Anwar, but it is best to be blunt. What PH is offering the voters of GE14 is the politics of hate (hate Najib), the politics of personality (Mahathir can solve everything). There is no message of hope, nothing of policy. It looks back to the past (what Najib and Mahathir have done), not how to meet the challenges of tomorrow.
Elections are won on the politics of hope, although I admit the politics of hate can be a useful aid. Trump won the American presidency elections because his message of hope to his right-wing supporters was very clear and powerful – “build the wall, keep Muslims out, make America great again” and his message of hate was also useful – “crooked Hilary”.
Hilary lost because, although she had a message of hate (“Trump temperamentally unfit to be President”), her message of hope was muddled and unclear.
Chong Eu won Penang on the politics of hope “economic development, Free Trade Zones, Penang bridge”. He had no message of hate.
In the urban areas and amongst the educated elite, hatred of what Najib is doing is very strong and for many of them, probably even a majority, the politics of hate is sufficient. They willingly accept Mahathir’s position of “topple Najib first, leave everything for later”.
But the rural Malays have received benefits from government, and although they may be disturbed by allegations of systemic corruption, they will not have the hatred of Najib that the urban voters have. To say to them “topple Najib first, leave everything for later” is like saying “Your house is in bad condition. We will tear it down for you. When you are homeless by the road side, only then we will think how we can build a new house for you.” No sane normal person will allow his house to be torn down until he is certain he will get a better replacement.
Four steps to bring about the politics of hope:
1. Mahathir’s position of “topple Najib first, leave everything for later” has to be discarded
This position prevents PH from telling the people how life under PH will be better and it prevents PH from hearing what the people want to say.
The Merdeka Centre Youth Opinion Survey found that 40% of respondents were not registered as voters, 70% were not interested in politics and 71% felt politicians do not listen to them. If PH says to these youths “Mahathir knows best”, they will turn their backs on PH. If PH is willing to listen to them, to discuss how best to meet their hopes and aspirations, PH will win their support and votes and by doing so win GE14.
2. Saving Malaysia requires a two-election process
Those who think that toppling Najib will solve all problems mistake Najib to be the cause of the country’s problems, whereas he is only the symptom. The real cause is the growing distrust and antagonism between the Malay and non-Malay communities, which sustains and protects leaders like Najib. Removing Najib will not prevent a Najib clone from emerging a few years later if this inter-communal antagonism is not tackled.
There is a deep fault line in PH. Bersatu is constructed to be like Umno to attract discontented Umno members. But, as a result, their core political ideology of discriminating in favour of Bumiputeras conflicts with the PKR and DAP’s core ideology of economic policies based on need and not race.
This means that whilst Bersatu and PKR/DAP/Amanah are completely united that Najib must be toppled to save Malaysia, there is no agreement over what Dr Wong terms inter-communal bargains on issues like economic redistribution and social inclusion, religion and lifestyle, language and education.
The way to resolve this contradiction in objectives is simple: use GE14 to defeat the BN government to bring about institutional change and use GE15 to resolve the breakdown in the inter-communal bargains concerning economics, education, etc. GE14 is about whether voters want an honest government, GE15 is for voters to decide how best to resolve inter-communal antagonism.
In GE14, Bersatu and PKR/DAP/Amanah work together to fight Najib’s BN. In GE15 Bersatu, possibly in combination with a BN without Najib, may be contesting against PKR/DAP.
If we try to solve everything in one election, a voter who would like to vote for an honest candidate may instead vote for a dishonest candidate of his own race if he fears domination by another race. If we do not separate out an election for an honest government from an election over communal anxieties and inter-communal bargains, we may have a dishonest government for a very long time.
I am excited to see Wong Chin Huat recently come up with roughly the same idea, which he terms a two-step transition pact.
3. PH must show its commitment to institutional reform
PH must set up a readily available central reference of all its proposals for institutional reform.
Some of the questions PH must answer are:
What oppressive laws are they going to repeal or amend? We must remember that when Najib proposed repealing the Sedition Act, Mahathir was in the forefront of Umno criticism of the move. Mukhriz is on record expressing “his disappointment at the abolition of ISA”
How should the Universities and University Colleges Act be amended to enable the brightest of our youth to play their proper role in our society?
How does PH intend to prevent a recurrence of the 1MDB scandal?
The prime minister has too much power. How does PH intend to reduce the power of the PM?
Proposals for institutional reform require only mental effort, unlike physical projects which require time-consuming study and planning. It is too late now for PH to promise the rakyat it will build 100,000 low-cost homes but there is still plenty of time before the election for PH to say whether it will or will not repeal the Sedition Act. Besides, there are many social activists who can help PH draft and finalise details of proposals for institutional reform.
To prove the truth of what I am saying, Anwar, in the second part of my letter to you, I will set out my ideas on how the powers of the prime minister should be reduced.
4. Announce a limited-time fixed programme election manifesto
Because institutional reforms require only changes in laws and legal procedures, they can be implemented in a short time, say a year, especially if a lot of work has been done before the election.
PH should therefore announce that, if they win GE14, they will govern for only one year, to implement a limited, specific and publicly agreed programme of eradicating corruption in government, carrying out institutional reform, repealing oppressive laws, and undertaking any such other programness as PH component parties can agree on, such as abolishing of GST.
Following this, an early GE15 will then be called, at which the parties will be able to fight each other over their different political ideologies.
Advantages of a limited-time fixed programme election manifesto:
1. Policy differences in economic re-distribution, education, etc cannot be postponed for the normal government term of five years. But they can be postponed for a period of one year.
2. Many people have doubts about a PH government. They are more likely to give PH a chance if they can throw out a bad PH government after one year.
3. With a fixed programme, Malays who fear that PH will be dominated by the DAP, can see exactly what they will get under a PH government.
Go where no one else has gone before
Confronted with difficult questions, Malaysians, both politicians and the general public, have a habit of sweeping them under the carpet and pretending to themselves that that there are no problems. They insist on remaining within their comfort zones, rejecting the mental discomfort of thinking new thoughts. They bury their heads in the sand, dreaming of a PH victory in GE14. They get very angry when disturbed from their dreams, demanding why their side’s weaknesses are being advertised to the enemy.
But exposing weaknesses before the election campaign starts allows time for them to be corrected. Burying heads in the sand prevents solutions to problems being found. If solutions are missed, we suffer defeat when it could so easily have been a victory.
My voice is not loud enough to be heard by the people. But if you, Anwar, speak, people will listen. If you think my ideas are good, let us work together to implement them. If you think them bad, do not hesitate to say so, in order that better solutions can be found.
To members of the public reading this, I say: we best serve the party we support not by keeping quiet but by giving them feedback and ideas. Those who have feedback and ideas to give are invited to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org so that by banding together, we have a stronger voice.
To solve Malaysia’s problems, we need to go where no one else has gone before. Remember: he who dares, wins.
Your old friend,
Dr Ronnie Ooi
Dr Ronnie Ooi is a retired medical doctor. Thirty-five years ago, he was active in Malaysian politics until he left for the UK, where he lived for 20 years and gained a knowledge of UK politics. He returned to Malaysia in 2008 and is now not involved in party politics.