March 4, 2021

Uneasy allies in awkward coalitions

5 min read

ARTICLES for the Sunday Star must be submitted by about midday on Saturday. Nevertheless, I am perfectly comfortable writing this on the assumption that you awoke to news that MCA’s Wee Jeck Seng won comfortably in Tanjung Piai.

I suppose the more “popular” thing to aspire to would be to fire off the litany of “greatest hits” in terms of points made by columnists after a by–election result – waxing and waning about Pakatan Harapan, Barisan Nasional, or Muafakat Nasional, talking about how this should be a rude wakeup call to the ruling coalition, a sign that PH shouldn’t take the non–Malay vote for granted, and so on and so on.

If the target was purely likes and shares, I daresay that would be the best approach – especially given the likelihood this article would probably appear before most others, chronologically speaking.

I think however I will forego that in lieu of a potentially more boring meditation on a macro perspective regarding this by–election, and the structural context within which it took place.

The story of Malaysian politics is the story of coalition politics. While other countries have one–party states, we had for most of our history, what was effectively a one–coalition state. Political competition was for a long time not primarily between a ruling party and an opposition party, but between parties within the ruling coalition.

After the 2008 general elections, we slowly started to get not a two party system, but a two coalition system.

Ten years later, after the

2018 general elections, everything was momentarily thrown up into the air – with no one really knowing what the shape of Malaysian

politics was going to be from that point onwards.

Things remained up there in the air, for the better part of 12 or 18 months. With each passing by–election however, it became increasingly clear that the window for innovation and healthy evolution was closing. Today, it seems all but shut – under the current administration at least.

Long story short, with MCA now doubling the seats it holds in Parliament, the signs – while not yet fully certain – certainly seem to point towards the opposition taking the form of the same type of coalition we have seen decade after decade.

The shape of the opposition seems headed for the same old default fallback position Malaysian politicians today can’t seem to shake – where there is one (or more, as is the case for Malay parties in the coalitions of today) party/parties for every racial group, joined together in an uneasy coalition.

“Uneasy” here is the operative word. A coalition of race based parties may have worked in the 1950s, when it was first created.

After everything Malaysia has been through in the last few decades however, such coalitions have by now become inherently unstable and incredibly awkward.

A few articles ago, I described a defining feature of these coalitions (at least in recent decades) as “two faced”. In summary, this refers to how this political structure incentivised politicians to say one thing when speaking publicly or to a wider audience, and the very opposite when speaking in private or to their solid base.

Coalitions of race based political parties naturally engender such dynamics, alongside some fierce acrobatics in trying to explain or justify alliances that really are not the most natural fits.

After all, how can the fit be natural when the default position of Umno and PAS post GE 14 is to go harder than they ever have before on the narrative that non–Malays are virulently attempting to denigrate and take away everything of value from the Malays?

Indeed, we have already seen some of these acrobatics at play, with individuals like Papagomo twisting and turning to suddenly come up with some implausible differentiation between what he thinks of as “DAP Chinese” as opposed to “MCA Chinese”.

This being the first era in which MCA and PAS are political friends (relatively speaking at least), both parties also find themselves often on the backfoot, trying to reconcile past statements and positions with present ones.

This problem is obviously not unique to the opposition. For proof of this, one need look no further than the controversy surrounding the video of the Perak Menteri Besar in which he talked about DAP as if they were enemies rather than allies.

In responding to these controversies, there is always some spin that emerges, but such sophistry generally does not withstand scrutiny.

The funny thing is of course, that it doesn’t need to – at the end of the day, ours is presently a winner take all political culture, and people tend to be less concerned about the conditions of the win, compared to the question of who finally won.

Equally, in the aftermath of this victory, intellectual arguments and debates of the nuances of this alliance will remain the domain of political observers, and foot soldiers who bother to debate every minor detail concerning political conflict.

Everyone else – including political decision makers – will likely be left with only one important takeaway: that this approach wins elections.

And so it goes. My estimation is that this will greatly invigorate the coming together of Umno, PAS, MCA and MIC, bringing us full circle.

If things continue on this trajectory, MCA will essentially become what DAP was before winning power, and DAP could very well become what MCA was before losing power. Same script, swapped roles.

When we stick to a formula just because it’s the only formula we know, or because it’s the easiest way to short term victories, we are inevitably leading Malaysia backwards rather than forwards – down roads where some fundamental, existential even, problems about our nation will continue to fester.

In the world of Trump and Brexit, and looking at Tanjung Piai, we can also expect that following Malaysia’s old style of politics will beyond doubt always favour the opposition.

There will be no shortage of articles that will soon detail all the bad things that PH has done, and all the things they need to do – written by all the usual suspects; so, I’m sure I have nothing of value to add to their valuable insights on that front.

Ultimately, the only thing that can break the cycle of race politics is concerted political will to do so.

This requires smashing all the structures and political culture that surrounds racial politics, and replacing it with systems that are specifically designed to keep race out of politics, while still allowing the interests of every Malaysian to be protected – because the interests of the Malays, Chinese, Indians, Orang Asli, Kadazan, Iban and so on are ultimately Malaysian interests.

If the current Prime Minister were truly interested in moving in this direction, one imagines he would have done so by now.

Instead of holding our breath waiting for such reforms to happen from the top down, perhaps we should be working to make it happen from the bottom up.

NATHANIEL TAN is a strategic communications consultant who specialises in identifying the right goals, and the right tools for achieving that job. He can be reached at nat@engage.my

The views expressed here are entirely the writer’s own.

This story is exclusively For StarBiz Premium subscribers only.

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