November 25, 2020

The Westminster Drive

6 min read

Mr Tang was my lower secondary Maths teacher, and to him fell the task of teaching us about negative numbers.

He imparted the following wisdom: If you multiply or divide two negative numbers, the result is a positive number. How to remember? Simple: the enemy of my enemy is my friend.

Mr Tang seemed to think this was the most amusing analogy, but he found a lot of things like that funny. He also loved singing Dean Martin’s Everybody Loves Somebody (sometime), but that’s neither here nor there.

The coming together of Umno and PAS as formal allies a few weekends ago has been heralded as an epic moment – a historical coming together of once implacable enemies, maybe on a scale never before seen in Malaysia.

Except of course such unions have been seen before. Multiple times.

Malaysia’s political system is structured in the exact same way as our former colonial masters, the United Kingdom. Said system is commonly referred to as the Westminster Parliamentary system.

Without going into too much detail for now, a key feature is that within a Westminster FPTP system, there really are only two political sides that tend to matter – a government and an opposition.

Third parties, fringe political movements, and so on tend to have no place.

What this means is that the system invariably drives political parties together (even those with seemingly clashing ideologies) towards either the government or opposition poles – something I call the Westminster Drive.

I don’t think I could summarise the core of the Westminster Drive any more elegantly than: the enemy of my enemy is my friend.

Malaya’s early dominant parties were Umno, MCA and MIC. The Westminster system incentivised the creation of parties that were similar in nature and target constituency, but existed on the other side of the aisle. This can be seen as the context in which PAS and DAP became prominent parties.

For a long time, because of different ideologies, these two parties did not work closely together.

Their first notable attempt was in 1990, basically under the aegis of Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah and his Semangat 46.

The next time PAS and DAP would work closely together was in 1998, basically brought together by Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim and PKR, which served as a bridge of sorts.

First they formed Barisan Alternatif, which then broke up. Then they reunited as Pakatan Rakyat, which then broke up.

Nevertheless, these unions were also thought of as historically significant, as they were interspersed with periods of conflict, such as when PAS’ push for an Islamic State push was met by Karpal Singh’s famous “Over my dead body!” response.

After the most recent breakup, PAS began to move away from Anwar and PKR, and started its drift back to Umno.

Meanwhile, having already birthed PAS, Semangat 46, and PKR, Umno saw yet another splinter, resulting in Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia under Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad and Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin.

Eventually Pakatan Harapan was formed, consisting of PKR, DAP, Bersatu, and Parti Amanah Negara (a PAS splinter party).

Dr Mahathir working together with figures like Anwar, Lim Kit Siang, and the many others he had put in jail and persecuted, was also deemed an epic historic moment.

These moments are indeed epic and historical, given all the emotions involved, and all the things these people had said about and done to one another over time.

Without taking away that significance, all these alliances can and should also be seen in the context of the Westminster Drive.

Invariably, it is the theme of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” that has made strange bedfellows of Malaysian political parties – bringing together Islamists and Islamaphobes, former dictators and liberals, and so on.

Dr Mahathir has been both the figure in the government everyone united against, as well as a chief figure in uniting everyone against the government.

PAS came from Umno, spent an entire generation demonising Umno, spent a lot of time demonising DAP, spent a bunch of time as fast friends and allies with DAP, and has now gone back to demonising DAP and allying with Umno once again.

The whole thing is something of an incestuous game of musical chairs. No permanent friends, only permanent interests – and usually of the ‘self’ variety.

While many of us are understandably concerned about the manner in which the latest Umno-PAS tie-up is going to be raising the temperature on issues of race and religion, it may be worthwhile to remember that historically in Malaysia, ideologies have been built around political poles, not the other way around.

In other words, the Westminster Drive tends to make the primary question which side of the fence you are on. Only once you have decided that, do you usually determine what ideology you then want to create in order to justify your position.

On an individual scale, we can see this in the way Muhyiddin used to try and position himself. Some years ago, he famously declared that he was Malay first, and Malaysian second – the antithesis of the DAP position.

The obvious context for this was an attempt by Muhyiddin to differentiate himself within Umno from Datuk Seri Najib Razak, who at the time was positioning himself as the 1Malaysia unity guy.

Of course, when political fortunes changed, Muhyiddin eventually found himself becoming ‘fast friends’ with DAP, and totally left behind the whole ‘Malay first’ schpiel.

Once we start to understand the political culture driven and cultivated by the Westminster Drive, as seen in all the examples above, then we come to agree with MCA’s assessment that the Umno-PAS union is something of a political inevitability.

There was a window of opportunity, probably in the first 6-12 months of the Pakatan government, in which (had they played their cards right) it could have ensured that the Umno that had been made fat with endemic corruption would simply crumble and fade away on its own, once the tap had been turned off.

Having not played their cards right, they gave Umno the time to learn how to be an effective Opposition, and paved the way for this inevitable alliance.

This isn’t to say that there was zero on the ground demand for this alliance. As I’ve written before, the fragmentation of Malay political power into five relevant parties (as opposed to DAP’s undisputed dominance of the non-Malay political space) has been a source of ongoing anxiety.

The Umno-PAS union has gone a long way in assuaging this anxiety – a fact which likely accounts for the very enthusiastic response that greeted the union, even among some centrist and moderate Malays.

Now that the union has been formalised, however, their leaders will be hard at work at crafting the ideology and narrative that suits their political interests best. In this effort, I think we can expect the voices of said centrists and moderates to be drowned out.

We are of course seeing all this already play out. Almost the very day after leaving PWTC, PAS president Datuk Seri Abdul Hadi Awang was already in Sarawak, warning them not to let the Chinese ‘take over’ the state.

The trend continues with responses to the verdict regarding fireman Muhammad Adib Kassim and the shootings in Bayan Lepas.

While we brace ourselves for more to come, it is vital that we do not lose sight of how it is underlying political systems and incentive structures that is cultivating this type of behaviour and national discourse. If we do not stop or change the Westminster Drive, the result may be being stuck in this loop forever.

Stopping this regression into the darkness of identity politics will require thinking outside the box, and breaking existing moulds. If we are brave enough to do so, maybe we can inch back to a Malaysia where everybody loves somebody (sometime).

NATHANIEL TAN is a communications consultant specialising in identifying the right goals, and using the right tools for the right job. He can be reached at nat@engage.my

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

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