Democracy Protected: Is there unity in disunity?

For the second time in history after an election, Malaysia experienced a peaceful transition of power.

A tense post-election stalemate was resolved, leading to what is known as the “unity” government. Compromised of frenemies Pakatan Harapan (PH), Barisan Nasional (BN), Gabungan Parti Sarawak (GPS), Gabungan Rakyat Sabah (GRS), Warisan and a handful of independents, the government has 148 seats or a two-thirds majority — at least on paper and in an inked deal yesterday— before a parliament vote this month

Primacy of Power

Amid these differences in composition, there are 2 unifying components of new Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim’s government — the shared desire for power (and its patronage) and common purpose to thwart the rise of an empowered Perikatan Nasional (PN), effectively a Malay-only Islamist coalition.

Of the 2 shared interests of political elites, power is primary. The core Peninsular Malaysia parties in the coalition — PKR and Umno — explored possible government cooperation before the outcome of the 15th general election (GE15), resting relations on the personal ties and ambitions of Anwar and Umno president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi.

By collaborating, both men have extended their political lifelines. In particular, Zahid’s control of the lucrative Rural and Development Ministry will give him access to funds to rebuild Umno and strengthen his own position in the party. For Anwar, he is finally able to fulfil his lifetime ambition as prime minister and able to stamp his leadership on national politics.

GPS, GRS and Warisan have also joined to assure their own access to power, following a common pattern of Borneo regional parties and coalitions being aligned with the federal government. Yet, at this historical juncture, the level of influence of Borneo is unparalleled, as without the numbers from Sabah and Sarawak a government would not be viable. It remains to be seen whether Borneo elites will translate their greatest political influence to date into meaningful outcomes for their citizens.

Disquiet with Opposition

It is the other factor — the rise of PN — that has served to bring less enthusiastic partners to heel, as such, to accept the cooperation of frenemies; the fear of “PAS green” has allowed for an acceptance of “BN blue”. This is especially the case for DAP, which despite winning the most seats in the recent polls (40) has given up claims to levels of representation reflecting its electoral support. Even many of the most avid critics of Umno have been silenced, accepting one alternative rather than a more opposed other. There is a strong desire to protect Malaysia’s diversity of all her communities and curb rising pressures to limit social freedoms.

PN has become the main political opponent; the sources of concern with it being fourfold i.e. the growing influence of a conservative Islamist ideology focused on regulating behaviour at the expense of rights and freedoms; the open exclusion of non-Muslims from power, a codification of a religious-based 2nd class citizenship that dismisses the value of over 40% of Malaysia’s population; a perceived greater weakness in competency to govern among PN parliamentarians, noticeably less ability to manage the economy and engage international investors; and dismay with calls to violence against fellow Malaysians that extended racialised and dehumanising hate speech adopted in the GE15 campaign.

Rather than responsibly call for calm after a divided election result, the mode was to fan sentiments with calls of “Islamophobia.”

PN continues to harp on unfair displacement from power. For a week, the losing coalition in the election refused to concede. The shadow of further destabilisation looms.

Ironically, it was the intractability of PN chair Muhyiddin Yassin that resulted in a changing elite balance of power against PN, when he refused the request of the King to cross traditional political lines in a unity governing arrangement. Coupled with the constraints of the anti-hopping law, making statutory declarations moot, PN eroded its chances to form the government – at least for now.

Contested Notions of Legitimacy

The post-election stalemate exposed different notions of legitimacy and conceptions of Malaysia.

PN rests its argument for governing on winning the majority of the support of the Malay community. Yet while preliminary results of a study do point to PN winning most Malay support in Peninsular Malaysia, it excluded an estimated 21% of Malays who didn’t vote and left out Borneo in the analysis.

What PN seems to have also forgotten is that the past 3 governments, including its own, were led by those who represent a minority of the Malay community. Conveniently ignoring its failure to win any meaningful non-Malay support, it rests its conception of legitimacy on Malays only, rather than Malaysian representation.

In contrast, PH relies on its greater national vote and share of seats as grounds as its argument to govern, following the norm of parliamentary systems.

More importantly, with the formation of the “unity” government, Anwar has garnered royal support (for now), greater representation of the Malay community in its alliance with Umno and a comfortable margin above 112 to govern from Borneo parties. Ironically, as they did in 1963 when Sabah and Sarawak formed Malaysia, Borneo has formed a broader Malaysian government.

The notion of a unity government is not one across political parties, but one that is working to maintain the unity of Malaysia across her communities.

Persistent Fragility

Many rightly point to the frenemy alliance as a source of fragility — withdrawal of support from either Umno or GPS could undercut the numbers. Clearly, the need to accommodate former frenemy political allies has anchored the accommodation of different political parties in Anwar’s cabinet.

Umno remains a party in deep turmoil, with its devastating losses in GE15 and open internal divisions. The party has brought down the 3 previous governments, and many of its leaders openly oppose Zahid’s leadership and his decision to work with Anwar. Nearly a 3rd of its elected parliamentary representatives are being pushed into an alliance with Anwar against their preferred choice. Inevitably, there will be some sort of reckoning of these differences within Umno with national spillover.

Umno is at its weakest point in history. It remains to be seen whether these conditions will force a recalibration and reform in the party, or whether it will continue to repeat mistakes of the past, contributing to instability.

Elite accommodation extends beyond Umno, especially to Borneo. Central to this will be whether trust can be built and whether accommodation can extend beyond persons to policies and programmes to address the systemic neglect of Borneo.

Beyond political alliances, the sources of fragility will come from 2 alternative sources.

Foremost will be a strengthened PN opposition that continues to believe in its right to rule. Despite pronouncements otherwise, the desire to take over power remains alive. The opposition will likely use multiple arenas to pressure the Anwar government, from street protests to a persistent reliance on divisive rhetoric. State elections will serve as an arena for heightened political mobilisation.

Second, will be a potential of delegitimation of Anwar among PH’s political base. The scope for reform is limited, given that the majority of the government is not reformers. Compromises will be made, including some that will be hard to accept. Inevitably there will be disappointments.

This is the price of resting the solutions to Malaysia’s challenges around 1 person in a highly centralised system. The need to strengthen Malaysia’s political institutions, fairly (and fully) apply the rule of law and change practices of favouritism is stronger than ever. 

So far, however, there have been some positive early signals of reform in GLC governance and in tackling at least one of the monopolies in food distribution.

Political Opportunities

While the risks in this new “unity” political arrangement are real, the opportunities are ever present. Malaysia’s ongoing political transition has exposed its problems, but also offers new paths toward addressing challenges. Ongoing shifts of decentralisation of power expanded political participation and calls for greater accountability continue.

The pressures for generational change will force leaders to move out of old mindsets, to adopt new practices and approaches.

The reality of political competition will pressure leaders to improve performance.

The rise of conservative forces has brought to the fore the need for meaningful conversations on inclusion and respect for difference. The aspirations of most PN supporters are not as far from the rest of Malaysians as might be imagined.

Despite the seriousness of the political polarisation, there is significant common ground — a desire for a stronger economy, better education system, more holistic social safety net, and commitment to improving social mobility and addressing concerns regarding displacement.

After decades of political tactics stirring fear and insecurity, and a pandemic heightening these factors, the time for building shared security is long overdue.

And after a tumultuous campaign riddled with and feeding on insecurities and a peaceful transition of power that protected Malaysia and its democracy, there is now an opportunity to strengthen this shared foundation.


First published on Between the Lines.