The Dubious Move(s)

For weeks, Malaysia has been locked into public claims and denials of attempts to form a new coalition government in what was called the Dubai Move and by others the “Chow Kit Move”.

Threats, strong language, escalating personal attacks and the use of advantages of holding power have been on display, with the stakes not only being who holds the government but political stability and investment.

I label these developments of the past few weeks as the “Dubious Move(s)” for what they showcase about the worrying state of Malaysian politics. Sadly, Malaysia’s political present remains locked in battles of the political past.

Over a year since the 15th general election, the focus of politicians remains on holding (or trying to hold) power rather than serving the public.

In the competition for political power, lines are being crossed, with little attention to the long-term damage being caused. While scholars and politicians are mooting a Fixed Term Parliament Act (FTPA) as a solution to prevent a new mid-term coalition government, many of the root causes of political instability are just being ignored. Arguably, they are in fact, deepening.

Unconstructive opposition

Let’s start the discussion with the opposition, Perikatan Nasional. Increasingly factionalised among themselves and wrestling with the increasing marginalisation of Bersatu in the coalition, the opposition is being blamed for the “move”.

It is also the group (or at least parts of the opposition) that is most denying the political manoeuvring.

It is clear that many in the opposition continue to live in a “Sheraton dream world”, mistakenly believing in their own view of political legitimacy (based on Malay representation) and that public support lies with bringing them into power.

No question, PN has considerable support (among Malays), but it does not have broad national support for a change of (another) government nor the numbers to form a new secure coalition.

At best, even adding potential defectors in coalition government parties, any majority number would fall short of a stable government.

What keeps the opposition together is the shared dream of taking power. It is vested in continuing to stoke the possibility of destabilising.

Political oppositions in Malaysia – including Pakatan Harapan – have long used common ground of winning power as a means to hold alliances together.

The last year has seen PN’s hopes dashed with growing political internal divisions, as the power balance internally has moved more in favour of Islamist PAS.

Political moves and discussions keep the dream alive on common ground, as PN hopes to strike the political lottery with Umno defections and potential turnover from Borneo.

The Sheraton dream has blinded the opposition to doing its job in a democracy. While there has been more muted open racialisation (with the attacks on Beruas MP Ngeh Koo Ham a notable exception) compared to the 2022-2023 election campaigns, the opposition lacks a coherent national governance narrative.

Like the non-Najib (Abdul Razak) message of the past, the main messages are non-Anwar (Ibrahim) and no non-Malays.

The shadow cabinet in Parliament is effectively non-functional, not casting any meaningful light on governance issues. The opposition has failed in showing itself more capable and competent to government.

Instead, PN continues to still concentrate on dividing the country through racialised discourse and mobilisation, not fully realising that this boxes itself into a “parliament numbers minority”.

Sadly, the opposition continues to follow the pattern of polarising Malaysia, feeding anger, rather than offering alternatives to strengthen Malaysia. They are not the first to do this, although the use of race and religion has reached new lows.

Ironically, the factor that has most strengthened the opposition – as was the case with oppositions in the past – has been attacks on it.

The more opposition members are hauled in for questioning and charged, the more these practices feed democratically destructive behaviour – destabilisation, desperation for power and divisive politics.

Insecurity psyche

This insecurity echoes the insecurity of those in government. Despite having two-thirds in numbers, repeated reassurances of no changes in loyalties by coalition partners and a currently closed royal gate to a power transition, a focus on holding power dominates the Anwar-led government.

The doubt about being able to hold onto power – an insecure psyche – runs deep.

The reliance on political levers of power to go after enemies, including those from decades ago, perpetuates itself in Malaysia’s system where power is seen to be for political settlements rather than public service.

As this was the case in the 1990s, institutions were brought into political competition and personal political battles were being weakened. Older repressive measures are becoming more normalised in today’s more cynical reality.

Spoils of power

Power continues to be seen as something personal to be controlled and distributed, rather than the product of Parliament numbers and public accountability.

Many who even question governance are seen as the “enemy” – as “with us or against us” mindsets remain.

While coalition changes are a normal part of democracy- with parties leaving and entering coalitions regularly, collapsing and reconfiguring – this is made out to be an “overthrow”.

Lessons from politics elsewhere show that by closing democratic arenas for discussion and debate, there is more strain on the political system and potential adoption of authoritarian practices.

Accepting criticism should be a norm in a democratic government. Sadly, some of the responses of the government are reactionary, even more than Umno of the past. This is especially the case on social media, where toxicity is the norm.

At the same time, patronage to partners is a continued practice shoring up political support. Malaysiakini has detailed that over 60 political appointments of the Anwar-led government in GLCs (excluding ministers and chief ministers who are on the boards as part of their positions).

Connection to political elites remains a feature of Malaysia’s political economy in project allocation, as many projects remain out of the open tender and lack full transparency. There are still inadequate checks on conflicts of interests and strong anti-corruption practices despite promises of reform.

It is thus no wonder that there is lukewarm response to a possible FTPA measure. The causes of instability lie with deeper political practices – political polarisation and divisive racialised personalised politics, the politicisation of political institutions and power as a prize rather than a responsibility. From charges dropped to charges filed, almost everything is excused in the name of “power”.

The proposed bill may make it harder for a government to change, but the underlying drivers will still push instability and changing alliances. One only needs to look at how the spirit of the anti-hopping law was ignored by those who advocated for it.

The lesson of new legislation is that one law is not the solution to a problem. Fostering political instability requires a more holistic approach and, importantly reforms in practices and behaviour – the latter has yet to happen.

As debate over the Dubai Move continues, it is no wonder many think its politicking is dubious. Many recognise the clear desire for power by the opposition.

Some, however, see current politicking as means to continue escalating political pressure on the opposition. Others even see the focus on Dubai as a distraction from governance shortcomings and deal-making within the coalition government.

Most are just fed up and getting increasingly cynical with all the politicking on all sides of the political divides; the power-hungry politicians seem to be masters in politicking as too many Malaysians are being starved of stronger, more accountable politics.

 

First published on Malaysiakini.