Thursday, December 1, 2022
SyndicatedMalay MailMalaysia: An election like no other - Clive Kessler

Malaysia: An election like no other – Clive Kessler

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It has been a Malaysian election like no other. The polling numbers are in and the parliamentary seats decided, but no new government has yet emerged.

No party achieved nor has any combination of parties negotiated a majority ruling bloc of 112 in the new 222-member Dewan Raykat.

In the past, until the fourteenth general election (GE14) in 2018, an overall outcome was always inevitable and already known in advance; only the precise numbers had to be filled in by voting on the day.

The Malay-based and Umno-led Barisan Nasional (BN) would command much of the middle ground and win; Opposition would be split, by the dichotomy of the largely Malay-based Islamic Party PAS and the largely non-Malay-supported social democratic DAP.

In 2018 there was some change: a bare majority was won, and held good in government for two years, by a combination of the DAP and two parties that had broken out from Umno: Anwar Ibrahim’s Justice Party PKR and Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s Bersatu (Malaysian United Indigenous Party, better rendered as the “Blood-and-Soil Malay Nationalists”).

In 2022, GE15 has yielded something entirely different: a three-way split, offering no clear or even prospective parliamentary majority. A division in which what was long the dominant player, Umno/BN, is now the smallest, the weakest and the most internally divided.

The smaller players aside, the numbers in parliament are split three ways: between the Malay-based and Umno-led Barisan Nasional (BN); the Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition of PKR and the DAP; and the new combination (Perikatan Nasional, PN) of PAS and Bersatu.

Notably, since GE14 Bersatu had changed both its leader and its political affiliation. Bersatu had been formed before the 2018 elections as a breakaway from Umno: as Dr Mahathir’s instrument to help bring Umno down, in concert with PH that combined Anwar Ibrahim’s earlier breakaway from Umno, his largely Malay-based but multiculturalist Justice Party (PKR) with the mainly non-Malay supported but doctrinally multiculturalist and secularist DAP.

But the ensuing PH government (2018-2020) was brought down by defections from both PKR and Bersatu. These defectors were led by Bersatu’s Muhyiddin Yassin, who became the Bersatu leader, was made prime minister (2020-2021) by royal intervention, and then led Bersatu into partnership for GE15 in 2022 with the Islamist Party PAS in the Bersatu-fronted but PAS-driven consortium PN, Perikatan Nasional.

Four days after voting, no one grouping has the numbers to govern, alone or with allies from the Sarawak and Sabah parties; and among the three, PN will not work with PH because of their distrust of both Anwar and the so-called Chinese ambitions of the DAP; while a much reduced and very divided Umno cannot agree to work with either PN or PH, so is resolved to sit contritely on the Opposition benches watching.

Yet, ever optimistic about his numbers and prospects, the PH leader Anwar Ibrahim says he is confident that he will eventually be able to form a majority governing bloc. How?

Meanwhile, the Agong as head of state urges people who will not work together to do just that. Should he succeed in persuading some Umno MPs to provide the necessary numbers for and to join a governing coalition, then an already divided and crushed Umno will be decisively broken apart, perhaps destroyed forever.

The big question now on everyone’s mind is, “What next? Who will govern?” No less important is another: how did this happen?

Last Saturday’s vote was not just a resounding repudiation, especially from the majority Malay component of the electorate, of the inept Umno/BN government that in 2021-2022, in the period immediately before GE15, replaced the imposed and then collapsed Muhyiddin administration.

Nor was it merely a rejection of Umno corruption, highlighted by a number of high-profile court cases centred upon leading Umno ministers and personalities associated with former PM Najib Razak. It was a harsh verdict on the unrelenting selfishness of all the main Malay politicians in and around Umno who had struggled incessantly for position and advantage, while seemingly deaf to popular concerns, before and after as well as during the Covid-19 pandemic.

But it was more than that. This Malay political war of all against all signified, and was the consequence, of something else, something deeper.

It reflected the fact that the rise of the new Malay ascendancy doctrine of “ketuanan Malayu” over the last two decades had sidelined, and intimidated into silence, other forms of political thinking and action.

After putting everyone else out of play, the Malay ethno-supremacists had nobody left to fight with except among themselves. Always the core of national politics, Malay politics declined into incoherence, “warlordism” and factional retribution.

This was not something that many voters, especially Malay voters, were prepared to accept. But how would they express their rejection, politically? That is what GE15 put to the test.

And the answers it provided were as remarkable as they were, to many, unexpected.

On election eve one key political analyst noted that “there is confusion on the ground about who is PN and what is PN.” This was the heart of the matter. And the key to PN’s astounding advances and success.

PN offered, and traded on the illusion that it provided, “Umno without Umno.” That it offered, in effect, what Umno once was and ideally stood for, but without the blemishes that in recent times have come to scar its visage and reputation.

But the sad truth is that what it really offered was “PAS without PAS.” PAS has long promoted, and sought to persuade a majority of Malays to accept, its view of Malaysia’s future: as, eventually, an Islamic state operating upon the basis of and implementing Shari’ah law-or a certain clericalist understanding of its character and imperatives.

Yet it never succeeded in selling its pitch to the Malay majority. But, in PN, PAS was now teamed up with Bersatu to sell its wares. PN offered, and was a vehicle to promote, an ultimately PAS-congenial objective and PAS-directed outcome — but without PAS itself, with its own blemishes and controversial baggage, having to sell the product.

PAS now stood back, out of range and out of the firing line while, publicly headed by Muhyiddin and his Bersatu, PN did the sales-job for PAS.

The outgoing PM Ismail Sabri Yaakob had said, and was happy to boast, that he was the “Poster Boy” for Umno/BN. Without any boasting, Muhyiddin was happy to serve as the “Poster Boy” not just for PH but for its sponsoring director PAS and, through it, for PAS’s purposes, for the driving forward of PAS’s “shari’ah-minded” Islamist agenda.

In PN people were getting – or PN wanted them to think that they are being offered – “Umno without [the bad] Umno” But they were in fact getting “PAS without [the scary face of] PAS.”

Many did not see this coming. But even those who saw it misjudged and underestimated the PAS-driven PN surge. They saw PAS as simply using Bersatu and its political marketing potential as a way of maximizing PAS’s prospective post-election bargaining power with Umno: as a way, following its long-standing strategy over the years, of increasing its ability to press its own Islamist agenda upon Umno in a joint Umno-PAS government in which Umno would do much of the implementation work for PAS.

But, as it turned out, Bersatu was not just a PAS stalking horse and proxy, to be abandoned once the votes were counted; and Umno’s fate was not to become PAS’s hostage, but to be brought low and destroyed by PAS’s PN device.

Many more cosmopolitan voters in the modern non-Malay areas were disquieted by the tone and style of the PN campaign. Especially after its election-eve indulgence in anti-Christian rhetoric and allegations, when Muhyiddin declared that Christians were being used by Jews to divert the nation from its purposes.

But for many in the semi-urban and rural Malay heartlands, this was no problem. They wanted to repudiate Umno, to teach it a lesson. And they wanted a believable protector of Malay interests, what Umno always insisted it was.

For the former, things turn upon upholding the principles of democratic legitimacy, as affirmed in the original 1957 independence Federal Constitution as it was then promulgated and understood; for the latter, it is matter of the right of Malays to live on their own preferred terms in a society of more than merely Malay citizens, and of having the ability to impose those terms on others and have non-Malay Malaysians accept that fact.

Fearful of the DAP as an instrument for Chinese interests and wary of the DAP’s political ally, Anwar’s PKR, as a likely pawn for pro-Chinese pressure and an anti-Malay and anti-Islam agenda, they were happy to create and join a surge of support for PN.

In doing so they have placed the Islamic party PAS and the Islamist project generally in the strongest position that they have ever held in post-independence Malaysia. Using its PN “front”, vehicle, new “branding” and sales agent, PAS has now strengthened its grip on the political and national life of Malaysia. Or some key parts of it.

* Clive Kessler is Emeritus Professor of Sociology and Anthropology at the University of New South Wales, Sydney.

** This is the personal opinion of the writer or organisation and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail.

For any query with respect to this article or any other content requirement, please contact Editor at contentservices@htlive.comCopyright 2017 Malay Mail Online

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