Malaysia’s next General Election–when it occurs–will be the most intensely-fought in the Federation’s history. There has been much speculation if and how the opposition Pakatan Rakyat coalition–comprising of Anwar Ibrahim’s National Justice Party (PKR), the long-standing Democratic Action Party (DAP) and the Islamist Pan-Malayan Islamic Party (PAS)–also arguably the most successful and long-lasting in Malaysia’s history, will be able to hold on to and indeed improve on the historic gains it won in the 2008 elections.
In my recently-published book, The Future of Pakatan Rakyat: Lessons from Selangor, I argue that changes in Malaysia’s political landscape and the opposition parties themselves mean that a united and coherent opposition is possible in Malaysia and that–whatever happens in the next General Elections–Pakatan Rakyat has provided a template for a style of politics outside of the parameters set by the long-ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition.
Opposition pacts in Malaysia–including the Gagasan Rakyat and Barisan Alternatif oppositional alliances cobbled together to fight the 1992 and 1999 General Elections often collapsed soon after despite making some gains. As James V. Jesudason argued very persuasively in his chapter “The Syncretic State and the Structuring of Oppositional Politics in Malaysia” in Garry Rodan’s seminal Political Oppositions in Industrialising Asia (1996), this was due to the “syncretic” nature of the Malaysian state.
He defined Malaysia’s “syncretic state” as “A product of a particular historical-structural configuration that has allowed the power holders to combine a broad array of economic, ideological, and coercive elements in managing the society, including limiting the effectiveness of the opposition as a democratizing force.” To my mind, this means that successive BN administrations continued the colonial British practice of “divide-and-rule”, whereby the various ethnic groups in Malaysia were kept apart politically, economically and socially. Whereas this was used by the imperial power to justify its presence, as a “honest broker” between the various races, it has been adapted by the BN to argue that its continuance in office as essential to maintain harmony between Malaysia’s ethnic groups, whose interests at times seem irreconcilable.
BN’s success can be attributed to their forging a syncretism in their style of government that was able to straddle these competing interests. They were able to squelch dissent by simultaneously using coercion such as the application of the now-dead and unlamented Internal Security Act (ISA) but also selectively co-opting oppositional groups like absorbing the opposition Malaysian People’s Movement Party (Gerakan) in 1969.
BN’s hold on power was also helped by the inability of Malaysia’s opposition parties to come up with coherent alternatives to BN’s syncretic state. First, because parties like the DAP, PAS and S46 were themselves largely composed along Malaysia’s ethno-religious lines, they could be portrayed as “extreme” in these matters compared to BN. PAS’ heartland was and is Malaysia’s rural Malay-Muslim communities, while S46 appealed to their urban counterparts. The DAP, whilst theoretically multiracial, was and is largely Chinese or Indian in composition. This meant that they could never command as large a vote bank as BN, whose emphasis on economic development and political stability had cross-ethnic appeal. With the power of state patronage behind it, BN could effectively outbid all three parties in addressing ethnic aspirations, depicting itself as looking after the interests of all races.
Furthermore, the opposition’s very different ideologies meant that it was very difficult to form permanent alliances between them. As we know, two previous attempts to form an alliance, the Gagasan Rakyat and Barisan Alternatif, eventually collapsed after PAS and the DAP were unable to agree with the former’s quest to create an “Islamic State” in Malaysia. Jesudason argued that Malaysia’s opposition parties tend to withdraw to their own ethnic constituencies to shore up support after brief attempts at cooperation.
The very fact that Malaysia’s oppositional parties are primarily ethnic parties reinforces the notion of the syncretic state. Jesudason accused Malaysia’s opposition parties of doing nothing to close the ethnic cleavages that perpetuate BN’s rule by championing ethnic-based platforms. This in turn renders them vulnerable to BN’s practice of coercion and co-option. For instance, opposition leaders who question Malaysia’s constitutional settlements can be silenced via the various security laws. Conversely, the ruling regime can then win over Malaysians who may feel threatened by the perceived “extremism” of the opposition, for instance, non-Malays wary of PAS’ political Islam or Malays worried about DAP’s vision of a “Malaysian Malaysia”.
These factors, along with what Jesudason called the “enfeeblement” of class politics in Malaysia (i.e., the perceived pliancy of its middle-class) has conspired to prevent broad-based and permanent oppositional alliances against Barisan and perpetuated its power.
Subsequent events however have suggested however that Barisan’s “syncretic state” is breaking down. As Jesudason himself hypothesised but thought unlikely, Barisan’s hold on power would continue as long as its UMNO lynchpin was able to remain united, it’s governments able to manage Malaysia’s complex ethno-religious identities, as well as provide continued economic growth.
The record will show, however, that all of these contingencies have come to pass: UMNO’s unity was shattered (the sacking of Anwar Ibrahim and the spat between Mahathir Mohamad and Abdullah Ahmad Badawi), it lost its ability to deal effectively with Malaysia’s communal relations (the Hindu temple demolitions in Selangor, as well as the race-baiting against the Chinese Malaysian community by certain UMNO leaders) as well as the loss of performance legitimacy regarding the economy (the Asian Financial Crisis of 1998 and the subsequent, numerous corruption scandals). The rise of the social media also meant that BN could not present selective messages, at least to Malaysia’s urban middle-class, as effectively as it had in the past.
Reformist elements in the opposition, on the other hand, spent the years after their drubbing in the 2004 General Elections regrouping and rebuilding. The release of Anwar Ibrahim in 2004 and his recommitting of the PKR to a multiracial, “Ketuanan Rakyat” brand of politics gave the opposition a bridge that could unite both its secular and Islamist elements. Anwar’s adoption of ketuanan rakyat was also a turning point as it presented Malaysians with a Malay leader who had a vision for the country’s future that all communities could equally accept.
The DAP too, has and continues to make an effort to recruit not only technocrats (such as businessmen like Tony Pua and, more recently, academics like Ong Kian Ming), but also to try and shed perceptions that it is a “Chinese chauvinist” party and reach out to the Malay community. It has launched Roketkini, a Malay-language online news portal, as a companion to its already multilingual Rocket organ and has promised to field more Malay candidates in the next election. It is too early to tell if the Malay community will embrace these initiatives, but the unease by which they have been greeted by Umno suggests that it may not be completely futile.
PAS, too, has undergone remarkable changes. Whilst it’s harping on the Islamic State and imposition of the hudud laws did much to turn off non-Muslim voters in the past, its setting forth of its “Caring Nation” agenda which emphasises its interpretations of Islamic notions of democracy, good governance and development suggests that it is attempting to present an more universalistic, or at least nuanced version of its struggle. Furthermore, the fact that it’s technocratic (i.e., lay, non-ulama) “Erdogan” fact triumphed in its 2011 party polls and are now clearly driving the party also indicates that it is more responsive to the social changes in Malay society, which is rapidly urbanising and becoming more complex.
These internal changes have helped make cooperation more possible between the opposition parties where it once seemed remote. Furthermore, in response to Barisan’s use to race- and religious-baiting against them, all three parties need themselves now more than ever before: PAS “protects” PKR and DAP from accusations that they are seeking to overthrow Malaysia’s constitutional establishment, while the two nominally secular parties act as a guarantee that the former will not pursue theocracy unchecked. It can be argued therefore that Pakatan Rakyat is now forging a syncretism of its own to match BN’s model, which its predecessors lacked.
This is not to say that Pakatan is without problems. It must in the time left show Malaysians that it has a coherent and viable plan not only to continue the country’s economic growth but also move its communal relations forward from its current atrophy. It is simply not enough for it to say: “Vote for us because we’re not Barisan.”
Moreover, the continued tensions, both within and between PKR, DAP and PAS over legacy issues like the hudud laws suggest that elements of its leadership and cadre are still vulnerable to the traps of the syncretic state. Pakatan must therefore show that it can also make difficult decisions from within–which its rivals in Barisan have hitherto avoided.
Pakatan must not only seek to win power, but also bring about substantive change to Malaysia’s political system. It has the historic opportunity to do so, but we also have to realize that this will be a long-term process and one which will require hard work rather than occur overnight.
Win or lose (and one has a feeling that, thanks to gerrymandering and the abuse of state machinery, we will see the status quo being repeated) in the next General Elections, Pakatan needs to stay together and make its alternative model to Barisan work. It has a historic opportunity, not only to bring down a long-ruling incumbent, but to also change the fact of Malaysian politics and society permanently.
Keith Leong is a Fellow at the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (IDEAS), Malaysia. His is the author of The Future of Pakatan Rakyat: Lessons from Selangor.