Risks in Pakatan infighting

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By Munir Majid

July 22, 2019 @ 10:19pm

IT has been known for some time that Pakatan Harapan component, Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) is split. 

Events of the last few days surrounding a sex video that is, was and wasn’t, and a retreat which certainly wasn’t, have only highlighted how deep. 

Both the Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim and Datuk Seri Azmin Ali factions show themselves to be equally strong. But this only enfeebles PKR. Worse, it also takes a toll on public confidence in the PH ruling coalition. 

Indeed, a survey last week found the approval rating for the government falling further since last year’s general election. 

Additionally, the persistent question of when — and whether — Anwar will succeed Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad detracts further from more immediately serious issues facing the coalition and, more importantly, the country. 

Ceteris paribus, Anwar will take over. But let us not forget, apart from the when and whether question, take over what? 

PH is in danger of failing the people. It is not holding together well as a coalition, even within member parties. 

1Malaysia Development Berhad scandal? How dull. Let’s have the thrills and spills of a sex video. If politicians who want to lead the country get involved in this kind of thing, it is not surprising the public will conclude they are not fit to do so. 

Rumour has it that the video is a pre-emptive strike against more that would have, and still might come, in a struggle for power within PKR and PH. 

Lim Kit Siang has already described this as the gravest, perhaps existential, threat facing PH, and last Saturday recalled the huge reform agenda that remains to be fulfilled. This, in a week that saw a massive constitutional amendment lowering the voting age to 18, giving that right to eight million new voters. How PH has become its own worst enemy because of internecine conflict. 

Previously known for its stability — Malaysia’s strongest card — the country is now perceived as a political risk. We can ill afford this, with countries like Vietnam and Thailand out-competing Malaysia. 

Over a year since it was elected to power, PH has not shown itself to be the party of government, self-confident, purposeful, in charge and united. Side-shows take centre stage and supplant the mission which led it to victory in the historic May 9, 2018 general election. 

That promise: To rid Malaysia of deep and pervasive corruption. To have objective and efficient institutions of government and justice which are not complicit in corruption. To have people of probity involved in and running those institutions. To have free and fair elections. 

On the economy, there was a naive expectation of getting goodies at no cost: no toll roads without compensating the operators; no goods and services tax without narrowing the revenue base which gives the government little room to stimulate growth. 

Most of all, to not understand with the level of corrupt plunder that had reached epic levels in the last decade, public finances would be in a sorry plight — which indeed was what was discovered. Repeating it again however, has the effect of causing a mood of despondency, if not paralysis, in the country. 

There was also a euphoric wish for the end of race politics. While any realistic person would not have expected race and religion to magically become absent in Malaysian politics, it was nevertheless the hope that with PH at the helm, such invidious politics would begin to be marginalised. 

Of the three lots of expectations, only the first — reform to revive good governance — received some satisfaction from a demanding electorate. And that too with not particularly high marks. 

The greatest irony on that score however, is that its success might actually pave the way for Umno kleptocrats to come back to power. The reforms, particularly electoral, will help Umno-Pas to benefit from more equitable and fairer elections. 

The inability to re-delineate constituencies unfairly loaded in 2018 that racially favour Umno-Pas, for another eight years unless the Federal Constitution was amended, will give the two parties a strong advantage. 

Indeed the exploitation of the 3Rs (race, religion and royalty) will be the platform for the kleptocrats seeking to come back. About 70 per cent of the Malays are with the race-based scaremongers. 

It would seem there is nothing that can reassure Malays they are not at risk when set against appeals to emotional symbols of race, religion and royalty. It is a difficult, irrational terrain that has to be adroitly negotiated, as seen by the debacle of the planned membership of the International Criminal Court and retreat from acceding to ICERD (International Convention for the Elimination of all forms of Racial Discrimination). 

All this was not helped by PH’s failure to make it clear at the onset that none of the Malay privileges guaranteed in the Federal Constitution is at risk, just as the rights of non-Malays, equally under the constitution, were being celebrated. 

The distinction between constitutional rights and government policy, such as the New Economic Policy, was not clearly communicated. In fact the sense of Malay entitlement appears to have become so ingrained that, having claimed Malaysia was their country alone, stealing from it is not seen to be wrong. 

Malu apa, BossKu? 

So, there is a mountain to climb for PH to claw back Malay support from the Umno-Pas stranglehold. The Malay supremacy under threat argument, coupled with Islam and the sultans not any longer being given due recognition, is being played out to great effect. 

The 30 per cent Malay vote for PH in last year’s election has thinned. The 95 per cent of the Chinese vote in support is being depicted as a juggernaut to flatten the Malays. 

The appointments of non-Malays as Minister of Finance, Attorney-General and Chief Justice (since retired, replaced by a Malay woman, with no reverse positive comment from the detractors), were hammered home as part of this great conspiracy “against the Malays” narrative. The raw emotion worked wonders against facts, figures and sanity. PH has to develop a clear and consistent counter-narrative through a communications strategy that is still not evident. The ruling party must not leave it too late. 

In the eight federal and state by-elections since its victory, PH was defeated three times. The most significant, in terms of erosion of Malays’ support was the loss in Semenyih in March. In a Malay majority constituency of over 67 per cent, Pas stayed out and Umno won 50 per cent of the votes cast. In the general election, PH had obtained 50.76 per cent of votes cast and Umno only 31.3 per cent. In the by-election, the 15.09 per cent of the 2018 votes for Pas clearly went to Umno, which won with a total above the combined Umno-Pas 46.39 per cent in the general election. 

The PH promise of a truly multi-racial Malaysia has come up against powerful resistance. An Umno initially confused and battered by a defeat it had never experienced has found its feet again, and believes it has found a way back. If PH is consumed by internecine struggles despite these serious challenges, it may end-up a one-term government. 

PH needs discipline, which can only come from strong, fair and firm leadership. The coalition needs a strong dose of realism about power — and staying in power — and not be a government pushed around by an unrealistic idealism, or end up turning the knife on itself in greedy political competition. 

The writer, a former NST group editor, returns to write on local and international political affairs.