An ostensible weakness that any Malaysian will point out with regards to the opposition coalition is the ideological incoherence among the component parties. The Barisan Nasional on the other hand, is a coalition that has existed for more than 50 years. It is assumed that the ideological consistency of BN and the firm understanding of the component parties will lead to better governance.
Fratricide is not uncommon within Pakatan Rakyat. With parties like PAS who demands an Islamic state and DAP who strives for a secular state, numerous diametrical interests are bound to cause ruptures. Compound this with the bickering of Parti Sosialis Malaysia on the logo to be used and the allocation of seats among the respective parties, this appears like a recipe for disaster.
To look at this perceived lack of unity and its consequences, two issues need to be addressed. First, is the opposition coalition solely to be blamed for this internal conflict? Secondly, even if this incoherence exists, is it necessarily a bad thing?
A Genealogy of the Opposition
In order to address the state of the Opposition, it is essential to look at history. It is through an historical investigation that we can identify the causes of the condition that we are in. The variables in the past that came together are what determine the present state.
Karl Marx emphasised the need to historically analyse the material conditions of society to identify the evolution of capitalism, which created the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. He studied the means of production of ancient societies, Asian societies and feudal societies to understand the trend. The same goes for philosophers like Nietzsche who studied the genealogy of morals and Michel Foucault who looked at the genealogy of knowledge.
On surface value, the very fact that BN has ruled for more than 50 years demonstrates that the opposition in Malaysia has always been weak. We had the leftist AMCJA-Putera who had a substantial presence, which culminated in a ‘Hartal’ in pre-independent Malaya. However, the left was disgracefully ignored by the colonisers who chose to negotiate with the conservative Alliance coalition. To add insult to injury, a factor to the dissolution of the AMCJA-Putera was because of the emergency, which led to the detention of a few key leaders like Ahmad Boestamam.
The sidelining of AMCJA-Putera and the prioritisation of the Alliance (later BN) had devastating consequences. The Alliance became the coalition with the moral claim to be the fighters of the independence. It also gave them the “first governance advantage” where they were able to set major policies to consolidate their power. This is exacerbated with the absence of a credible opposition due to their liquidation by the British colonisers.
PAS and DAP were minor perennial thorns to the BN coalition. They were always there as they had their own power bases, be it the Islamists or the secular socialists. Despite their non-racial outlook, because of their respective target groups, they appeared provincial and hence, the prospect to rule nationally appeared slim. The divide and rule tactics employed by the British served BN well. There was little incentive for these two major opposition parties to unite because of their different grassroots support.
Interestingly enough, whenever streaks of autocracy were exercised by the ruling government (1969 racial riots and Operasi Lalang), it seemed to weaken the Opposition. This served as a blow to the Opposition, especially when they were beginning to gain ground. Of course, I’m not here to question the validity of the security measures invoked by the Government. What I’d like to highlight is that the invocation of power by the Government, when directed towards the Opposition, leads to their dilution of their support. After all, out of sight is out of mind. A climate of fear coerces the submission of the public.
At the time of its inception, Parti Keadilan Rakyat seemed concerned on one man’s plight. Nevertheless, the objectives of the party morphed into securing the Federal Government. This was done by merging the party with Parti Rakyat Malaysia and forging the Pakatan Rakyat coalition with PAS and DAP. With the blessings of a sizeable chunk of the Malaysian public, they managed to win a substantial amount of seats in Parliament and won the right to govern five states.
The historical method has shown two things. Firstly, the hegemony of the Barisan Nasional was possible because they had the moral claim to be the fighters of the Independence. This gave them enduring support in the eyes of most people because of this moral debt. In effect, this served to weaken the Opposition which could only rely on their respective power bases.
Secondly, Barisan Nasional themselves utilised legal instruments and the media apparatus to cripple the Opposition. Whether intentionally or not, the usage of these measures kept them in the dark and diluted their credibility. As such, the Opposition remained weak in perpetuity. It was difficult to win nationally. The Opposition has always been fractured and disorganised in the Malaysian political landscape.
It cannot be denied that the Opposition’s incoherence is attributed to their nature and structure. What we must ask is, how did this structure of theirs come about? It is only fair to allocate blame on BN for engineering this fractured structure. Their actions in the past in stifling the Opposition have led to a weak Opposition. As circumstance would have it, BN’s position as the winners of th Independence further solidified their position, and in this zero sum game of politics, weakened the opposition. The Opposition that we see today is a result of historical conditions, no doubt partly determined by BN.
Since time immemorial, societies have been torn asunder because power was concentrated in the few. The traumatic era of absolute monarchy and powerful nobility gave rise to the lofty ideals of democracy. A core concept that exists within democracy is the decentralisation of power; power should be diluted and dispersed to ensure that no demagogue can subject it to misapplication. From term limits for the office of the President, plebiscites, and in the Malaysian landscape, federalism, every means possible is constructed to ensure that domination is precluded.
This philosophy must not remain in the realm of the law, but must also extend to politics. The American electorate is aware of this, usually consciously electing a divided government with the President from one party and the majority members of Congress from another.
A casual observation within BN would show that the UMNO party categorically dominates the coalition. Due to the race-centric makeup of BN with the Malays being the majority, it is natural that UMNO would retain ultimate control. The MCA and MIC are subordinated, a consequence of the erosion of support and the numerical inferiority of their respective racial power bases. Just look at the cabinet portfolios as evidence, the key positions (PM, DPM, Home, Finance, Education, Defence, Foreign Affairs Ministries) are held by UMNO members.
Contrast this to Pakatan Rakyat. The balance of power within PR is of equal proportion. No one party dominates each other since each is interdependent on the other. Power is not centralised on one party but is jointly exercised by the parties. The historical accident of this so-called marriage of convenience can be to their advantage.
Dissent is a bit of an anomaly within the quiescent Malaysian society. The ‘yes man’ mentality is particularly pervasive within this structure. It is unfortunate because the root cause of the lack of dissent is due to a rigid hierarchy that is underpinned by dominance. Dissent is essential to ensure that wrong decisions are stopped from being implemented if it is considered wrong. A passerby mentality of not objecting to a wrong tacitly acquiesces to the wrong.
It is palpable within BN that dissent is lacking among the component parties. It would appear that all parties in BN are homogenous, telepathically linked to agree to whatever resolutions that are passed. But a closer inspection would reveal that the lack of dissent is due to the subordination of the minority parties. Any outcry and they would be cowed into submission. Thae minority parties within the BN retain smaller portfolios and would continue to do so despite them being equal partners. They have little or no voice.
Pakatan Rakyat has its own foibles. Internal squabbling is rife. Disagreements are voiced loudly. However, they have managed to come up with a coherent manifesto and also outlined their plans in the Buku Jingga. Despite prophesies of doom, state governments under their control have been stable as usual.
Nevertheless, a striking point within PR is the capacity of the component parties for dissent. Since the balance of power is equally distributed, each party is unafraid to make public its demands that suit the people whom they represent. Malaysians are familiar with how disagreements are amplified in the media. No doubt, it reflects their incoherence.
Nevertheless, this discourse is healthy as it demonstrates the capacity for each party to negotiate its position to ensure the best deal for those whom they represent. At the same time, they have managed to come to a compromise, which is shown by the commitments made to the coalition. No party has made a clean break from the coalition yet.
In countries with a proportionate/alternative voting system, instead of a first-past-the-post system like we have in Malaysia, is designed to ensure that there would be no single party that ultimately dominates. It forces parties to compromise with each other for the good of the people. Many countries such as Australia, New Zealand, Switzerland uses this system. We don’t see them collapsing.
The point is, a strong government isn’t everything.