WHEN the Pakatan Rakyat (PR) finally rejected forming any unity government with the Barisan Nasional (BN), it alleged that the idea was “a malicious and desperate attempt to compromise the integrity of the PR.” The proponents of the idea from PAS and Umno, however, had earlier defended it as being in the interest of Muslim and Malay unity.
It was virtually impossible, however, to discern from the political rhetoric any analysis or critique of what a unity government actually is and what it is supposed to achieve. So, what exactly are the political parties not telling us?
“A unity government usually comes into being after some sort of national crisis, when for the sake of bringing the country back to its feet, political parties set aside their differences to work together,” political scientist Dr Joseph Liow from Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University tells The Nut Graph.
Liow also concurs in an e-mail interview that “[n]either Umno nor PAS nor anyone else has really attempted to define what a unity government in Malaysia would look like.”
Going by examples from around the world, though, power-sharing or unity governments have been formed in Kenya and Zimbabwe, bringing together political rivals in an attempt to address bitter post-election violence.
Northern Ireland also formed a power-sharing government between anti-republican and pro-republican factions in 2007. Most recently, Israel has been considering a unity government between the Likud party and the centrist Kadima party as an attempt by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to dilute perceptions that his government is too right-wing.
Liow (Courtesy of Joseph Liow) Of course, these are all countries that are responding to internal crises of sorts. As Liow says, “The issue is how you define a crisis.
“In Malaysia, the ruling coalition has lost significant political ground to an opposition coalition. Is this a crisis or a vibrant democracy finally at work in Malaysia?”
According to political scientist Dr Mavis Puthucheary, the term can additionally be a free-for-all since many coalition governments try to sell themselves as unity governments.
“In fact, most of them are formed simply because no party has enough seats in parliament to form a government on its own,” she explains to The Nut Graph in an e-mail interview.
Admittedly, in post-13 May 1969 Malaysia, the Umno-led Alliance government had both a crisis on its hands, and looked as though it was headed for parliamentary defeat. It was thus rhetoric of racial and political stability that eventually institutionalised the BN as an officially registered coalition in July 1974.
Malay vs national unity
Puthucheary, however, cautions against regarding the BN as an authentic product of a unity government, although the rhetoric of national unity was used to justify its genesis.
She says that even though the BN as a coalition attempted to include parties that were in the opposition up until that point, it still excluded the DAP which was very influential among Chinese Malaysian voters. Furthermore, she says that the dominance of the Malay-based parties meant that the BN was able to push for changes in the electoral system to weaken the political strength of Chinese Malaysians.
“By bringing PAS into the BN [in 1974], some form of Malay [Malaysian] unity was achieved at the expense of national unity. Is this what is aimed at today?” she asks.
Puthucheary points out another anomaly about the BN “coalition” — it seems to be a permanent coalition which acts like a single party when it contests the elections. The parties form a permanent electoral pact in that they agree among themselves not to compete against each other in the elections.
“Thus, unlike a genuine coalition which comes together to form a government but [whose components are] free to contest as separate [parties] when elections are held, the BN decides internally how seats to be contested are apportioned among component parties,” she says. In other words, the component parties are happy to be subsumed into a super-party — the BN — so long as they feel that remaining in the BN is better for their fortunes rather than going it alone.
Liow agrees with this analysis, and says that Malaysia’s technical multi-party system “is essentially hegemonic and hierarchical, [where] Umno sits at the helm and dictates, albeit in consultation with other component parties.”
Pre-BN Umno hegemony
Parti Rakyat Malaysia (PRM) secretary-general Koh Swe Yong remembers that even before the BN was formed, Umno was already trying to protect this position by holding post-13 May “muhibbah” talks. At this time, however, PRM — which was then known as Parti Sosialis Rakyat Malaysia (PSRM) — had won two state seats in Pahang and one in Penang.
“Our two Pahang reps wrote an open letter to (then Prime Minister) Tunku Abdul Rahman, criticising these ‘muhibbah’ talks as the wrong way to address the post-13 May crisis,” Koh tells The Nut Graph in a phone interview. For their troubles, he says the two PSRM Pahang assemblypersons were detained under the Internal Security Act before they could even be sworn in.
By 1974, therefore, he says that PSRM had few illusions about the kind of “unity government” Tunku’s successor, Tun Abdul Razak Hussein, was mooting.
Koh (Courtesy of Koh Swe Yong) According to Koh, it was parties such as Gerakan — which had “all shades of leaders”, including former MCA members — which agreed more readily to the unity government conditions set by Umno.
In Koh’s analysis, the recent interest shown by certain factions in PAS towards a unity government with the BN is reminiscent of the pro-unity factions in Gerakan in 1974. He says that PAS now has members who joined the party in the 1990s because they were disenchanted with Umno, and who believe they can claim much more power now.
“When I ran for elections in 2004 [for the Selayang parliamentary seat] under Parti Keadilan Rakyat, I was there when PAS announced its candidates for the Selangor state seats — they were already confident of capturing Selangor,” he recalls.
Koh suspects that it is this faction of PAS that is not averse to working together with Umno in order to come to power in the state, and in federal government. Thus, this is the faction that will accept Umno’s overtures of “defending Islam” and enshrining syariah laws, while turning a blind eye to Umno’s corruption.
Judging from Liow, Puthucheary and Koh’s observations, the term “unity government” is probably inaccurate not only in describing both PAS and Umno’s recent suggestions, but also the formation of the BN in 1974.
What is clear is that Umno is open to political strategies for staying in power, while PAS is open to political strategies for coming to power. The problem, then, is not just how these strategies converge, but why and in regards to what.
And it never hurts when ordinary citizens arm themselves with these questions and insights to hold political leaders accountable, in the likely event that the issue comes up again.
Six Words On… Unity government