Categorised | Columns

A third force in Malaysian politics?

THE departure of the Sabah Progressive Party (SAPP) from the Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition in recent days could have impregnated our body politic with far-reaching consequences, even if top BN leaders have brushed the incident aside as something they long expected to happen.

With only two Members of Parliament (MP) and four state assemblypersons, the SAPP may be regarded as a “mosquito” party. But it has played a critical role in Sabah’s complex state politics, ensuring thus far the continued grip on state power by the Sabah BN.

A third force in Malaysian politics?
Yong Teck Lee
The president of the SAPP, Datuk Yong Teck Lee, is a particularly respected political leader in Sabah, especially among the Chinese community. To date, he is probably the most articulate spokesperson on the neglect of Sabahan woes by the federal government in the last few decades.

His insistence that the SAPP leave the BN, on the principle that prime minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi has failed to fulfil his promise of solving the problem of illegal immigrants in Sabah, is bound to strike a sympathetic chord among the multiracial population of the Land Below the Wind.

That the SAPP has chosen not to join Pakatan Rakyat is interesting.

While the parliamentary opposition leader Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim continues to mesmerise and baffle Malaysians with talk of a regime change in Kuala Lumpur through mass defections of BN MPs to the Pakatan Rakyat, that process is mired in a sea of technical problems. The laws and parliamentary conventions simply do not have a clear-cut precedent for such a procedure.

With such uncertainties hanging over that possibility, the SAPP people are simply keeping their options open in these very muddied times. Perhaps they see no immediate advantage in joining the Pakatan Rakyat immediately.

After all, Sabah politics is a unique universe unto itself. What has worked so well for the Pakatan Rakyat in Peninsula Malaysia may not work at all in Sabah. Like Sarawakians, Sabahans are much more passionate about their state problems than national politics. In that sense, Sabah politics is localised, and this is an attitude often described by peninsular counterparts as “parochial”.

Lost confidence

A third force in Malaysian politics?
(© Sam LeVan /
The departure of SAPP must have inflicted deep wounds within the BN coalition in Sabah. Whether their bold move will trigger a domino effect of successive departures of other component parties in the state and national levels of the BN is unclear. Nobody in Malaysia nowadays dares to claim to be a prophet, with dramatic and unimaginable developments unfolding before our eyes daily.

What is certain is that the SAPP may not be the only component party that has lost confidence in the concept of the BN.

After the 8 March political tsunami, the MCA and Gerakan have been grumbling about how they had become victims of Umno’s racial posturing throughout the years. Many of the leaders of MCA and Gerakan, at various party levels, have attributed their electoral demise to the voters’ disenchantment about Chinese representation in government.

In the case of Gerakan, they have been wiped out of their power base in Penang. In recent months, there has been a lively debate in the Chinese press on whether the party should quit the BN. There have been calls for leaders and members to revive the original spirit of Gerakan’s multiracialism as envisaged by their founding members in the 1960s.

In this soul-searching exercise, some Gerakan leaders have proposed that the party need not join Pakatan Rakyat upon departure from the ruling coalition. The born-again party can seek alliance with like minded Malaysians to constitute a third force in Malaysian politics.

The SAPP could very well be kick-starting that third-force alliance outside the two dominant coalitions, the BN and the Pakatan Rakyat.

Pros and cons of a two-party system

With this talk of Pakatan Rakyat emerging as the government-in-waiting of Malaysia, commentators extol the virtue of a two-party system to replace the old virtual one-party state. Less discussed are the pros and cons of a two-party system as opposed to a multiparty system, as is the case in Germany, Israel, Pakistan, and the United Kingdom.

A multi-coalition system is still something to be explored, and may not come to pass in the end. But the prospect nonetheless presents some very interesting possibilities.

A third force in Malaysian politics?
(© Diego Medrano /
For one thing, small parties within all the three coalitions could play the king-maker role in determining who shall hold the reigns of power. This will be to the great advantage of many small political parties in Sabah and Sarawak. No small political party will ever be a mere “mosquito” party anymore.

Furthermore, the emergence of a third force will also decentralise further the monopoly of power at the centre.

Let us suppose that this third force joins hands with a victorious Pakatan Rakyat in a future election to form a new government. If the new Pakatan Rakyat government turns out to be as repressive as the old BN, then there is no reason why this third force cannot use that leverage to check and balance the new political masters. Their most effective weapon is to threaten to join forces with the old BN again!

Then, political narratives will be much more diversified and hopefully much more dynamic than at present. A multi-coalition political system would then be good for the progression of healthy democratic culture in Malaysia.

I am getting ahead of myself, of course. It all goes to show that all sorts of vibrant possibilities have surfaced only after the 8 March general election.

Whatever our uncertainties at the confusing turn of events, we at least have ample evidence that Malaysians are increasingly alienated by the divisive communal politics of the past, and that we cannot accept on faith alone the kind of soft totalitarian patriarchal politics that has dominated our country for half a century.

There is still hope for Malaysia yet! End of Article

A third force in Malaysian politics?

Sim Kwang Yang was DAP Member of Parliament for Bandar Kuching in Sarawak from 1982 to 1995. His column, An Examined Life, is published weekly on

Post to Twitter Post to Google Buzz Post to Delicious Post to Digg Post to Facebook Post to StumbleUpon

One Response to “A third force in Malaysian politics?”

  1. ilann says:

    Kwang Yang, thanks for this timely article.

    You may have seen this very argument being debated in the Sabah and Sarawak blogosphere. I for one am very supportive of the idea that those parties, especially in Sabah and Sarawak, DO leave BN and DO NOT join Pakatan Rakyat but spearhead a third force that keeps the monoliths in check.

    Remember, East Malaysia controls just under one third of parliamentary seats, just under one third of decision-making. That is enough to colour this country in more vibrant tones. Sabah and Sarawak formed Malaysia, their inclusion to pacify Singapore was to balance socio-political, cultural and geographic hegemony in ‘Malaysia’. That was and is their role in this country. Know it.

    As you write, this will help keep Federal level leadership in balance, it will help honour the integrity of the ‘Malaysia’ concept as opposed to ‘Malaya’, it will help retain what little is left of East Malaysian pride and identity. Perhaps “parochial” as you write, and I agree, but perhaps also necessary with the Islamisation and the culturally homogenizing effects of the powerful West.

    Diversity IS and always will be our strength. Arguments between ideologies is healthy, debate is healthy, especially in such a plural country – not the continued race club / cult of the personality that has dominated our political landscape. Find our horizon, beyond what the immediate landscape can give us.

    Personally I am excited that the next election is due in 2013, the same year as the TRUE 50th anniversary of Malaysia. Perhaps this neat timing will illustrate a true maturing in our society.

Most Read (Past 3 Months)

Most Comments (Past 3 Months)

  • None found




  • The Nut Graph


Switch to our mobile site