REFLECTING on the 37-year history of the Barisan Nasional (BN), it is easy to conclude that there is some worth in grand coalitions and their ability to demonstrate political strength and unity.
In the aftermath of the 8 March 2008 general election, there have been calls by some for the formation of a similar “national unity government”. This would be through an alliance between the majority BN government and the opposition parties in the Pakatan Rakyat.
Tengku Razaleigh is so far the only BN politician to openly discuss
the idea of a grand coalition
In early October, Umno veteran Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah revealed that he had discussed the idea with DAP, PAS and Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) leaders. He proposed it as a way to “cope with the new political developments in the country, brought on by higher expectations of the electorate and to cope with challenges in a globalised economy.”
The national unity government idea was first publicly mooted by constitutional lawyer Tommy Thomas in an interview with The Nut Graph. In discussing the role of the Malaysian monarchy in determining parliamentary leadership, he asked whether Malaysia had arrived at a 1974-type crisis. If so, the Agong could request for politicians from both sides to form a national unity government. Thomas said this would bring down the political tension in the country.
This idea, however, has been met with some scepticism. PKR deputy president Dr Syed Husin Ali, when asked about the concept of a grand coalition, insists that there has to be a set of minimum similarities among all parties for such a thing to be possible. “Any form of co-operation needs common ground,” he says in a phone interview.
For example, in the early 1970s when the grand coalition of the BN was being formed, two parties refused to join it, namely the DAP and Parti Sosialis Rakyat Malaysia (PSRM).
Syed Husin, who was part of PSRM’s leadership then, says there were two reasons why the party declined to join the growing coalition that would eventually govern Malaysia for the next 34 years.
“For one, our policies differed fundamentally with their policies.” He highlights economic and national defence issues as stumbling-blocks. “PSRM championed pro-rakyat economics, whereas the BN was capitalist. On defence, we were against foreign military bases – which, at the time, the ruling government was in favour of.”
Then there was the conduct of the government following the clashes of 13 May 1969. “The second reason why we refused to join them was because we were protesting against their act of dissolving Parliament,” Syed Husin remembers. “We had strong objections against something so undemocratic. We also disagreed with the government’s decision to instate emergency laws.”
Thomas mooted the idea of a national unity government
Despite such ethical holdouts, the BN was registered in July 1974, with the Agong’s consent, under the leadership of then-Prime Minister Tun Abdul Razak Hussein. In that year’s general election, the BN acquired more than 87% of the parliamentary seats.
Today, Syed Husin refuses to speculate on the feasibility of forming a new national unity government. “I’m not going to argue on hypothetical grounds,” he says, noting that the possibility of the idea being realised today is remote.
Tengku Razaleigh remains the only BN politician to overtly discuss plans for a new grand coalition. But he would only be in a position to bring parties to the negotiating table if he is in a leadership position within Umno.
Currently, the former Semangat 46 president who returned to Umno after breaking away, still has no nominations for the Umno presidency. Current favourite and prime-minister-in-waiting Datuk Seri Najib Abdul Razak already has 100 and is unlikely to be challenged for the party’s top post.
Zaid doesn’t think Umno will be receptive to the idea
Former de facto law minister Datuk Zaid Ibrahim, in an interview with The Nut Graph, argued that Tengku Razaleigh would need substantial support within Umno to make the coalition idea work. “Umno still has the biggest block,” Zaid said. “So if they want it, good. But if Tengku Razaleigh alone wants it, it may not work.”
Zaid himself didn’t think Umno would be receptive to such an idea if the party thought it could, through the BN, still run things its own way. “It is the opposition that wants to share, because the opposition can’t do it on its own,” Zaid said. “And Tengku Razaleigh is suggesting it because he also can’t do it on his own.”
Zaid offered a historical comparison: “When they decided to do this so-called national unity government after 1974 [by forming the BN], it was because the Alliance felt they needed to sit down, even with PAS, to resolve some of these issues.”
The same conditions may not exist today.
There are other concerns about a national unity government, regardless of its feasibility today. Universiti Sains Malaysia political scientist Lim Hong Hai is cautious about any attempts by the Yang di-Pertuan Agong to precipitate a grand coalition.
In an e-mail, he says he is unconvinced that the precedents in the British government that Thomas cited would support the lawyer’s arguments for a new national unity government in Malaysia today.
Lim maintains that those precedents involved situations where no single party had a clear parliamentary majority. On top of that, 1931 and 1940 were years in which Britain faced serious national threats from an economic depression and a world war.
Lim cites the views of academic lawyer Stanley de Smith, who observed that: “If the normal machinery of democratic government breaks down, the monarch’s ill-defined residuary discretionary powers may have to be exercised in novel or highly unusual circumstances. Obviously personal interventions of this kind may imperil the status of the monarchy; they are therefore justifiable only as the least of evils.”
Taking off from de Smith’s point of view, Lim argues: “Such (royal) interventions (to invite political parties to form a new grand coalition) would seem particularly ill-advised in the present Malaysian situation.”
If the BN loses its parliamentary majority via crossovers, the Pakatan Rakyat would gain the majority.
“There is neither room nor excuse for such initiative by the king,” Lim says. “Moreover, the coalition with a majority can easily rebuff any attempt by the king to make it share power with other parties.”
Syed Husin: “Any form of co-operation needs
Neither Syed Husin nor Lim believe that a grand coalition is the ideal that Malaysian politics should aspire to. Both express a preference for a two-party system. Both are also doubtful that the Malaysian public would welcome the formation of a mega-party consisting of parties from the BN and Pakatan Rakyat.
While Syed Husin acknowledges that some quarters are wary of rising ethnic tension because of the intense politicking, circumstances are relatively calmer than they were in 1969. “There is no cause for resorting to such drastic measures (to form a new national unity government),” he says.
Lim says some Malaysians may initially welcome a national unity government if conflict is reduced. But would conflict be reduced? “I will just ask whether conflict within a grand ruling coalition is not worse than conflict between two coalitions – the government and the opposition.”
University of New South Wales emeritus professor of sociology and anthropology, Clive Kessler, believes there is another, more pressing question for BN coalition politics. He says that, following 8 March, the Umno-centred BN device of securing government legitimacy via popular mandate has been shattered.
“It is a political framework through which everything in Malaysia has been kept together since the 1970s,” Kessler says in an e-mail. “If it can’t be fixed, it is not clear what might replace it.”
Kessler says one way of dealing with this quandary would be for Umno to reform itself. This would entail transforming itself into a “moderate party of the centre – one that would again make it possible for its BN-partner parties to join it once more in the common and conciliatory national (post-communal/ethnic) cause”. This, Kessler adds, would enable non-Malay supporters of BN component parties to vote for BN candidates – whether from Umno or its partner parties – with confidence.
Kessler sees the looming Umno elections in March 2009 as the last chance for the BN to take the first steps in an urgently needed turning. He is not hopeful though about Umno and doubts that there will be a “sudden outbreak of wisdom” in the party.
“If Umno does not do this,” Kessler says, “then it may be that other elements will need to pioneer that inclusive national conciliatory direction.”