Categorised | Columns

Short-sighted politics

Abstract image of a winding road with two stop signs, each superimposed with Najib's face and Anwar's face respectively
The road ahead is long and winding – but who will lead the way? (Background image by Monica
Arellano-Ongpin @ Flickr; stop sign images by Mateusz Stachowski /; Najib image
public domain, source: Wikimedia commons)

SO another by-election is over — the sixth since 2008.

Garnering 85% of the total votes cast, Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR)’s Dr Mansor Othman won the Penanti state seat with perhaps the highest ever majority lead in history over his closest rival who only gained 7% of the votes cast.

And he did it in an election with only a 46% voter turnout — one of the lowest in Malaysian history.

At the same time, another Merdeka Centre opinion poll is out. Two months after stepping into his new job, prime minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak is enjoying a meagre approval rating of 45% from peninsular Malaysians. Still, considering the political chaos in Perak, this is an increase, though slight, from the 44% approval rating he could only muster a week before his appointment on 3 April 2009 as Malaysia’s sixth premier.

So, what next? I don’t know about you, but I am tired, even though I am trained in political science and my professional life is rightly about politics.

I am tired because as we fix our eyes on these battles, we seem to lose sight of the bigger question: where is this country heading to?

Make no mistake. I am not suggesting that Malaysians should forget about politics and concentrate on the economy. One has to be super naïve to expect economic recovery during political chaos.

My contention is this: do the Barisan Nasional (BN) and the Pakatan Rakyat (PR) have a clear plan for long-term political development in Malaysia?

Harold Wilson (Public domain)
Granted, British economist John Maynard Keynes had this famous line: “In the long run, we are all dead.” And his fellow compatriot Prime Minister Harold Wilson said years later: “A week is a long time in politics.”

How long is long-term? Long enough for party alternation to be possible.

So, the long-term question before the BN and PR is simple: can they swap roles and play them well?

Can the BN survive as opposition?

Najib has made clear to his party that he only has 18 to 24 months to turn the tide in the BN/Umno’s favour. That means he is prepared to face the music by October 2010 or April 2011.

A sober reading of the cruel reality before the BN is commendable.

But Najib would be doing Umno and the BN an injustice if he is not preparing for his party and the ruling coalition to survive as the opposition.

If Malaysia is a democracy, the day will come sooner or later when Umno and the BN will be voted out in an election.

Umno can choose to believe in the fantasy that it will rule forever, but to be a responsible political party, it must honestly confront this possible scenario. And in doing so, ask itself the following, behind closed doors if not in public:

Should Umno gracefully bow out and serve as the monarch’s loyal opposition once it is voted out? If not, what unconstitutional means can they resort to to cling on to power? What are the chances that they would succeed, and for how long? Should they fail, what would be the price they and the rest of us pay?

Khir Toyo (Pic by johnleemk; source:
Wikimedia commons)
Should Umno choose to concede defeat, can their elites survive investigation and prosecution for past wrongdoings? What happened to former Selangor Menteri Besar Datuk Seri Dr Mohamad Khir Toyo must already be plaguing many others with nightmares. How can the BN/Umno appeal to public goodwill so that a new government, comprising the BN’s political opponents, is pressured to offer some amnesty to past wrongdoers? How would they prevent the new government (the PR) from using existing draconian laws against the new opposition (the BN)?

Should the BN/Umno be spared political annihilation, can they find their raison de’tre in the new political landscape? Will they plan to survive as an ultra-Malay Malaysian opposition party when the non-Malay Malaysian parties would likely all be wiped out, not least because of the Perak chaos?

In Eastern Europe, many reformed ex-communist parties returned to power after one or two elections. In Taiwan, the grand old party, Kuomintang, is again in power after being in opposition for eight years.

Such revival is possible because these parties successfully transformed themselves as competitive democratic forces. And while they were in power, they also dismantled the authoritarian structures in place to prevent themselves from being victimised once they fell out of power.

Is Najib doing all these? Is he willing to let go of Perak? Is he willing to dismantle the Internal Security Act and the Sedition Act? Is he willing to liberate the media? Is he willing to introduce local elections?

If he is not, all his efforts to revive the BN/Umno are but a great gamble that the authoritarian regime he now leads can still be relevant in the years to come.

Detrimental to the nation, an ill-prepared loser may be a desperado.

Can the  PR survive as government?

If the BN is not ready for a long-term transformation, neither is the PR.

What responsible opposition would talk about taking over the government but fail to even present a shadow cabinet line-up?

Like in a battlefield, a good general must know how to win both war and peace.

Where’s your shadow cabinet, Anwar?
It has now been nine months since Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim became the parliamentary Opposition Leader. He commands an army of 82 parliamentarians, yet he still cannot find the right people to form a cabinet to rival Najib’s.

The standard excuse given by PR partisans is this will create in-fighting between and within parties. The standard rebuttal can easily be: has the absence of a shadow cabinet stopped in-fighting in the PR so far?

The real explanation for Anwar’s failure to form his shadow cabinet is that he wants to postpone the difficult decisions. Granted, allocating ministerial portfolios, beginning with the deputy prime minister — even a shadow one — would not be an easy task.

But if you intend to rule, you need to do it anyway. So, why not sooner rather than later?

Some have warned that the PR may lose the state governments they are in control of now if they fail to rule. I am more pessimistic: we may not have a choice but to choose the PR if the BN continues with its blunders and fiascos.

But what is the price we pay when the new ruling parties are not ready? Do we need to look further than Penanti for the answer? The controversy surrounding the resignation of PKR’s Mohammad Fairus Khairuddin, the former Penanti assemblyperson who is also former Penang Deputy Chief Minister 1, is a classic case of PKR’s “conquer first, govern later” mentality.

Both the BN and PKR, which leads the opposition PR right now, have so far been disappointing in their game plan for our long-term future. Perhaps we should look to this week’s PAS muktamar to see if the opposition Islamist party, which has 38 years of ruling experience at state level, can offer any ideas and actions for long-term, sustainable democracy in Malaysia.

A political scientist by training and a journalism lecturer by trade, Wong Chin Huat is based at Monash University Sunway Campus. He believes politicians should think long-term unless they are planning on dying off early.

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8 Responses to “Short-sighted politics”

  1. D Lim says:

    You have a point Chin Huat but in reality , it is not as easy as it seems. PKR does lack many things…. one is $$$ and the other is talent. Any party who wants to be a formidable opposition must first attract talents to join the party. And I also believe it is time for Malaysia not to be a one-party rule because as we all know, it breeds complacency.

  2. sam says:

    I think the writer must be fair to Pakatan. It is an ‘infant’ and with such antagonistic stance from the federal government and its media, Pakatan is doing reasonably well.

  3. CWI says:

    Capitalism in the world is in severe crisis and it will be the working class and poor who will be called upon to pay the price. With the pro-capitalist agenda, the BN and the PR are not representing the class interests of the working class and they have no answers to the economic crisis and workers’ concern other than to save the free market capitalism with their reform agenda.

  4. kahseng says:

    Chin Huat,

    You pointed out a “save yourselves” reason for BN to dismantle the draconian law and liberalise the institution early and now, to prevent their being victimised when they lose power, to protect themselves.

    If BN politicians are realistic about their chance (of losing in GE13), and if they are not planning to resort to a coup (extra-constitutional power grab), BN must liberalise the laws and institutions now:

    – not for selfless reasons,
    – but for selfish reason,
    – to help themselves,
    – to protect themselves against prosecution/persecution later.

    Hope BN politicians come to this rational consensus among themselves. That is assuming they are

    – realistic, and
    – they don’t harbour the hope of getting away with … extra-constitutional strategies on a national scale.

    Our … PM just may not transfer his higher readiness for economic liberalisation into legislative and institutional liberalisation.

    So the assumptions may be out of the window.

  5. kahseng says:

    Without a PKR-DAP merger, it will indeed be difficult to form a shadow cabinet. Any committee or team-like ministry will not work.

    There is every chance a single-person shadow minister will not perform, will be wrongly selected, not be trusted, be sabotaged, create destructive cliques and power clusters that antagonise PR partners, mark election territory for GE13, prevent internal innovation (local election) and reforms (internal election procedure, asset declaration) …

    But then a merger (unless a surprise one) will be difficult to achieve, and will reduce competition which is generally bad for electorates too.

  6. mohtada says:

    Salam sejahtera.

    Seperti apa yang di persoal oleh Wong ada kebenaraan. Apakah BN dapat menerima kekalahan dan seterusnya menjadi BN sebagai parti pembangkang? Apakah BN dapat menerima kekalahan seperti berikut? Sama-samalah kita tunggu bila dan ketika BN akan kalah. Apakah parti yang konon mendakwa parti ketuanan Melayu, akan akur dengan keputusan suara rakyat, dan menghormati perlembagaan negara?

    Saya berpendapat Pakatan Rakyat tak perlu dengan [shadow cabinet] kerajaan. Apa yang lebih di utamakan ialah menerangkan dasar-dasar yang di perjuangkan seluas-luas dengan rakyat Malaysia.

  7. TinKosong says:

    Announcing a shadow cabinet will only give BN ammunition to attack PR. Moreover, a shadow cabinet has its limitations. Hence it would be wiser to begin the horse-trading when victory is in hand. Otherwise it would be like counting your chicks before they are hatched.

  8. rashid awang says:

    I just wonder what the soothsayer has to say. Many many years ago a friend of mine said to me that the Berjaya government in Sabah could never be defeated as long as Mount Kinabalu continued to stand firm and majestic. What the heck! They were very inspirational words at that time but it turned out two years after he said those words Berjaya suffered the most humiliating defeat when even its president was trounced by an unknown candidate. Berjaya at that time was a BN member. So let’s see. But in all fairness my opinion is that BN will survive another election. Beyond that I am not sure I will be around to see.

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