Commentary: Three underlying forces fuelled Malaysia's recent political crisis
A strong UMNO-PAS pact, a new narrative and a split between PKR and Bersatu may explain what precipitated events last week, says James Chin.
HOBART: Muhyiddin Yassin was sworn in as Malaysia’s eighth prime minister on Sunday (Mar 1). This surprised many as most observers were expecting Mahathir Mohamad, Malaysia’s interim PM, to have the upper hand.
In fact, on Saturday night, Dr Mahathir had published on his website a list of 114 MPs who said they'd supported his bid for the prime ministership. Under Malaysia’s 222-seat parliament, you only need 112 MPs to form the government.
Yet the king went ahead and swore in Mr Muhyiddin the next morning. A beleaguered Dr Mahathir told a press conference that the king simply refused to meet him.
STILL EARLY DAYS
It’s too early to tell what happened. In key political events like this, especially a chaotic one, there is no “truth” as different political actors act based on incomplete or faulty information and what the media carries can only offer glimpses of the developing situation.
This was the case in Malaysia over the past week. The best example of this was the shifting loyalties of the MPs and parties from Sabah and Sarawak.
Throughout the week, all sides had different numbers as MPs performed multiple U-turns. Some MPs even promised support to all sides to ensure they would emerge in the winning coalition, no matter who won.
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We will have to wait for a bit longer before the picture becomes clearer.
THE FIRST UNDERLYING FORCE: A STRONG UMNO-PAS PACT
But what is clear are the underlying currents which may have started and fuelled the crisis on Friday (Feb 21) night after the Pakatan Harapan (PH) presidential council meeting, when Dr Mahathir's supporters began to talk about a new coalition.
The first undercurrent was the change in perceptions within the Malay polity. By end of 2019, a year after PH had been in power, I would argue that the mood in the Malay community had shifted against PH, with the tipping point being the formation of a pact between UMNO and PAS.
For the past 60 years, these two parties had fought against each other in every election but the 2018 defeat of the Barisan Nasional (BN) changed everything. The historic Muafakat Nasional (national consensus) forged between UMNO and PAS became incredibly politically potent when PH lost three by-elections to them in a row. Suddenly, PAS and UMNO knew they had a winning formula.
All through the jostling over the past week, the one pact that held firm amid the collapse of the PH and splits within Anwar Ibrahim’s Parti Keadilan Rakyat and Dr Mahathir’s Bersatu was that iron-clad agreement between UMNO and PAS that they would vote as a bloc.
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THE SECOND UNDERLYING FORCE: THE NEW NARRATIVE
The new and winning narrative the UMNO-PAS pact used so successfully against PH was remarkably simple: The Malays are now under threat because the second largest party in PH, the Chinese-based Democratic Action Party (DAP), is threatening the Malay agenda.
DAP has been rolling back the “special rights” given to the Malays, according to UMNO and PAS politicians.
Examples of this include the appointment of non-Malays to important positions widely regarded as those that should be reserved for Malay political leaders. These include the Finance Minister (Lim Guan Eng), Chief Justice of Malaysia (Richard Malanjum) and the Attorney-General (Tommy Thomas). Mr Thomas and Mr Lim were also the first minorities to assume those posts in 55 and 44 years respectively.
Second, when the PH government took over in May 2018, Malay Malaysians initially accepted them because the top two positions, prime minister and deputy prime minister, were held by Dr Mahathir and Dr Wan Azizah.
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They trusted Dr Mahathir because he was the man who kept non-Malays in check when he was PM from 1981 to 2003, while also greatly expanding affirmative action policies.
But this narrative that UMNO and PAS pushed chipped away at the trust in Dr Mahathir, which when combined with the fact that costs of living remained high, became incredibly corrosive.
Third, in a civil service that was 90 per cent Malays, DAP ministers and political appointees were described by UMNO and PAS as arrogant and disrupting the “Malay way” of how things have always carried out in the civil service.
In fact, GPS, the ruling party in Sarawak, specifically said it would never work with the DAP because the party was “arrogant”. GPS’s 18 MPs support was crucial to Mr Muhyiddin’s coalition obtaining a majority.
Whether DAP really was arrogant or not is not the issue, what is important is the perception that this was true was widely held by the Malay polity.
For almost two years since the 2018 general election, UMNO and PAS cleverly blamed DAP for all the problems the country faced. Combined with scare-mongering that DAP was planning to take away even more Malay privileges, the environment was set for the political implosion.
THE THIRD UNDERLYING FORCE: THE SPLIT BETWEEN PKR AND BERSATU
Third, and perhaps the most obvious one: The non-stop shadow-boxing between Dr Mahathir’s and Mr Anwar’s supporters. Mr Anwar’s supporters initially sang praises about Dr Mahathir but when Dr Mahathir announced that he needed “more time” to “clean up the mess” and may not hand power to Mr Anwar in May 2020, the mood soured.
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Suddenly Dr Mahathir was painted as someone who had secretly planned to stay the full term all along and had taken the entire PH for a ride.
It did not help that the wider PH government was dysfunctional. Many of its ministers never held any prior high government office and did not know how to control the civil service, which was key to the public delivery of services.
More importantly, each component party did their own thing. Ministers contradicted each other, the most famous example, being the flying national car project, which was hotly debated.
Was it any wonder that a political crisis was waiting to happen? The trigger was the PH presidential council meeting on Friday. Many of Dr Mahathir's supporters were extremely unhappy that DAP and Amanah had exerted pressure on Dr Mahathir to name a firm date on handing power to Mr Anwar.
Although the meeting ended with the decision to let Dr Mahathir select the date after November this year, his supporters were incensed, insisting that it was time to reset the entire PH so that no one could challenge Dr Mahathir anymore, especially the “Chinese” DAP.
This was the trigger point. The big idea was to create a new coalition with stronger Malay presence.
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THE BAD NEWS FOR MALAYSIA
It was this restless Malay polity that triggered the crisis. The end result is that we may have an all-Malay government in Malaysia.
Many Malaysians do not realise that for the first time since independence, there is no non-Malay party at the core of this government.
Bersatu, UMNO and PAS are all Malay-centric parties and all three do not have a single non-Muslim MP. This stands in huge contrast to six decades of UMNO rule, where the three core parties in the ruling BN coalition were UMNO (representing the Malay/Muslim), the Malaysian Chinese Association (representing the Chinese) and the Malaysian Indian Congress (representing the Indians).
While I do not doubt Mr Muhyiddin will appoint non-Malays to his Cabinet, in reality, it is unclear if non-Malay representatives, likely to come from the MCA and MIC, will wield any influence.
This goes against the dream of the nation’s founders for Malaysia to become a successful experiment in multi-culturalism.
Professor James Chin is Director of the Asia Institute Tasmania at the University of Tasmania and Senior Fellow at the Jeffrey Cheah Institute on Southeast Asia.