Perikatan Nasional & the future of democracy in Malaysia

By Dennis Ignatius


Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin is now working to consolidate his Malay unity government, taking full advantage of the coronavirus lockdown that has paralyzed politics along with everything else in the nation. Parliament is, to all intents and purposes, suspended; opposition parties cannot mobilize; the people cannot take to the streets to protest. By the time the pandemic is over, we’ll be left with a fait accompli – a backdoor government composed of the very parties we rejected at the last election.

Perikatan Nasional’s agenda is not yet clear. Other than their antipathy towards non-Malays, it remains a very loose construct without a formal structure or a common political manifesto. It is, at best, an interim arrangement pending consensus on what a future Malay unity government would look like.

For now, Muhyiddin is not strong enough to impose his will on his own cabinet as other chief executives before him have done. Indeed, Muhyiddin’s low-key leadership is creating the impression that UMNO and PAS are calling the shots with senior minister Ismail Sabri fast becoming the public face of the administration.

In the meantime, each party in the coalition seems to be pursuing its own agenda with only minimal cabinet oversight. It does not make for an effective governance model; serious difficulties will arise when hard political and economic decisions have to be made post-pandemic.

Most observers speculate that it is only a matter of time before UMNO-PAS will reassert itself and seek to dominate the government though Muhyiddin might continue as its titular head, at least until Zahid Hamidi resolves the outstanding criminal charges against him.

Going forward, the big question is whether PPBM, UMNO and PAS will be able to overcome their political differences, ambitions and egos, and forge a more enduring partnership in the interest of Malay hegemony. If they succeed, Malaysia might never be the same again.

For one thing, Malaysia’s democratic space will narrow considerably. UMNO got careless, took too much for granted and was too distracted by 1MDB in the run-up to GE14. It won’t make the same mistake again. It will very likely go all out to ensure that it is never again threatened or challenged by the popular vote. It’s going to be a lot harder to vote them out of office the next time around.

To sustain itself, the government will inevitably have to curtail the media, crack down on dissent and re-establish tight political control over all national institutions. A lot of the mass surveillance techniques now being pioneered to manage the coronavirus pandemic could well be used for political purposes later on.

Having finally got a foothold in Putrajaya, PAS, for its part, is likely to push ahead with its long-standing goal to make Malaysia a fully fledged Islamic state.  After all, that has been the raison d’état for its existence; Hadi will now have to deliver or face pushback from his own supporters. Amanah president Mat Sabu’s recent warning that PAS will move quickly to amend the Syariah Courts (Criminal Jurisdiction) Act 1965 should not, therefore, be taken lightly.

Malaysia is, of course, already a hybrid Islamic state but that is not enough to satisfy the deeply entrenched Wahhabi establishment. While everyone else was focused on political reform, Wahhabi groups have been hard at work transforming Malaysia’s hitherto moderate religious landscape into a more conservative and austere one.  What they want is nothing less than a Saudi-style constitution which makes religious dogma the constitutional basis of the state.

Going by the many statements of Hadi and others, their version of an Islamic state will see non-Malays treated either as kaffir harbi or kafir zimmi – enemies or subjects with limited rights. Non-Muslims will be disqualified from holding senior positions in government and other institutions. Other religions will only be allowed if their observances are discreet and do not cause offense to Muslims. Multiculturalism itself will be very narrowly defined. All this, of course, will also neatly fit in with their Ketuanan Melayu political agenda.

Once in place, these changes will quickly become irreversible. It is instructive that no nation that has gone down the Wahhabi road has ever been able to reverse course. If the experience of other Muslim states is anything to go by, anyone who tries to amend or alter religious edicts once they become law will face a barrage of opposition and be condemned as traitors and apostates. Religions – all religions – invariably complicate politics and make change difficult.

The other area to watch will be the fight against corruption. Despite making a big fuss over the 1MDB scandal, Pakatan Harapan failed to take the kind of measures (an unexplained wealth ordinance, for example) that would have gone a long way to genuinely eradicating the culture of corruption that is deeply ingrained in our society.

Mahathir’s war on corruption was essentially a war on the corruption of a few UMNO leaders, not an all-out assault on corruption wherever it may be found. Thus, while Najib and a few others were investigated and charged (and rightly so), many others corrupt politicians and businessmen – Malay and non-Malay – were left untouched. Corruption runs deep across all communities; no one wants to dig too deeply.

Now that UMNO is back in power and being led by many of the same corrupt and unrepentant leaders, there is every reason to expect that the culture of corruption will grow exponentially.

Indeed, to stay in power, PN leaders will have to oversee what may well become the most elaborate system of patronage and cronyism our nation has ever seen. Federal and state GLCs including investment funds, statutory bodies, holding companies and foundations are already a monstrosity; there are so many of them that no one even knows how many exist or who exactly has oversight of them.  Billions of ringgit are being plundered each year by a horde of politicians, cronies and hangers-on. It will get worse.

As with many of the GLC appointments we are now seeing, political affiliation appears to trump qualifications, experience and integrity. Some of these appointments are not just criminal but a blemish upon the honour of our nation. When nepotism, dilettantism and corruption become governing principles, transparency, accountability and good governance become impossible. Any political system that would tolerate such a rotten and scandalous practice is already well advanced in decay.

And again, what we are seeing now – the mad scramble for high-paying sinecures at GLCs and other statutory bodies and diplomatic appointments – is just the beginning. Just wait till they start dishing out the contracts and taking out EXIM loans from China to build yet more infrastructure we don’t need and cannot afford.

(The views expressed are those of the contributor and do not necessarily reflect the views of Rebuilding Malaysia.)

This article first appeared in Dennis Ignatius’ website on 28 April and is reproduced here, with permission. Click here,  to take you to his website.

Dennis Ignatius is a former Malaysian Ambassador.
Rebuilding Malaysia

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