The final countdown, earthquakes and iPhone

On political realignment, Part 3

(This is the final piece in the three-part series. Read Part 1 and Part 2.)


Much as it sounds cliché, our time is indeed both the best of times and the worst of times. In such a confusing time, clarity is in short supply.

Three things may help us to describe the state of affairs in Malaysian politics better: that the final countdown is imminent; that there were major political earthquakes, tectonic shifts and realignments in 2015; and that the voting public is waiting for something transformative, a bit like the iPhone when it was first created.

The Final Countdown

The joint press conference by former rivals Tun Dr. Mahathir Mohammad and Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah surprised some of us. Many of us were even amazed with the unprecedented statement by Majlis Raja-Raja Melayu (The Rulers Council) on 1MDB and the falling ringgit, as the council usually restricts its pronouncements to matters relating to Islam and national unity only.

Since the Asian Financial Crisis in 1997 and the sacking of Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim in 1998, Malaysia has been a nation impatiently waiting for change. But change has been meagre, if any. And we are now entering another crisis – a ‘perfect storm’ crisis that engulfs the nation on multiple fronts – politics, economics, finances, ethnic relations etc. 

On the government front, if Datuk Seri Najib Razak leads UMNO into the next general election, not only would UMNO lose, the possibility of UMNO leaders jumping the sinking ship to contest against Najib’s UMNO cannot be ruled out.

For UMNO and Barisan Nasional supporters, they would want to know: If UMNO manages to replace Najib, will the removal process be smooth or traumatic? If Najib is removed, will UMNO stay united? And without Najib, can UMNO win again with a new leader?

For the rest of us, the real question we want to ask is: Are all UMNO’s problems caused by Najib, or is it something systemic? Can systemic problems be solved by having a new leader?”

Some may say that UMNO could surprise everyone with a sudden and transformative reforms. But then again, this is just a wishful thinking. On the eve of a potentially volatile Parliamentary session, it feels like fin de siècle or a looming final countdown.


The sacking of Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin and Datuk Seri Shafie Apdal from the government on 28th July 2015 was a major earthquake not seen since September 1998. Umno members are still shell shocked, yet unable to express themselves openly. At least, for now.

The moderates and progressives in PAS were not a united force. All of them were defeated during the Islamist party’s elections of 6 June 2015. Three months later, they formed Parti Amanah Negara.

As long as PAS is led by Datuk Seri Hadi Awang, the party is not going to win the middle ground Malay voters, not to mention non-Malay voters. PAS is kissing goodbye to Peninsula’s west coast votes.

Without the progressive faction, PAS is also not going to get any traction outside Kelantan and Terengganu, and to a lesser extent, Kedah. Some commentators even opined that PAS is in danger of losing Kelantan due to issues arising from long years of incumbency and slack in governing. 

We cannot rule out a second split in PAS or Hadi being replaced by Tuan Ibrahim Tuan Man, who is now seen as playing the exact role of his predecessor Mohamad Sabu (now Amanah president) in the previous PAS leadership, in his attempt to project an anti-UMNO image.

In recent years under Hadi’s leadership, the line between PAS and UMNO is blurring. This is ironic. It was Hadi, at least according to UMNO leaders and members, who deemed UMNO as an infidel party in the 1980s, as well as declared PAS as the champion of anti-assabiyah, a reference against UMNO’s brand of Malay nationalism. Hadi’s embrace of Perkasa, the Malay supremacy group, has shocked some PAS leaders and grassroots; they know this could cause an electoral disaster; and Perkasa practices outright assabiyah.

On the Najib front, when everything is going against his administration – or the lack of it – the moderate pretender is now backed by the likes of Jamal Yunos of the Red Shirts, conservative Muslim scholars including several Muftis, as well as Hadi and Haron Din for their ideological support. These people do not hide their contempt for moderation and progress.

As I mentioned at the beginning, earthquakes are usually followed by smaller quakes, tectonic shifts and realignment. It also leaves a huge vacuum.


Najib’s UMNO and Hadi’s PAS view things in ethno-centric terms. These views are not even representative of the many voices among the Malay community, not to mention the wider society. 

According to Merdeka Centre, 23% of Malays supported BERSIH while 24% of Malays supported the Red Shirts rally. If these are two poles on the side with hardened views, what is unmistakably clear is that there is a huge middle group which has no strong preferences. They are the middle ground that would decide the outcome of any election.

This racial version of Malaysia promoted by Najib and Hadi is a recipe for disaster electorally. Any coalition should know they need support from across ethnic groups in Peninsula, and win votes from Sabah and Sarawak. 

The battle for Malaysia is increasingly taking shape between the conservatives and the progressives, between those who push for Malay/Muslim dominance without a moral compass and those who push for a better Malaysia for all governed by broader principles of justice such as those articulated in the discussion of maqasid shariah and the ideals of justice and equal opportunities.

There is a huge vacuum and no one is sure how to fill it.


It was revolutionary when Steve Jobs created the iPhone in 2007. iPhone combined the function of an iPod (music), Internet surfing and phone function, three previously distinctive functions/products, into one product and set the new normal for others to follow. iPhone was the answer to its users’ unfulfilled desires.

In this post-earthquake scenario with a huge leadership vacuum to fill, it is worthwhile for us to think through as a nation what is needed to effect change in the upcoming election.

We know that the agenda of Conservative Malaysia is Malay supremacy. How then shall a Progressive Malaysia respond? Progressive Malaysia needs a coherent set of ideas which will create the iPhone of Malaysian politics – something entirely new that appeals to hearts and minds, especially that of Malay voters in swing seats.

Much has been said about the Opposition not being able to penetrate UMNO fortresses in the rural areas. Those fortresses like Rompin or Pengerang were designed and built for UMNO. It’s difficult to make way in these rural area, at least for now.

To win electoral power is not to focus on those seats. Instead, out of UMNO’s 73 peninsula seats, at least 35 of them are marginal. Progressive Malaysia should aim to win 40 UMNO seats in the peninsula. Once that is achieved, everything else will fall into place.

The way forward

The way forward is to create a vision that inspires all Malaysians with a special focus on bringing better economic security and wellbeing to lower middle class Malays in the semi-urban areas.

In good humour, I’ve said that Pakatan Rakyat’s manifesto of the 2013 election– cheaper cars, no tolls, cheaper fuel, and abolish PTPTN (university loans) – had no relevance to Malays in semi-urban areas; many of them couldn’t even afford a car (so why bother about tolls, car prices and petrol), and quite a number of them didn’t finish secondary school education.

Yet each of them has a vote to cast, and many are on smartphones, facebook, and other communication channels not controlled solely by the government.

The future of Progressive Malaysia lies in its ability to articulate their wishes and aspirations of ordinary Malaysians and their concerns for jobs, wages, healthcare, transport, security, education etc.

We need an economic vision that will create the virtuous cycle of higher wages, higher skills and higher productivity so that both the non-Malay dominated small and middle industry sector, and the Malay working class in semi-urban areas find their interests coincide and not opposing to each other.

When Malaysians find that their economic wellbeing is secure or will be more secure under the new government, change would not be feared, change would be embraced enthusiastically.

Honestly, UMNO-BN can actually do this now if they want to. But we know that many of their leaders have lost touch with reality.

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