Pakatan Harapan’s New Deal and democratic change

The squabbling among component party leaders in the fledgling Perikatan Nasional has shown the weakness of the unelected ruling coalition. It looks like it’s going to crack anytime and the government may soon fall.

This is one of the most challenging periods in Malaysia, the times of Covid-19 outbreak. Although there are signs of the pandemic slowing down, it is far from over until a vaccine is found and universally distributed. People’s lives are still at risk.

Yet Perikatan Nasional leaders continue to scramble for positions, putting profit before people. This is a good reminder for Pakatan Harapan that the duty of the government is to ensure the well-being of the people by putting people first.

Lest we forget, the legitimate Pakatan government failed in part because it was pulled apart by the extreme voices on the racial fringes. To a certain extent, some of the leaders then did not put lives and livelihood as our main agenda, as they too were sucked into racial politics. 

Two years ago, Malaysia was bucking the trend of democratic deficit and increasing authoritarianism. It was an uplifting and inspiring story. As the change on 9th May 2018 was bloodless and relatively smooth, many did not realise that it was the first-ever democratic transition and that those who support change need to come together to build new institutions and to fend off resistance from the old order.   

Clean government

We must put people first. We must tell Malaysians that an e-hailing driver is an e-hailing driver, regardless of race and religion, and if someone loses his job whether he is a Malay or Chinese or Indian, we need to help the person even if he is a supporter of Perikatan or Pakatan.

We must think through how to save lives and protect livelihood by focusing on clean government with a serious anti-corruption mentality that wants to provide jobs, decent pay, shelter, food, healthcare, public transport, education and, environment, etc. 

Of course, no one can avoid politics but we must make sure politics should be about these policy issues which are even more salient post-Covid-19. 

These are policy areas in which we can make a difference. Race and religious politics are our opponents’ strength but we must never allow ourselves to be dragged into our opponents’ turf of divisive campaign. 

Pakatan Harapan Plus – consisting of PKR, Amanah and DAP with Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s Bersatu and Warisan – needs to build a national movement that has a strong bond with Malaysians who want a clean government, democratic institutions, an empathetic economic approach during crisis, and progressive reforms that will not leave anyone behind.  

Democratic transition

One of the major reasons for Pakatan’s historic victory in 2018 was due to a participatory and peer-to-peer campaign. The leaders’ role was to lead as candidates and to provide strategic directions through soundbites and speeches. It was the people who made it happen by coming together to end Barisan Nasional’s rule. 

However, after the change of government on 9 May 2018, many of those who voted for change went back to their usual lives, hoping that the politicians would sort things out for them. 

Some became critics of the new government overnight, demanding structural and institutional change immediately while others were just watching from the sidelines.

During that time, suddenly the media which was newly-free from BN’s control, chose to focus on the transition between Dr Mahathir and Anwar Ibrahim instead of highlighting democratic transition process. The sensational and emotional issue brought many Pakatan politicians to jump into the fray of power transition story.

We failed to convince the media that the real story was the spirit of multiracial Malaysians went against all odds, however rigged an electoral system, to create a miracle. The media didn’t highlight much on the fact that when people get together, democracy still has a chance. 

We need everyone to realise that Malaysian democracy is still in infancy. We must nurture the seed of democracy with care. 

Another missed opportunity was that during Pakatan’s brief term before February’s political coup, instead of being the government’s critics to show off its “neutrality”, reform-minded civil society groups could have come forward to learn about governing, to discuss and debate, and to become a semi-insider to build a new democracy. 

If the Pakatan Harapan Plus parties ever make it back to power, everyone should take part in participatory governing to rebuild the nation, and not stand by watching as a bystander. The government too should learn to open up, and not behave as if the government knows it all. 

If we are serious about rebuilding our nation, everyone who wants a better Malaysia will need to come forward together. If we – Malay, Chinese, Indian, Iban, Kadazan across parties and in a people movement – are strong, the current regime will be weaker by day. 

This is a legitimate fight for democracy to regain the mandate given by Malaysian people to Pakatan Harapan in 2018. 

Yet, those who think that Muhyiddin’s Perikatan may collapse very soon need some reality checks and basic parameters.

Reality checks

First, it will be foolish to hope that Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin would easily give up a regime that he gained from a political coup. The Prime Minister will do whatever it takes to stay in power. But the one-seat majority he has in Parliament means he doesn’t even feel safe to call for a proper Parliament sitting.

Second, for the PKR and Pakatan turncoat Azmin Ali, he has nowhere to turn to now. He is prone to mistakes and does not possess the mind and strength required of those who hold high office especially in time of crisis. Worse, he has more detractors than friends, compounded by the fact that very few Malaysians trust him.   

But he would do all he could to cling on to Perikatan. 

Third, despite their criticism against the fledgling Perikatan Nasional, UMNO bigwigs won’t simply give up on the temporary coalition unless they are sure they would win a general election that they have been planning to call for soon.

UMNO’s weakness is that it is not united – it has as many as four factions led by Najib Razak, Ahmad Zahid, Hishammuddin Hussein and the non-aligned such as Mohamad Hassan. 

However, Najib, Zahid and former party strongman Tengku Adnan Mansor are facing corruption charges in court. They are like a poisoned chalice to Muhyiddin and to practically anyone else who aspire to become government.

Fourth, with many of its leaders enjoying the perks and luxury of being in the government, PAS is not expected to switch sides. It is too invested in its coalition with UMNO, for now. 

Unless a collapse of seat distribution with UMNO or Bersatu in Kelantan and Terengganu – PAS’ non-negotiable core interests – or a sudden threat to PAS’ support base in Kelantan and Terengganu due to the party’s association with Perikatan Nasional government, it is hard to see PAS quitting. 

Fifth, Gabungan Parti Sarawak was the kingmaker on 29 February this year, without which Perikatan Nasional would not form government. Having loyalty only to Sarawak, GPS would only switch sides if there is a really compelling reason to. 

Hence, for Malaysians who want to see the return of hope that we had on 9h May 2018, we need to do more than just wait and enjoy our popcorn. 

To win back the people’s support, all the Pakatan Harapan Plus parties will have to align and come together. 

The key leaders of the five parties, Mahathir, Anwar Ibrahim, Shafie Apdal, Lim Guan Eng and Mohamad Sabu must present a united front if they were to have any chance of returning to power. We need to hold together all the Members of Parliament we have and broaden our coalition. 

Most importantly, we need to convince the people that Pakatan had learned its lessons, and has the humility to build a very broad-based people movement to bring forth a new deal for the betterment of people’s livelihood post-Covid-19.

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