Malaysia’s emerging new political order
The Unity Government, led by Pakatan Harapan and Barisan Nasional with the support from Sabah and Sarawak parties, was born out of an unprecedented hung parliament. Despite its messy beginning, the Anwar Ibrahim-led government has the potential of becoming a new political order that could last for years.
A year ago, I wrote that “Malaysian politics has been in flux for some time. The old political order has frayed and decayed, and is perhaps already beyond redemption. What will take its place is as yet unclear, and so, for now, contradictions abound… A new equilibrium will need to be found, encompassing key factors such as national identity, democratic efficacy and economic equity.” (https://www.iseas.edu.sg/articles-commentaries/iseas-perspective/2022-2-malaysia-on-the-cusp-of-a-new-political-order-by-liew-chin-tong/)
I had also explained that the history of contemporary Malaysia could be split into four orders:
a) The Merdeka Compact era (1957-1969) which was characterized by economic laissez-faire and ethnic elite consociationalism.
b) The New Economic Policy era (1969-1990) in which the state intervened to redistribute economic opportunities, upward social mobility for ordinary Malays, but the exclusive focus on the Malays caused dissatisfaction among the non-Malays.
c) Vision 2020-Bangsa Malaysia era (1991-2005) which resulted in Malaysia’s economic boom and subsequent slump in the wake of the Asian Financial Crisis, coincided with a multi-ethnic state narrative and UMNO standing firmly in the middle ground despite the opposition growing on the back of the Reformasi movement.
d) The “Lost Years” (2005-2021) typified by economic stagnation and policy drift, accompanied by UMNO’s rightward move and the shrinking of the BN coalition. Opposition movements benefited, culminating in the Bersih rallies and the electoral victory of PH in 2018 although nullified by the Sheraton parliamentary coup in 2020.
The known unknown a year ago was that the existing political order would end with the 15th general election. What was not foreseen then was three-fold. First, the massive collapse of BN’s support, to the extent that the coalition was relegated to the third place after PH and Muhyiddin Yassin-led Perikatan Nasional in terms of vote share and seats won. Second, a grand post-election coalition of former rivals, namely PH, BN, Gabungan Parti Sarawak, Gabungan Rakyat Sabah, and Warisan, was necessitated as no coalition won a majority. Third, ironically, the Unity Government is nominally governing with a two-thirds majority in parliament, a feat that eluded the previous governments since 2008, and Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim may emerge as a very strong and powerful premier.
The Unity Government will certainly face many challenges in the year of 2023. Among them, situations that may arise from the internal dynamics of UMNO, including the court judgment on its President Datuk Seri Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, and the results of its party election. Another factor is the outcomes of the state elections in Penang, Kedah, Selangor, Negeri Sembilan, Kelantan and Terengganu. Some of these may derail or even cause the downfall of the Unity Government, if not properly handled.
Yet this government is not without its structural advantages. Previous political orders have shown that to last long, a Malaysian ruling coalition is required to obtain support across ethnic lines, and must be able to connect across the South China Sea, winning the hearts and minds in Sabah and Sarawak. During the Vision 2020-Bangsa Malaysia era (1991-2005), BN won 65% and 64% popular votes in the 1995 and 2004 general elections, respectively. On both occasions, the then ruling coalition received more than half of the votes from all ethnic groups and secured solid votes in Sabah and Sarawak.
To fully benefit from the structural advantages of potentially receiving support from all ethnic groups and winning across the South China Sea, the Unity Government has to grow into a more solid partnership.
Currently, the Unity Government is a partnership in governing, forced upon by the circumstance of a hung parliament. The previous two governments that lasted for 33 months were the PN government and the Keluarga Malaysia BN-PN government led by Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri Yaakob. Two major factors destabilized these governments: the party which controls the Prime Minister’s office refused to share power more extensively with the others; and the key parties in the governments – UMNO on the one hand, and Bersatu and PAS on the other hand – were gearing up for election against each other in the same electoral demography.
The Unity Government is more suited than the two previous governments to go beyond just governing together. It has the potential to become a political partnership that is able to win elections together. PH, BN and GPS may be able to find a formula to complement each other electorally as long as each is ready to concede the rights to contest in some seats which it did not win or not as strong.
The partnership may not have to be an ironclad pre-election coalition with the same logo and singular structure. The crux is that as much as possible, to minimize electoral clashes among parties within the Unity Government.
Ultimately, the most important partnership that has to be forged through the Unity Government is a nation building partnership. Leaders in the Unity Government need to set their sights on the long haul and bring the public along to build strong democratic institutions that can last for a long time, to create quality jobs for Malaysians, and to transform the Malaysian economy from a low income, low skill, low productivity one into a resilient middle class society. If the Unity Government partnership can govern well, win comfortably, and build the nation together, years later, our young generation of today will be able to say that 2023 is the start of a new era for a new political order.
This article was first published in The Edge under the Breakingviews Predictions 2023