Should Pakatan Rakyat bide its time in Malaysia?

Anwar Ibrahim’s fear of the coercive powers of the Barisan Nasional is the primary driving force for this maneuver.

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The main factor driving Anwar Ibrahim to topple Barisan Nasional (BN/United Front) is his belief that the window of opportunity will cease to exist in the very near future. Malaysia’s short history has demonstrated that BN is very resilient and adept at breaking down any form of opposition – both with carrots and through the use of big sticks.

Other than the social democrats – the Democratic Action Party (DAP), which was formed when Singapore and the Peoples Action Party (PAP) was expelled from Malaysia and the Islamist Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS/Pan Malaysian Islamic Party) – no other party has had the staying power required in the unrewarding and ridiculed role of Opposition. All forms of coalition arrangement have been successfully demolished by the ruling party leaving it as the only legitimate and credible representative of the people.

Anwar has decided that it is easier to manage and develop Pakatan Rakyat (PR/Peoples Coalition) as the ruling coalition in which he will be in a position of strength to hold the coalition together through incentives and punishments – very much like the BN has in the past. He would have a more difficult time managing PR in Opposition with limited leverage on the two more senior partners – DAP and PAS. Add to these problems, the resourceful and experienced BN punishing opposition controlled states as well as providing incentives to defect, and the future does not look too bright.

Forming a government through dubious means, will limit Anwar’s moral authority and would open the way for the more resourceful BN to take the same measures to destabilise a PR led government in the future. The final outcome of this instability would see Malaysia following the path of its neighbours – Philippines, Indonesia and Thailand – where political transition has come at a considerable price to society.

It may be both in Anwar’s and Malaysia’s long term interest if Anwar and PR focus on forming a government through the ballot box. If Anwar and PR can successfully demonstrate to the citizens of Malaysia that PR is the better alternative, then they will have a legitimacy and tenure on power that will be difficult to grasp otherwise.

Anwar and PR can do this firstly by institutionalising the current relationship among the coalition partners in PR. It is not at all clear where policy authority lies in PR, both at the parliamentary level or the state level. For example, the Chief Minister of the Kedah state government, led by PAS, suggested logging a protected forest to raise revenues for the state in the event of funding cuts from the Federal government. This is in stark contrast to PKR’s stand on environmental issues.

The contentious issue of religion has also yet to be tested. DAP has liberal views; middle of the ground PKR and conservative PAS clearly do not see eye-to-eye. A case in point is the role Anwar’s party PKR in delaying judgement on one of its Muslim Members of Parliament who actively took part with other radical Muslim groups by forcing the cancellation of a legitimately organised discussion by the Malaysian Bar Council on the issues of conversion and the rights of non-Muslims. Punishing the MP can be used by BN against Anwar, casting him as anti-Muslim and anti-Malay while not punishing the MP would send a signal to liberal minded Malaysians that Anwar is indeed a chameleon.

The crunch will come in the four PR led states. Except for Kelantan, where PAS is fully in command, the four states on Malaysia’s west coast are governed collectively with different parties taking the lead role – PAS in Kedah, DAP in Penang,DAP/PAS in Perak and PKR in Selangor. In Kedah and Perak, PR holds razor thin margins.

Managing these states is a test of PR’s capacity to govern Malaysia. The key lies in how PR manages its divergent ideologies and BN’s attempt to destabilise PR. PR unified behind Anwar and PR exclusively to deny BN a two-third majority. Beyond the noble goals of a more transparent, honest and accountable and goodwill among the PR leaders, there is not much in terms of policy that unifies PR.

As example, PAS members wants to increase the role of Islam in government while DAP members wants to reverse decades of Islamisation.

Another key challenge will be to find alternatives to the expected cutbacks in Federal government allocations. The BN government has always penalised states or constituencies that did not support its candidates. The BN government has already cut the allocation for the Penang state government by 2/3 and shelved several critical infrastructure projects such as the Monorail and the second Penang Bridge indefinitely. However, the PR led states can easily overcome this problem as they all lie in the economically dynamic West Coast of Malaysia which as already achieved high levels of infrastructure and economic growth.

At the Parliamentary level, PR has yet to demonstrate its effectiveness. Its focus has been solely on forming government and it has failed to voice the concerns of citizens or provide alternatives to BN policies. PR has yet to form a shadow cabinet. While PR has criticised the government’s budget, for example, it has not yet provided one of its own. In the current global crises, while criticising the government for inaction, PR has not put forward any solution on how it would protect Malaysia in the face of this global crisis. A critical test will be the US – Malaysia Free Trade Agreement. PAS adamantly opposes it on ideological grounds while DAP and PKR accepts it with caveats. To date PR has not made its position clear although the negotiations are progressing to their final stages.

Anwar’s emphasis on accountability, transparency, political and economic reforms are laudable but still vague. PR has not specified an agenda, or argued and campaigned on what the government should do to achieve it.

Anwar has formidable challenges in managing PR and PR in managing itself. They need to succeed in establishing PR as a legitimate and coherent political force and creating a genuine two party system in Malaysia. There is a case for ironing out PR’s internal differences and doing this through the ballot box in the next general election.

Anwar would go down in Malaysian history as the man who truly democratised the country.

This article first appeared in East Asia Forum.

Author: Greg Lopez

I write about Malaysia, Singapore, Southeast Asia and Australia’s policy towards the ASEAN region. I am also lecturer with Murdoch University’s Executive Education Centre, fellow at its Asia Research Centre, and a a member of its Centre for Responsible Citizenship and Sustainability. I am also a visiting fellow at the Department of Political and Social Change, Australian National University. Trained as an economist at the University of Malaya and the Australian National University, I have worked and researched the region extensively focusing on its economic and political reforms.

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