Return to higher principles in Malaysian politics

Anwar Ibrahim and Pakatan Rakyat is making a terrible mistake to take on UMNO at its own game.

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Can anyone ‘out-devil’ the devil?

In Malaysia, Anwar Ibrahim has learnt the hard way that it is impossible to outmanoeuvre Barisan Nasional (BN/National Front), Malaysia’s long-standing regime, using unethical measures. Since 8 March, 2008, BN has been at its weakest when facing the ‘Rakyat’ (citizens) at the electoral ballot but strongest when using dubious practices. The Pakatan Rakyat(PR/Citizens Alliance)-led state government in Perak lasted barely a year, brought down through the use of dubious tactics by BN. This episode must be a lesson for Anwar to desist immediately with the strategy of forming government through defection and return to higher democratic principles. Governments are best formed through elections and not defections.

The story of the Perak power grab is a remarkable one. Two PKR legislators who were charged for corruption in August 2008 – procuring monetary and sexual favours in return for approving a building project – went missing for five days.

Rumour has it that, during those five days pressure was brought on the duo (offered money in addition to having their charges dropped) to defect to BN. This waspreceded by the defection of an UMNO legislator to PKR who has since rejoined UMNO. More surprising was the news that a 20 year DAP member and Deputy Speaker of the House also defected.

It looks increasingly as if Malaysia will return to an era of near-dictatorship and flagrant abuse of power under Najib. That Najib would accept two legislators who have corruption charges pending against them to regain power instead of instituting reforms to clean up the ruling coalition is worrying. Najib has sacrificed real reforms and long term gains for BN in favour of short term gains for his ambitions.

Malaysians are disgusted with how BN grabbed power in Perak. The way in which Najib orchestrated these defections (with legislators going missing) is also a worry. The fact that the private investigator who made a statutory declaration that Najib is involved in the murder of a Mongolian national is still missing only compounds this worry.

There are also constitutional concerns. When the Speaker of the House declared the two seats vacant, the Election Commissioner, went beyond his constitutional authority and ruled that the seats were not vacant. The Election Commissioner, in doing so, took upon the powers of the Speaker and the Judiciary in determining the validity of the resignations.
Anwar and PR must take full stock of these developments. There is no way that PR can outmanoeuvre BN through unethical means. PR needs to strengthen its capacity to govern, and take that message directly to the people.

As PR is a new alliance, more resources will need to be spent on strengthening it. There were clear indications that all was not well within the Perak DAP – the main reason for the DAP member’s defection. The PR government failed to stand down the two legislators who were accused of corruption, allowing BN to use the state apparatus against them. And importantly, Anwar lost the moral high ground when he accepted the defection of the UMNO member into PR.

It is becoming clear that PKR is a party without an ideology. Since its formation in 1998, it has been mostly filled with unhappy ex-UMNO politicians. There are several high ranking PKR members who have since returned to UMNO. Without any clear ideology, PKR has an uncanny ability to attract dubious characters looking for quick pay-offs from the political process, rather than with broader political ambitions. The other members of PR – the Islamic Party of Malaysia (PAS), the Democratic Action Party of Malaysia (DAP) and the Socialist Party of Malaysia (PSM) – are used to being in the opposition, and attract individuals who are more committed to public service.

The lesson for Anwar from the Perak debacle is the need to return to higher principles. PR must challenge the validity of the BN government in Perak but it must also focus on strengthening the alliance in governing the four PR-led states.

The current global crisis presents a unique opportunity for Anwar to showcase his leadership qualities by providing sound policy proposals to lead Malaysia out of the morass it is in. Domestically, Anwar and PR should fight hard to develop a stimulus plan that allows Malaysia to weather the current global economic crisis, as well as to prepare the Malaysian economy for the future. In the region, ASEAN badly needs a charismatic figure to lead them out of the paralysis that key ASEAN members (Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and Philippines) are facing. Anwar has all the pre-requisites to be a leader. But Malaysians want him to become a leader democratically and with high principles.

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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