Malaysian Progressives in Australia (MPOZ) welcomes the clarification brought by the announcement of Pakatan Harapan’s (PH) leadership lineup. The ambiguity over the leadership has caused considerable speculation for months now and has made it difficult to pin down PH’s exact policy platform and unified ideology going into GE14. While MPOZ fully supports the objectives of reform and anti-corruption in this announcement, we observe that it contains evidence of significant compromise. We urge that there is much political work to be done if Pakatan intends to safely defeat the rotten Najib administration and its Barisan cronies in the next election.
As progressives, our attitude to parties contesting the election is and always has been about ensuring maximum participation in the democratic process, and a fair economy where the resources of the nation are drawn from the wealthy and invested in the people who need them most. In considering the PH announcement, our overriding concern is the ability of PH to deliver such a platform, and how the involvement of Bersatu has compromised that ability.
First 100 Days
PH’s 100-day plan in the event of victory is as follows:
- Stabilise the price of petrol
- Scrap the GST
- Focus on efforts to alleviate the rakyat’s burdens
- Start a thorough reform process of key institutions
- Fight corruption to its roots
- Form a royal commission of inquiry (RCI) into the 1MDB scandal
- Rehabilitate the Federal Land Development Authority (Felda)
In addition, PH has announced that they will work with international law enforcement to retrieve assets and money stolen via 1MDB and other corrupt entities. Any sensible person would support these objectives. But it is worth noting that the only specific measures here (GST, petrol prices, Felda, 1MDB) are topics that have been recently discussed in the media.
The 100-day plan retains classic features of Pakatan Harapan/Rakyat strategy. PH continues to place a greater emphasis on the rebuttal of specific policies and events, rather than articulating a complete alternative vision for Malaysia. It defines itself as the “not-government”, and its critique of BN is light on ideology and heavy on execution. This is typical of opposition coalitions with widely different political backgrounds, as the component parties are likely to agree on what the government has done wrong, but not exactly what should be done instead. Additionally, the 100-day plan avoids race and racial inequality altogether. Whether this is a major sticking point with Bersatu is not publicly known.
The plan to request a formal pardon for Anwar Ibrahim will pass through formal channels, meaning it will require royal approval from the Agong. Failing this, it is unclear what other measures, if any, Pakatan is willing to undertake to release Anwar. We maintain that freeing Anwar and all other political prisoners in Malaysian custody will only occur once the practice of mass demonstrations and strike actions once again takes root among the rakyat. The collective movement of the rakyat will make it politically untenable to jail activists who are fighting for actual change in Malaysia.
MPOZ awaits the full manifesto from PH, which it is said will be released chapter by chapter over the next while, and is still being finalised among the component parties.
Bersatu in the coalition
From the beginning, PH (technically individual leaders of PH) have stressed that their goal in teaming up with Bersatu is no more and no less than the removal of Najib and the network of corruption over which he presides. The connection between PH and Bersatu has grown to become much wider than that since the signing of the Save Malaysia pact last year. The election machinery and political platform of PH and Bersatu are now one and the same since Bersatu joined.
Those of us who have been observing the political bargaining between PH and Bersatu while they negotiated the leadership will also be aware that Bersatu originally had much higher hopes for representation in the opposition. Muhyiddin was to be the president, for instance, and the coalition structure that was eventually decided mirror’s UMNO’s by Mahathir’s wishes. Bersatu continues to say publicly that Mahathir will be the driving force behind the coalition. Mahathir himself acknowledges that his recent apology for what he did to Anwar while PM was political necessity. The pick for PM while PH works to free Anwar from prison is still not decided, although Mahathir has indicated that whoever is chosen will be treated as a proper premier and not simply a seat-warmer for Anwar.
Bersatu in government?
We must not forget that Bersatu’s political ideology diverges from the traditional Pakatan manifesto. Even in name it is a Bumiputera-first party, much like UMNO. How will PH reconcile this fact with the proposals for needs-based welfare that we have seen in recent weeks? Further, how will PH ensure that Bersatu does not resume its focus on Malay supremacist policies after the election? This is not a question of holding grudges. If we are to trust a united PH-Bersatu government, we must ensure that it is purged of all autocratic, nepotistic, Malay supremacist tendencies. Given that the party is led by UMNO defectors who jumped ship largely due to Najib’s managerial incompetence rather than for any principled political reasons, this is virtually impossible to assure. Bersatu’s influence makes it more likely that a Pakatan government would still be opaque and retain most of the racist policies of the current BN government.
It would take extraordinary circumstances now for PH to distance itself from Bersatu in policy terms. The immediate need is for PH to ensure that Bersatu’s UMNO-lite politics has no influence on the policies of the coalition as a whole. PH must move swiftly to explicit support for the elimination of race-based policies in all forms. Winning the Malay vote is not a valid excuse for marketing yourself as a graft-free UMNO substitute with 40% more reformasi. Any latent crony links that Bersatu can use today for Pakatan’s benefit can be used tomorrow for BN’s benefit.
If the PH-Bersatu coalition is to win GE14, it must do so with a view to eliminating patronage networks and race politics forever. It would be a tragedy for PH to have come all this way on the promise of a new kind of politics only to admit that they could not have won the election without an UMNO man to play the race game for them. If PH wins GE14 under current conditions, the continuing existence of pro-Malay ideologies among the population will discourage PH from risking their voter base, and nothing will change anyway. Bersatu may also simply insist that it was responsible for such a victory, and demand more of its policies be implemented accordingly. In either situation a PH victory will end up being largely symbolic.
Make sure UMNO stays down
PH appears to be under the impression that the partnership with Bersatu is no longer a shortcut to the Malay vote, but a genuine partnership and the basis for a stable alternative government. MPOZ believes that this is a dangerous assumption. Even if we ignore for a moment the backgrounds of the people we are dealing with, partnering with Bersatu will still not be enough to generate the sought-after “Malay tsunami”.
As has been pointed out many times before, often by PH members, there are two complementary reasons why the Malay vote, and especially the rural Malay vote, has been so elusive for Pakatan. First, the fact that many poor Malay livelihoods are unsustainable without government handouts/bribes. Second, the racist anti-Chinese and anti-Indian fearmongering that goes along with these handouts. PH has been correct to try and match BN offers to these voters, but that is not enough. Commentators like Kua Kia Soong are already suggesting that when faced with the choice between PH and PAS oppositions, Malay voters still swing in PAS’ favour.
The vast majority of Malay and non-Malay workers do not have an interest in perpetuating racism. This does not mean that uprooting racist ideas is fast or easy, especially in a country founded on a highly racialised national identity like Malaysia. But if this is not done correctly, then BN will always find a way to make a comeback. Something as simple as an internal UMNO coup that replaces Najib with someone more media-savvy and competent could neutralise PH’s message. UMNO played this exact game under Mahathir’s rule, running the country competently enough and acting with enough sensitivity that the politically uninformed populace saw no reason to vote opposition.
We must think of the project of removing UMNO like removing weeds from a paddy field. Any farmer will tell you that weeds must be pulled out, roots and all, to ensure they do not spread. But whatever small benefits they may have given the soil, like preventing it from washing away or introducing useful bacteria, must be accounted for. PH is not the first to explain why an UMNO government is bad for the rakyat. But the recent announcement shows that it has not yet given the rakyat reason to believe that it is i) a valid alternative and ii) willing and able to carry out its platform in full.
We urge PH to complete its manifesto quickly, and to refine that manifesto not simply on public opinion as planned, which may include some popular but regressive ideas, but to form a coherent, progressive platform that keeps the rich and powerful in check and defends democratic rights for all Malaysians. We remind PH to consider how its manifesto will dismantle systematic disadvantage for women, youth, Orang Asli, East Malaysians and workers.
Until these matters of policy and ideology are resolved, MPOZ believes that we do not have a basis to endorse PH in the upcoming election. The rakyat needs to know exactly what kinds of fundamental reforms PH is planning if it successfully removes Najib and UMNO from power. Failure to swiftly eliminate systemic corruption and alleviate the burdens of the rakyat will only pave the way for BN’s return.
The immediate task is to build the proposed anti-kleptocracy rally in every major city, and deploy the resources of every PH office to that end. Unions, community groups, NGOs and even members of progressive political coalitions like Gabungan Kiri must be tightly involved in planning from here on out. To win over the rakyat, it is essential that PH throws itself into an all-or-nothing battle to remove Najib and UMNO, and to uproot every conceivable avenue by which UMNO (and others like them) may plot their return. PH must commit itself to the slow and methodical task of eliminating racial supremacism among the population, and replace it with a spirit of interracial solidarity expressed through mass involvement in campaigns within and beyond electoral politics.
We do not wish to see PH edge its way into power and immediately fall prey to internal bickering. Many grand coalitions in history have failed due to a disregard for grassroots movements and excessive use of realpolitik. We instead wish to see UMNO and its toxic ideas crushed and relegated to history by a progressive force that will not only undo all the harm done to Malaysia over the years, but ensures that any future UMNO-like formation is nipped in the bud long before it become a threat to our society and our taxpayer funds. PH is in no position to do that right now. The politics of its constituent groups means it necessarily thinks in terms of poll numbers before protest numbers. But we say now that if the rakyat and the opposition want to kill UMNO, it has to be done right.
Dalam semangat solidariti,
Malaysian Progressives in Australia