Lessons from Selangor show way forward
Writer: Tricia Yeoh
Published: Fri, 14 Sep 2012
It was an entertaining thought that my friend, Keith Leong, would have spent long hours in the very English Cambridge University writing his MPhil thesis on the Selangor experience under Pakatan Rakyat.
Working with the Selangor government at the time, it gave me a glimmer of hope that there were others far away, not necessarily part of the system of politics and government, who were equally interested in and rooting for these new developments taking place in Malaysia.
Indeed, I am glad he has chosen to publish the thesis into a book – the importance of documenting such significant changes in the socio-political landscape cannot be underscored.
It was also an honour for me to have had the book I edited on Pakatan Rakyat (Pakatan) in Selangor used as one of his references.
Leong centres his book on an argument by academic Jesudason, who wrote in 1996 about the difficulty faced, and almost impossiblly, that any opposition party would succeed in Malaysia.
Elaborating upon this argument, Leong then uses numerous examples explaining why he disagrees with Jesudason, drawing from the Selangor experience being governed by the Pakatan coalition. Finally, he mentions several challenges ahead of Pakatan.
According to Leong, Jesudason’s core argument was that Malaysia is a syncretic state, which can be defined as “a product of a particular historical-structural configuration that has allowed the power holders to combine a broad array of economic, ideological, and coercive elements in managing the society, including limiting the effectiveness of the opposition as a democratizing force.” (Jesudason 1996:129).
Based on this, the Barisan Nasional (Barisan) model of having each ethnicity represented by each party would have been extremely difficult to counter.
In the past at least, this was true. The Barisan style of government would be able to “straddle (the) competing interests” of different ethnic and cultural community’s needs. Quite cleverly, for example, each party would cater to the needs of their respective constituents, sometimes even making wildly differing statements depending on the audience and occasion. For example, Leong cites how they might use coercion (state instruments such as the Internal Security Act) against groups or co-opting (political, business, ethno-religious) groups to prevent any coalitions from forming against them.
However, the Pakatan coalition seems to have – at least for the last five years – overcome this problem.
Important to note is that, as Leong states, the three individual parties (the DAP, PAS and PKR) spent the years before that, between 2004 and 2007, regrouping and “attempting to address both their internal weaknesses as well as obstacles to cooperating with each other”.
As Selangor Menteri Besar Tan Sri Khalid Ibrahim likes to quip in his speeches, where in the past the DAP and PAS would hardly be expected to sit at the same table, now they were willing to negotiate.
Today, they are working together on policies, and programmes in government.
Further, the PKR successfully attracted party leaders and candidates from non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and the business community, thereby fielding more “credible, diverse candidates”.
This would in a sense also broaden the support from a wider range of people, on top of those already involved in direct politics
Another major factor in Pakatan having overcome this problem was to win over unoccupied intellectual and policy space, for instance speaking against the New Economic Policy (NEP) as ethnic-based affirmative action.
It was indeed “previously considered unthinkable for a Malay political leader” to do so. This move would solidify PKR’s position as being a reformative party, central to straddling the sometimes opposing positions of either DAP or PAS.
In fact, taking this approach would become the key modus operandi. Instead of the Barisan communal model, Pakatan came together based on common principles of “justice, good governance, human rights, accountability, transparency”, which transcended race or religion.
In a sense, as Leong states, Pakatan has now created a “syncretism” of its own, to challenge Barisan’s approach altogether.
Of course, this has not always been easy to handle. Naturally, because of the parties’ individual roots (PAS being an Islamic party, DAP traditionally a Chinese party despite its multiracial philosophy), there would be conflicts.
Leong mentions three such examples, namely sectarian issues (where race would still rear its ugly head, for example at the cow-head protest, or the UITM incident), inter-party conflict (where PAS would disagree with DAP on the sale of alcohol), and intra-party conflict (defections and factions within parties).
Any coalition attempting to straddle the issues of Malaysia would come face to face with this. And in a way, this is very much the reality of our intricate and complex society. Much better to thrash things out, and emerge with a solution commonly agreed upon by all parties, than to sweep things under the carpet.
As such, despite a “huge temptation to retreat into their own familiar space” as pointed out by Leong, Pakatan has instead reaffirmed and not detracted “from its commitment to multiracialism”, which is very encouraging.
In the lead-up to the ever-nearing 13th General Election, one may wonder what stance the parties take.
In recent years, they have affirmed their conviction to common policy announcements, beginning with the Common Policy Framework, followed by the Buku Jingga (Orange Book), and the Pakatan Alternative Budget 2012.
Leong predicts that it is likely that they “will maintain their pluralist stand” – and I hope this will certainly be the case.
Pakatan must realise by now that these pluralist negotiations are imperative, and necessary for its own survival.
The criticism of some that this newfound pluralist face of PAS, for example, as “convenient masks by which to gain power”, must be silenced, an effort that Pakatan parties will have to prove. The Chinese, for example, voting for PAS is a start in cross-ethnic voting.
Does Leong successfully disprove Jesudason’s notion that the Malaysian “syncretic state” cannot be managed by any other than the Barisan coalition? In one sense, the Pakatan example over the past electoral team has shown that with the right amount of sheer political will and some strategic compromise, the answer is yes.
Of course there will always be conflicts occurring – and this is natural in any dynamic society, especially that in our very layered and complex Malaysia.
Leong perhaps best sums it up by saying that even if Pakatan were to lose Selangor and perform dismally in the Federal Government elections, Pakatan has demonstrated the “plausibility of multiracial opposition to the ruling regime.”
This was an enjoyable read of a short 91-page book. Perhaps where Leong could have expanded upon would be delving into the reasons for which Malaysian society may be more receptive to a pluralist approach at present as opposed to its traditional communal one in the past, since the success of Pakatan could also be accounted for by demographic and sociological changes.
Other external factors could have contributed to this sudden shift in receptiveness – social media, the Internet, civil society, a larger youth voting base, and urbanisation (the latter of which Leong does mention).
In conclusion, it is my personal hope that all he says is true – that indeed, this marks the end of our dependence on a politics defined along communal ethno-religious lines.