Two greatest dangers for Malaysian politics at the beginning of the new century: recommunalisation and UMNO-PAS competition of  Islamisation of a plural society

Talk on  "The Impact of the Anwar Ibrahim case on politics in Malaysia"
- at the Griffith Asia Pacific Council, Griffith University, Brisbane
Lim Kit Siang

(Brisbane, Australia, Monday): The response  of the Malaysian Prime Minister, Dr. Mahathir Mohamad  to the subject of tonight's talk "The Impact of the Anwar Ibrahim case on politics in Malaysia"  would be a curt and  unequivocal "No", as he had gone on public record attributing UMNO's poor electoral performance in the recent tenth general election on Nov. 29, 1999 as due to internal UMNO divisions and disaffections on issues like being passed over as candidates and the politics of ingratitude and extremism of PAS.

In his  monthly commentary and  opinion in Japan's `Mainichi Daily News' immediately after the general election, Mahathir predicted that National Justice Party (the party formed by Anwar's supporters and headed by his wife Dr. Wan Azizah Ismail) is not likely to survive the next five years unless the issue of Anwar's jailing could somehow be kept alive.

This is a classic example of  Mahathir's  denial syndrome in refusing to acknowledge the political and cultural shocks as well as the political awakening and ferment sparked off by the Anwar Ibrahim  fall-out  and upheaval so that he can continue to avoid the need to address the rising demands for justice, freedom, democracy and good governance by the  Malaysian people, in particular the new young generation, as reflected by the results of the last general elections, where the National Front secured 56 per cent and the Opposition 44 per cent of the national vote.

There can be  no denial  that Anwar Ibrahim, the former Deputy Prime Minister, Finance Minister and heir-designate to Mahathir as Prime Minister of Malaysia until he was summarily sacked from government and the ruling UMNO party in September 1998, was the main cause why UMNO was the biggest loser among the Barisan Nasional parties in the 1999 general election.

In 1999,  National Front  won 148 seats out of a total of 193 seats, a 13-seat reduction  as compared to  161  in 1995,  but  the electoral losses were primarily that of UMNO,  which lost 16 seats capturing  72 seats as compared to 88 in 1995.

The State Assembly results were even more devastating for UMNO, which not only failed to recapture the Kelantan State but also lost the Terengganu State to PAS, and it narrowly staved off the fall of two other states, Perlis and Kedah. Overall for Peninsular Malaysia,  UMNO lost a staggering number of 55 seats as compared to 1995, i.e. 176 in 1999  as compared to the previous  231 state assembly seats.

Never before in the  political history of the nation has the legitimacy of UMNO as the undisputed representative of the Malays been so seriously questioned and challenged.

PAS leaders agree that without the Anwar Ibrahim factor, PAS would not have scored the electoral successes it gained, or  recaptured Kelantan and won Terengganu with such landslide results.

It is no secret that until Anwar's sacking and upheaval, PAS's electoral ambitions was very much more modest and  limited to recapturing Kelantan State government and  at most winning another state government in neighbouring Terengganu.  But the political upheavals unleashed by the  Anwar events  changed the political picture for PAS altogether and encouraged  it  to seriously entertain national ambitions.

Anwar's trial and tribulations caused a cultural shock and political trauma marking a painful political  coming-of-age for many Malaysians.

The impact of Anwar's case is greatest on the Malay political psyche because of the prevailing notion that the solemn Malay compact between the ruler and the ruled have been broken.  The Malay Annals ( Sejarah Melayu) relates about  the contract between the ruler and subjects where  in return for the subjects' undertaking not to derhaka (rebel), the ruler undertook that in no circumstances would the subjects be shamed and humiliated,  no matter how badly the subjects behaved, even if to the point of deserving to be put to death, then they should just be killed.

If Anwar had just been sacked for disloyalty or incompetence, however unfair and unjustified, it would have been regarded  as a power struggle which was of no concern to the common people. But when Anwar became  the victim of a vicious and protracted campaign to shame and humiliate him, deploying all the apparatus of state, including organs of government which are supposed to be fair and rise above party or personal warfare, including the most flagrant misuse of the controlled printed and electronic edia, to character-assassinate him with  all the horrendous but unproven allegations and even to pummel him to within an inch of his life when handcuffed and blindfolded in the lock-up in the very inner sanctum of police high command, giving him the infamous black-eye, even non-Malays without the cultural underpinnings of the Malay Annals felt outraged that the last line of  fair play  and common decency had been transgressed.

Anwar caused a political awakening particularly among the young generation of Malays as he symbolised their aspirations for a more open, accountable and democratic governance.

His ouster, and the manner of his fall, was a rude shock to sensitise them  for the first time to the ugly side of authoritarian rule which had systematically violated human rights and the democratic freedoms in the country since the country's Independence for over four decades.

This was why one of the most important impacts of the Anwar upheaval was its catalytic role in creating a multi-ethnic and multi-religious awareness and consciousness, comprising not only political parties but also NGOs, to take a common stand to  break the political hegemony of the National Front and bring about a paradigm shift in Malaysian politics where it would not be so dominated by ethnicity and religion and more issues-centred on questions of justice, freedom, democracy and good governance.

Hence the formation of the Alternative Front of the four main opposition parties, comprising the National Justice Party (KeADILan), PAS, the People's Party of Malaysia (PRM)  and Democratic Action Party.

Both the DAP and PAS took great risks in coming together for the first time to forge the Opposition front in 1999.

As far as the DAP was concerned, there was no way the Alternative Front could topple the National Front and capture power in the tenth general election. But it was the golden political opportunity, the first time in the nation's 42-year history, to break the two-thirds parliamentary majority of the ruling coalition, i.e. the National Front and its predecessor the Alliance,  and to lay the basis for a new Malaysia where justice, freedom, democracy and good governance become the top political agenda in the country.

The  great political risks faced by the DAP  in teaming up with PAS, KeADILan and PRM to form the Barisan Alternative was not because the alliance was  an opportunistic or  indefensible one, but because it gave the National Front,  with its virtual monopoly of the 3Ms of money, media and government  machinery, the opportunity toconfuse and mislead the voters about the real issues at stake in the  general election.

DAP took calculated risks in entering the Opposition Alliance, knowing that would win  unprecedented victory if the non-Malay and Chinese voters addressed the real issues at stake in the tenth general election - the restoration of justice, freedom, democracy and good governance by breaking the  National Front political hegemony and ending its uninterrupted two-thirds parliamentary majority - but would  suffer  unprecedented defeat  if the National Front succeeded in playing their campaign "trump cards" of fear. These included  playing on    the spectre of  racial violence, May 13 riots and the plight of Indonesian Chinese during anti-Chinese outbreaks and mass rapes of Chinese women and the issue of the    Islamic state. The National Front  also claimed  that  a vote for DAP was a vote for PAS and an Islamic State.

In the event,  although UMNO suffered electoral reverses, the National Front missed losing its two-thirds majority by 20 seats - bagging 148 out of the 193 seats, with the Opposition winning 45 seats.

It is clear that the  public outrage at the abuses of power, corruption and human rights violations, including subversion of the independent organs of government, the erosion of the rule of law and the undermining of the independence of the judiciary, as highlighted in the cases of former Deputy Prime Minister, Anwar Ibrahim and former DAP MP Lim Guan Eng  were insufficient to break the National Front's political hegemony and end its uninterrupted two-thirds parliamentary majority.  The Anwar factor had a greater impact on the Malay electorate than on the non-Malay electorate and it was in no small measure a contributor to the  great electoral strides achieved by PAS, whether in the magnitude or margin of victory at both parliamentary and state levels.

To the Chinese and non-Malay electorate, however,  artificial fears engineered by the National Front over possible  racial riots, economic instability and an Islamic State overshadowed sympathy and support over the plight and persecution of Anwar.

To sum up, for the short-term,  the Anwar factor  had three impacts on Malaysian politics:

Firstly, It shook up the face of Malaysian politics,  raising the question as to whether UMNO has become Malaysia's  political  Titanic struggling to keep afloat and whether it could reinvent and regain its legitimacy as the predominant party solely representative of the Malays.

Secondly, it created the conditions for the creation of a multi-ethnic, multi-religious Opposition Front covering the whole spectrum of Malaysian opposition politics, based on a common election platform for justice, democracy and good governance to break away from the traditional ethnic and religious "divide and rule" tactics of the National Front.

Thirdly, it positioned the issues of a clean, just, open and accountable government,  public and political integrity, the rule of law, an independent judiciary, a free press,  human rights,  democracy and a vibrant civil society  in the very centre of  the electoral agenda.

The long-term impact of the Anwar factor would depend on whether these three political effects could be sustained after the 1999 general election to create a new political scenario.

The political and legal persecution of Anwar, and his prolonged imprisonment for crimes in trials which are regarded as a travesty of justice by Malaysians as well as the international community,  will be a constant reminder to Malaysians of the gulf between human rights and human wrongs in the country, which the recently-formed National Commission of Human Rights under the chairmanship of former Deputy Prime Minister, Musa Hitam, would not be able to ameliorate.

The two greatest dangers in Malaysian politics in post-1999 general elections stem from UMNO's attempt to restore its predominant political position in Malaysian politics by winning back the Malay heartland -  the recommunalisation of Malaysian politics and competition with PAS  by stepping up Islamisation in a plural society.

In fact, this was what happened in the 1999 general elections. The Alternative  Front opposition parties were preaching and practising national unity encompassing the diversity of races and religions in Malaysia in the 1999 general elections, while it was the National Front  ruling parties - which had ruled the country for four decades -  which were sowing inter-racial and inter-religious distrust, suspicion and disunity, i.e. a throwback to the communal politics of the 80s and before.

Fully exploiting its control of the 3Ms, namely media, money and government machinery, the National Front sought to frighten the Malay and non-Malay voters with contradictory propaganda. On the one hand, the  Malays were warned that  DAP Plus PAS Equals Islam Hancur  (Destroyed). On the other, the  Chinese and non-Malays were warned that a vote for DAP was a vote for PAS and  an Islamic state  where  there would  no  pork, no alcohol, no temples, no churches, no karaokes, no Chinese schools, women will have to cover their heads,  beautiful women cannot find jobs and that there would be the  chopping of hands and feet - as well as the spectres of racial riots and economic convulsions.

By and large, the Malay voters did not take the bait but the  non-Malays particularly the Chinese voters fell victim to this campaign of falsehoods and fear of  the  National Front, explaining for the phenomenon in the 1999 general election  where the non-Malays were the strongest supporters of UMNO to seek protection from what they perceived were the threat of PAS  extremism which threatened their  religious freedom and way of life.

This must be a great irony. In 1991, Dr. Mahathir enunciated Vision 2020 and the concept of a Bangsa Malaysia within three decades with the emergence of a people entirely Malaysian in perspective, transcending ethnic, religious and cultural differences.  Ten years after this 30-year vision, the Opposition Front was spearheading this concept of a Bangsa Malaysia while the ruling National front was backtracking to a throwback of the politics of race and religion, desperately trying to keep Malaysians in their separate ethnic and religious compartments.

There are already signs that UMNO leaders may take the easy out to try to win back the Malay heartland by resorting to the recommunalisation of politics, by returning to calls for Malay unity which would have an adverse far-reaching effect not only on ethnic relations,  Malaysian nation-building but also Malaysia's economic future in the era of globalisation and information technology.

Such concerns are not misplaced as two days ago, an UMNO Minister urged young Malays to rediscover themselves through the "Malay agenda", lamenting that  many young Malay professionals did not know what the Malay agenda was or about the  struggles for the Malay  community. He said they should try and understand Article 153 of the Constitution to find out what the agenda was all about.

One would have thought that with more than one-third passage of the 30-year Vision 2020 and a Bangsa Malaysia, Malaysian leaders particularly those in government should be talking more about the Malaysian agenda, rather than to go  back in time to resurrect the Malay agenda, the Chinese agenda or the Indian agenda.

Both these dangers, the recommunalisation of Malaysian politics and UMNO competition with PAS at Islamisation of a plural society are strong reasons why great efforts should be made to ensure that the Alternative Front operates as a multi-ethnic and multi-religious check against these two dangerous trends which go against  the whole concept of a Bangsa Malaysia of the  Vision of 2020 as well as bring in their train, even more authoritarian governance and violation of fundamental liberties.

The Alternative Front should go even further - to refute by words and deeds the two spectres which the National Front had tried to frighten  Malaysian voters in the recent general elections, that on the one hand, that DAP's participation  would mean the destruction of Islam while on the  other hand, that PAS would  end of religious and cultural freedoms as well as lead to  the subjugation of the non-Muslims in Malaysia.

If the Alternative Front can lay these spectres to rest and project in particular that the Political Islam represented by PAS is an Islam of tolerance and justice which is fully compatible with democracy, open and accountable government and cultural pluralism, then there will be a flowering of human rights and democracy in Malaysia in the new century.

After all, Malaysia is not like  Iraq or Iran which  are overwhelmingly Islamic  nations whose Muslim people ranges from 95 to 97 per cent of their population. In Malaysia, less than 60 per cent of the population are Muslims and it cannot be said that the majority of the Muslims support the concept of an Islamic state for Malaysia.

I do not know whether the Alternative Front can succeed in this goal but it should certainly try - which will be the best legacy for the Anwar political upheaval for the country.


*Lim Kit Siang - DAP National Chairman