Challenges of Opposition Politics in Malaysia – to check growing authoritarianism and re-polarisation of race and religion in Malaysian politics

Paper  on "Challenges of Opposition Politics in Malaysia".
- at the 2nd Australia-Malaysia Conference held at  Australian National University, Canberra May 24-26, 2000 
Lim Kit Siang

(Canberra, Australia, Thursday): Many Malaysians had hoped that the recent tenth Malaysian general elections in November last year would be a watershed event, not to topple from power the UMNO-dominated  governing coalition which had ruled the country since independent nationhood for over four decades, but to create a paradigm shift in Malaysian politics by breaking the National Front’s political hegemony by ending its uninterrupted two-thirds parliamentary majority.

For the first time in Malaysian electoral history, a single multi-ethnic and multi-religious opposition front, the Alternative Front, was formed to challenge the political hegemony of the National Front coalition, comprising four political opposition parties, PAS, National Justice Party,  the People’s Party (PRM) and the Democratic Action Party covering a wide spectrum of political and class  interests.

This was not the first time that Opposition parties in Malaysia had co-operated in  general elections, as for instance, the electoral pacts among the Opposition parties in the west coast states of Peninsular Malaysia  in 1969 involving the Democratic Action Party, Parti Gerakan and People’s Progressive Party and the two-limb Opposition co-operation in 1990 where Parti Semangat 46 was the common factor in two Opposition groupings, one with DAP, PRM and other non-Malay parties (GAGASAN) and the other with PAS and other Muslim-based parties (ANGKATAN PERPADUAN UMMAH – APU).

But this was the first time that a single Opposition front had emerged covering such a wide spectrum of political interests – particularly involving PAS and the DAP.

Until 1998, both PAS and DAP leaders would avoid being seen on the same platform because of the success of the long-standing National Front campaign of demonisation of the two parties through the tightly-controlled mass media – portraying  the DAP as being anti-Malay and anti-Islam while PAS as being intolerant, extremist and fanatical.

The political ferment and efferverscence unleashed by the Anwar Ibrahim  event initiated a sea-change calling into question such a demonisation of the Opposition parties, although  the process of  challenging such a  baseless and malicious political stereotyping of the  Opposition parties had started well before the Anwar Ibrahim affair, as illustrated in the case of the then  DAP Member of Parliament Lim Guan Eng.

Guan Eng was the first national political leader in four decades of Malaysian nationhood who crossed ethnic and religious boundaries, not just by words but by deed. A three-term  ethnic Chinese Malaysian Member of Parliament, Guan Eng sacrificed his political career in the defence of the rights  and dignity of an  underaged Malay girl victim of statutory rape,  resulting in his own arrest, prosecution, imprisonment, adoption by Amnesty International as "prisoner of conscience" for the second time,  disqualification as MP and disenfranchisment of his political and civil rights for five years until August 2004.

It was the Anwar Ibrahim factor, however, which had the greatest catalytic effect in creating the political conditions making it possible for the coming together of a multi-ethnic and multi-religious opposition front, for the public outrage and revulsion at how the second highest political leader in the land, heir-apparent and anointed as the fifth Prime Minister of the country, could overnight be treated as the most notorious criminal in the country, suborning all independent organs of government and flouting all concepts of fair play and justice, ignited a political awakening and uprising, especially in the Malay society and the young generation of Malays.

It was a vivid and potent reminder and example that no Malaysian can be assured of justice, fair play and even common decency so long as all the powerful  apparatus of government had been subverted to serve, not  the interests of the people and nation,  but the powers-that-be  and the Prime Minister.

This was another reason why the Alternative Front was different from earlier efforts at opposition co-operation –  formulating a common manifesto spelling out the agendas and priority concerns of the component parties. 

Alternative Front common manifesto

The common manifesto, entitled "Towards A Just Malaysia",  declared that the "biggest challenge facing the people of Malaysia is the creation of a just and democratic country".  It focussed on the "political crisis" facing the country, resulting from "a government which concentrates power in the Executive, in a single individual in particular, thus crippling our system of checks and balances".

The manifesto said:

The Alternative Front pledged to create "A Just and Democratic Malaysia" with Malaysians of all races and all levels of society resolute in their desire for change and  to give birth to a system of governance that:
  The Alternative Front stressed that the "just and democratic society" will be  based on the  fundamental spiritual and ethical values that are part of the teachings of Islam and other  great religions which have made Malaysia their home so as to  provide the bastion against corruption, unbridled greed and moral decay.

The Alternative Front committed itself to uphold the fundamental principles of the Malaysian Constitution, namely:

Before spelling out in detail its action plan and programme in  the common manifesto, the Alternative Front pledged to:
  The last general election was therefore the most ambitious and wide-ranging attempt on the part of the Opposition in Malaysian politics to come up with a coherent and united front  undergirded by a common election manifesto to take on the National Front juggernaut to cut it down to size by denying its parliamentary two-thirds majority.

However, it was not to be, as the National Front secured its two-thirds parliamentary majority. Although it won 56 per cent of the national vote, National Front secured 76 per cent of the parliamentary seats – thanks to the undemocratic electoral system, whether in  the gerrymandering of the constituencies, the unfair preparation and revision of the electoral register which denied 680,000 young voters the right to exercise their constitutional right to vote in the last general election, electoral abuses like postal and phantom voters, and the 3Ms in the control of the National Front  - mass media, money politics and government machinery.

Election 1999 - UMNO's legitimacy as  representative of the Malays challenged

In the general elections, UMNO was the greatest casualty in the National Front and for the first time, UMNO had less parliamentary seats than the other coalition parties combined.

The   National Front  won 148 seats out of a total of 193 seats in the 1999 general elections, a 13-seat reduction  as compared to  161  in 1995,  but  UMNO itself lost 16 seats winning  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.

The National Front was more effective in securing the non-Malay, in particular, the Chinese voter support.

While UMNO was the biggest loser in the National Front, the DAP was the biggest loser in the Alternative Front.

Ironically, 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, while it was  the National Front  ruling parties - which had ruled the country for four decades - were sowing inter-racial and inter-religious distrust, suspicion and disunity, i.e. a throwback and regression  to the communal politics of the 80s and before.

The National Front  conducted a very dishonest campaign of fear and falsehoods,  telling the Malays that DAP Plus PAS Equals Islam Hancur  (Destroyed) while warning the Chinese and non-Malays that a vote for DAP is a vote for PAS and  an Islamic state  where  there will be  no  pork, no alcohol, no temples, no churches, no karaokes, no Chinese schools, no lipsticks for women, women will have to cover their heads,  beautiful women cannot find jobs and that there would be the  chopping of hands and feet.

The short nine-day campaign period, coupled with the virtual National Front monopoly of the mass media, both printed and electronic, did not permit the Alternative Front to expose the chicanery of the National Front’s  self-contradictory dual propaganda line – on the one hand raising the spectre of the destruction of  Islam among the Muslims while on the other, raising the spectre of the  end of the cultural and religious rights and freedoms of the non-Malay Muslims arising from the one and same Opposition front comprising  DAP and PAS – apart from other "fear" trump-cards such as the specture of another May 13 riots, economic instability and no economic recovery.

It vindicated what the Prime Minister, Dr. Mahathir Mohamad had publicly forecast a few months before polls – that the tenth general election will be the "dirtiest election in history".

This campaign is reminiscent of the UMNO coup de grace in the 1990 general election campaign when in the final lap of the campaign, all the printed and electronic media were mobilised to portray Semangat 46 President and Dr. Mahathir Mohamad’s challenger,  Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah as having sold out the Malay race and betrayed Islam with the purported evidence of Razaleigh’s wearing the traditional Sabah headgear bearing the sign of the Christian cross, when they represented padi grains and Mahathir had himself donned a similar headgear during his visit to Sabah a few days earlier – resulting in massive defeats for Semangat 46 candidates who had until then been very optimistic of election victories.

By and large, the Malay voters did not take the bait in the 1999 general elections but the  non-Malays particularly the Chinese voters fell victim to this campaign of falsehoods and fear of  the  National Front, resulting in an outcome where PAS was the biggest winner in the Alternative Front,  securing unprecedented electoral victories emerging as the largest  Parliamentary opposition with 27 MPs  and  capturing the Terengganu state government in addition to Kelantan.

If the non-Malay voters had not been swayed by the National Front campaign of fear and falsehoods, particularly over DAP’s co-operation with PAS and the Islamic state issue, and had given their electoral support to the Alternative Front’s call for justice, freedom, democracy and good governance, the political hegemony of the  National Front could have been broken as the Opposition was only 20 parliamentary seats short of  depriving the National Front of its two-thirds parliamentary majority.

The question is what is the future and what are the challenges of Opposition politics in Malaysia in the new millennium, whether the Alternative Front is viable or its component parties will go their separate ways with the end of the 1999 general election.

Post 1999 election: greater arbitrary and authoritarian rule

Although the Alternative Front failed to deny the National Front its two-thirds parliamentary majority, post-election developments would indicate that it is  imperative that efforst be made  to deepen and strengthen the first multi-ethnic and multi-religious Opposition front to lay the basis for the creation of a two-coalition, if not a two-party, political system.

The last six months have shown that the Prime Minister, Datuk Seri Dr. Mahathir Mohamad is not prepared to respond positively to the result of the general elections, or to concede, as stated by his long-term challenger both inside and outside UMNO, Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah, "that what the people want is not just physical development but also freedom".

Far from introducing political and democratic reforms, the worst excesses in his 19-year rule could be exceeded in what he himself said would be his last term as Prime Minister, whether it be the  lack of accountability and transparency as in the long catalogue of economic and financial scandals; concentration of power through usurpation of the role and function of other independent organs of government, whether Parliament, judiciary, office of attorney-general, election commission, anti-corruption agency, auditor-general’s office, etc or the violation of human rights and democratic freedoms.

In fact, in the past six months we have seen a lurch towards greater arbitrary and authoritarian rule, including actions  not even seen in the past 19 years, such as:

It is a sad commentary that the damning report "Justice in Jeopardy: Malaysia 2000" was virtually ignored by the National Front government, although it was an update  of the relentless deterioration of the system of justice and the marginalisation of the fundamental rights of Malaysians  as documented by the 1989 report "Malaysia: Assault on the Judiciary" and a  1995 book: "Freedom under Executive Power in Malaysia - A Study of Executive Supremacy", by Dr. Rais Yatim, who has since returned to the Cabinet as Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department with specific responsibility over law and justice.

The findings and recommendations of  "Justice in Jeopardy: Malaysia 2000" had in fact been foreshadowed by Rais himself, in  his study of the conflict between the rule of law and executive power in Malaysia in his book, Freedom under Executive Power in Malaysia (1995)  -  which gave an account as to  how the supremacy of the executive had rendered  subservient the judiciary, Parliament and the  basic rights of the citizens.

"Justice in Jeopardy: Malaysia 2000" is testimony that Rais’ fears in his 1995  book that "the future of the rule  of law and human rights in Malaysia is dismal", that "the independence of the judiciary is merely illusory" and that "The executive has come to occupy a truly supreme position that renders the other segments of government – Parliament and the judiciary – subservient to it"  are being borne out by recent events.

The state of democracy and human rights in Malaysia in the year 2000 is in a worse position today than that described by Rais in his study which was published in 1995, and from the events of the past six months, it is clear that things are going to get worse before they  can get better.

The strengthening of an united opposition is one important reason why the multi-ethnic and multi-religious opposition front formed before the last general election should be strengthened and consolidated  to provide the bulwark against the further erosion of fundamental rights and freedoms in the country.

"Where did we go wrong?"

There are two other reasons why it is essential that serious attempts must be made to ensure that the mult-ethnic and multi-religious opposition front launched before the 1999 general election should be sustained – to break down the old "divide and rule" politics dominated by race and religion and replace it with an all-embracing issues-centred politics to create a just and democratic Malaysia.

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

Recently, one  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 the themes of racial and religious re-polarisation were exploited in the recent UMNO, UMNO Youth and UMNO Women General Assemblies.

Addressing the joint UMNO Youth and Women general assemblies, Deputy Prime Minister and Deputy UMNO President, Datuk Seri Abdullah Badawi asked why UMNO faced opposition from the young Malay generation when it had created a successful young Malay generation. He asked: "How could this have happened. Where did we go wrong?"

It seems to be beyond the comprehension of the UMNO leaders that the new generation of Malays could be committed to the aspirations and ideals of justice, freedom, democracy and good governance, in wanting more democratic space for Malaysians, to have a free press, an independent judiciary, public integrity and a serious war against corruption, cronyism and nepotism.

Enemies of Islam

Abdullah’s only answer was to return to the call on Malays to unite behind UMNO,  declaring that the political programme of PAS was tantamount to a criminal act against Islam.

Dr. Mahathir in his speech at the UMNO General Assembly dwelt on the same themes of racial and religious re-polarisation.

One part of Mahathir’s speech, for instance,  caused grave concern and offence  because of its implications for nation-building in a multi-racial, multi-religious, multi-lingual and multi-cultural Malaysia.  In his UMNO Presidential Address, Mahathir had said:

Non-Muslim Malaysians who had co-operated with PAS in the  Alternative Front in the last general elections to restore justice and democracy cannot but ask themselves  whether they are the "enemies of Islam" referred to by Mahathir and if so the implications of such a new UMNO approach.

One effective way to check the  dual dangers of a re-polarisation of race and religion in Malaysian politics is the emergence and strengthening of the multi-ethnic and multi-religious  Alternative Front to rein in  these dangerous trends which go against  the whole concept of a Bangsa Malaysia of the  Vision of 2020.

However, for the Alternative Front to succeed, it must lay to rest 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 is anti-Malay and anti-Islam which wants to see the  destruction of Islam while on the  other hand, that PAS is extremist and fanatical and wants to end the  religious, cultural and political rights and  freedoms  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.

The component parties in the Alternative Front must learn, and learn fast,  from the lessons of the last general election.

The Alternative Front will have tio debunk, in the shortest possible time, the baseless fears of the non-Malays that DAP’s co-operation with PAS would lead to the denial of the cultural and religious rights and freedoms.

It will also have to  allay their legitimate concerns and objections to an Islamic state, not because they are anti-Islam but because they will not be able to exercise their full citizenship rights in such a system of governance and  their belief that a theocratic state, whether Islamic, Buddhist, Christian or Hindu would be inappropriate for a plural society like Malaysia.

In the last general election, the DAP in particular and the Alternative Front in general had learnt to their cost that it was not adequate for the Opposition parties in the Alternative Front to reach a common accord on a wide spectrum of subjects to achieve a just and democratic society, while controversial issues, such as an Islamic State are avoided or deferred.

There are issues like  Islamic state which do not lend themselves to rational discussion and resolution, such as arguing that an Islamic State was not on the cards in Malaysia, as it would require a constitutional amendment requiring two-thirds parliamentary majority and that PAS on its own was fielding less than one-third of the parliamentary seats and could not on its own get one-third let alone two-thirds parliamentary majority.  Such rational arguments were blown to the winds when baseless fears of a primordial nature, as having no pork, no alcohol, no temples, no churches, no Chinese schools, women have to cover up or will have no jobs, were drummed up by the National Front propaganda.

If the Alternative Front is to make increasing political impact in Malaysia, this is one of the critical issues which must be addressed and resolved so that all component parties can feel comfortable and be the basis not only to regain lost ground but to win new support.

Malaysia the microcosm for an inter-religious and inter-civilisational dialogue

After the general election, the DAP had taken the initiative to organise inter-party, inter-political, inter-religious and inter-civilisational dialogues to build greater inter-racial, inter-political and inter-religious understanding in Malaysia. These are only the first steps of a journey of a thousand miles.

It is hoped that through these inter-religious and inter-civilisational dialogues, which should be held in all parts of the country so as to reach as large a section of the population as possible, there will be  a greater understanding among Malaysians of different races, religions and cultures, firstly, that  the Political Islam represented by PAS has nothing to do with violence,  extremism or fanaticism, that it is not oppressive against women and minorities, compatible with religious  and cultural pluralism, respect for human rights and tolerance in general, that it espouses political liberalisation and democracy to promote the development of the civil society – the institutions, values and culture that are the foundations of a truly participatory government;and  secondly, that the secular governance espoused by the DAP is not atheist, anti-Islam, or anti-religion but trans-religion.

Presently, a great debate is raging in the Muslim world, even  in predominantly Muslim countries, like Iran about the proper role of religion, politics and society.  Malaysia is not Iran as it has a Muslim population of slightly over 50 per cent, and its system of governance must be one which accord full citizenship rights of the non-Muslims in the country.

Last week, another path-breaking breakthrough was chalked up when the PAS spiritual leader Tuan Guru Nik Aziz Nik Mat had a dialogue with a group of Christians – the Conference of Churches in Malaysia – and insisted that his party believes not in an Islamic state ("negara Islam") so much as an Islamic community ("masyarakat Islam"), accepting the limited role of an Islamic state in a multi-racial country, especially with a non-Muslim population of just under half its 22 million people.

His message of compassion and fair play in Islam, and implication that an Islamic State is not a practical option in a society where PAS, could not on its own, get a two-thirds majority to amend the Constitution lay the basis for consolidation of multi-ethnic and multi-religious Opposition Front.

 If  the Alternative Front can contribute to  a new politics based on the issues of justice, freedom, democracy and good governance and move away from the old politics dominated by race and religion, bridging the different races, cultures and religions in the country, then it would be making a signal breakthrough  not only in political development but in nation-building.

The inter-civilisational dialogue which has been initiated by the Alternative Front is most apt and in keeping with the times, as the year 2001 has been designated the UN Year of Dialogue among Civilisations by the General Assembly on the proposal of the Iranian President Mohammad Khatami.

Khatami had expressed the hope  that through a dialogue among civilisations "the realisation of universal justice and liberty may be initiated."

It emphasises the "importance of tolerance in international relations and the significant role of dialogue as a means to reach understanding, remove threats to peace and strengthen interaction and exchange among civilisations."

Malaysia can be the microcosm for an inter-religious and inter-civilisational dialogue to set an example of  a political system where diverses races, religions and cultures can build a political architecture where there is justice, freedom, democracy, good governance in an environment of religious and cultural tolerance and pluralism and where labels like "enemies of Islam" are not hurled just because the targets belong to different faiths and political beliefs.


*Lim Kit Siang - DAP National Chairman