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

Extract  of  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): 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.

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:

One important reason why the strengthening of an united opposition is important is to provide the bulwark against the further erosion of fundamental rights and freedoms in the country.

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.

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.

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."

"If humanity at the threshold of the new century and millennium devotes all efforts to institutionalize dialogue, replacing hostility and confrontation with discourse and understanding, it would leave an invaluable legacy for the benefit of future generations," Khatami said.

The  General Assembly resolution designating 2001 as the UN Year of Dialogue among Civilisations  recognised the "diverse civilisational achievements of mankind, crystallising cultural pluralism and creative human diversity."

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