Malaysia's Witless Opposition Flubs Reform Offer

Anwar’s ambition dooms a chance at transformation

By: Cyril Pereira

Malaysia’s opposition Pakatan Harapan coalition lost a rare chance for radical political overhaul when it turned down an offer by the now-ousted Muhyiddin Yassin, who pivoted desperately at the last minute to the Chinese-dominated Democratic Action Party to prop him up. His back to the wall, he was ready to deal.

The DAP enjoys a strong Chinese urban support base from mass defections of the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA), the United Malays National Organization’s coalition partner since independence in 1957. MCA leaders leveraged crony contracts, became tycoons and lost credibility with their neglected Chinese electorate.

UMNO and the Islamic party PAS have forever slandered the DAP as an existential threat to Malays and Islam. Muhyiddin once famously declared “I am Malay first, and Malaysian second.” Ismail Sabri Yaakob, the new PM, has repeatedly urged Malays to boycott Chinese shops. Muhyiddin turning to the DAP was a stark sink-or-swim choice after UMNO withdrew its support, dooming his Perikatan Nasional coalition. Gutter politics is all about expediency and survival, where Muhyiddin is a seasoned gamer.

Over intense sessions with Tony Pua and Ong Kian Ming of the DAP, Muhyiddin ceded far-reaching reforms: inclusive governance; an anti-party-hopping law; a two-term limit for prime ministers; voting eligibility lowered to age 18; opposition MPs on parliamentary select committees; and no meddling in the corruption cases of UMNO leaders. Muhyiddin would have had to implement them if the opposition gave him block support for a majority till GE15. It was their hand on the drop lever.

Opposition spurns reform

For a country trapped in narrow political self-enrichment and waste for six decades, it would have been a quantum leap. Perhaps it all happened too fast. Wisdom was missing. The Pakatan Harapan (Alliance of Hope) camp rejected the deal as “insincere” since Muhyiddin didn’t pursue reform during his emergency rule. That is an oxymoron. He never had to. Opposition leader Anwar “I have the numbers” Ibrahim suffers serial delusions of being prime minister too. Denied the prop, Muhyiddin exited, taking all the reform balloons with him.

The DAP, Parti Keadilan Rakyat and Amanah, (minus Mahathir Mohamad, who resigned a year and a half ago and brought down the coalition) staged a photo op to show unity in rejecting Muhyiddin’s offer, which was a lifetime gift to the nation, too hastily spurned. There was nothing for these duffers to cheer or be proud of. They fluffed a golden opportunity for citizens. And Anwar could not be further from the PM’s chair. His futile personal ambition cost the country.

The PH coalition lacks a coherent strategy. That was obvious even when they held power, after the GE14 of 2018. They were cowed by Mahathir. The man had thrown Lim Kit Siang, Lim Guan Eng, and Anwar into jail for challenging him. They had stage fright facing the headmaster. They let him overrule consensus decisions. Mahathir sidelined the PH reform manifesto and sabotaged the government he was entrusted to lead. His Malay-agenda demons returned to haunt him, even at 94.

He dispatched his Bersatu (United Indigenous Party) deputy Muhyiddin to stitch an all-Malay coalition with UMNO and PAS. Muhyiddin instead seized leadership of the turncoats. Mahathir resigned abruptly, without consulting his partners, collapsing the PH government. Muhyiddin’s double-cross was off-script. He sought endorsement from the Palace, securing an emergency mandate under the Covid-19 crisis. Muhyiddin deftly ducked a test of his parliamentary majority for 16 months.

Flush the Old Guard

Anwar’s PKR (People’s Justice Party) lost a breakaway faction to Muhyiddin. There is resentment in the ranks for his high-handed solo decision-making style, arbitrary sackings, interference in party polls, and habit of air-dropping candidates for national elections without consultation. He has articulated no vision to rally his party members or the nation around a meaningful national purpose. He vacillates.

If anything, Anwar’s jiving with felon Najib Razak and UMNO president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, both facing scores of corruption and money laundering charges, turns wary citizens off. The country seeks a principled leader to stop the rot. Given the game of numbers, support from Sabah and Sarawak is critical. Anwar is not welcome in Sarawak and has no electoral cache in Sabah. He is not accepted in the heartland of peninsular Malaya either – a crippling weakness for the opposition.

The DAP is undergoing generational discord too. The father-son tandem of Lim Kit Siang and Lim Guan Eng has an autocratic streak that grates and is deemed to have overstayed. The multiracial youth pushing for active roles, devolution of power and open debate want to be taken seriously. DAP leaders botched the GE14 opportunity. DAP youth are outraged that hate-preacher Zakir Naik has not been evicted for his racist and religious calumny and extradited to face money laundering and terrorism charges in India.

There is a growing sentiment within the PKR, the DAP and the electorate in general that these aging leaders have failed and should be replaced. They want a clean-out of the Old Guard, for fresh faces and new energy. They want an inclusive nation-building that goes beyond race, religion and cronyism. They want consultative leadership by the most competent, for the good of all.

Covid-19 brings clarity

One wholly unexpected consequence of the Covid-19 tragedy is it opened the eyes of the trusting electorate to the venality of the country’s political leaders. They saw how little the political class cared for the people as families mourned the deaths of loved ones, suffered neglect in overflowing hospitals and were financially paralyzed by loss of income from the lockdowns. Stressed families raised white flags for food. Concerned neighbors rushed to help.

The frontline doctors, nurses, and medical assistants lacked beds, oxygen tanks and relief from exhaustion. They could not cope. Doctors had to choose whom they allow to die. The disconnected administration stalled extending tenure for the temporary doctors on short contracts. Even then, there was foolish talk of racial preferences in contract conversions for the harassed young doctors risking their lives. Governance was surreal under these dire circumstances. Incompetence, mismanagement, and lack of leadership, magnified trust deficit in government and the politicians.

As citizens reeled from the chaos and panic, the pampered, chauffeured politicians, ignoring Covid-SOPs, scrambled for power, meeting endlessly to haggle government budget allocations, perks and chairmanship sinecures at government-linked companies. This betrayal of citizens in despair by politicians trusted to look after them is unlikely to be forgotten. A youth generation voting for the first time, will constitute 25 percent of voters at GE15. They are information-savvy. They may yet hold accountable and rout these self-serving MPs in 2023.

That may begin a long-overdue correction to the self-defeating racist policies, unsustainable mediocrity, rampant corruption and incompetence in the nation’s institutions of state and society, of the last six decades. The angry social media videos of youth calling out the fakery of senior politicians is a new phenomenon. It portends bubbling demand for equity and integrity, from the beneficiaries of the system. The old con of defending race and religion may not work much longer, for entitled politicians bilking state coffers.

Cyril Pereira is Hong Kong-based and a long-time contributor to Asia Sentinel.