Malaysia's New Opposition Party

Introduced not only by the country's national anthem, but also to the strains of the Rolling Stones' "I can't get no satisfaction," Malaysia's newest political party was officially launched at the Sime Darby Convention Centre in Kuala Lumpur Wednesday.

Kita, the People's Welfare Party, announced its president, Zaid Ibrahim, aims "to bring back the politics of goodwill and compromise that started this nation 54 years ago... so that politics and public service can be made honorable once again."

Neither of the current alternatives would do, he said. The governing Barisan Nasional coalition "will always be autocratic and authoritarian," while the opposition led by Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim "says and does whatever it takes for the sake of winning elections."

There was grand, idealistic talk of defending the secular nature of the 1957 constitution, ending discrimination, fighting ideas of "superiority and hegemony" (a reference to the Malay supremacists who would consign the country's Chinese and Indian citizens to permanent second-class status) and ensuring that there were "equal opportunities for all, regardless of caste, colour or creed."

Big words indeed for a new party, however laudable – especially given that the Barisan and its predecessor, the Alliance, centered around three parties representing the country's main races, the Malays, Chinese and Indians, have won every national election since independence. Many would ask, too, why Zaid needs to start another party. Doesn't the opposition coalition, Pakatan Rakyat, stand for more or less the same program as Kita? Moreover, Pakatan's success at the 2008 general election, when it won control of five of Malaysia's 13 states and denied the Barisan the two thirds supermajority in parliament that had allowed it to amend the constitution, is in the past.

Now that the political tsunami has receded, there is much debris left behind for Pakatan to deal with. In February 2009 it lost one state, Perak, back to the Barisan. There have been constant disagreements and bickering over the demands of one of its constituent parties, the Islamist PAS, for hudud (Islamic) laws and an Islamic state to be implemented if they came to power – anathema to its left-leaning coalition partner, the mainly Chinese Democratic Action Party.

Meanwhile Anwar, the leader of Pakatan's other member, Parti Keadilan Rakyat, and of the opposition overall, remains bogged down in another sodomy trial. (The first was after he was fired as deputy prime minister to Dr Mahathir in 1998, and resulted in a conviction, subsequently overturned. The latest charges surfaced in 2008 and led to the current trial which has been going on since last February and shows no sign of ending; it is due to resume next month).

Shouldn't Zaid be doing all he can to help Pakatan Rakyat rather than setting up a new party that will appeal to the same constituency, thereby risking splitting precious opposition votes?

It would be fair to say that Zaid divides opinion. The founder of the country's biggest law firm and renowned for his outspoken defense of human rights, Zaid was hailed as proof that the Barisan was serious about reform when he was appointed by then Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi as Law Minister in March 2008. He resigned after six months over the continued use of Malaysia's draconian Internal Security Act, and was welcomed into the ranks of Anwar's Parti Keadilan Rakyat the following June.

Last month, however, he quit PKR as well in a row over internal party elections. While standing for the deputy presidency in November, Zaid alleged serious irregularities with the voting process and turned angrily on Anwar. The election was being rigged and PKR had become a vehicle for its leader and his cronies, he said, adding that the current accusations of sodomy against him were undermining the opposition's cause. As if that wasn't enough, Zaid told me in an interview after his resignation that he thought Anwar was "guilty as hell" in any case.

Some have accused Zaid of arrogance and poor judgment. PKR didn't end up looking like furthering his own ambitions, goes the argument, so he has set up a party (technically, relaunched and renamed a tiny previous grouping) that will. On the other hand, PKR's whiter-than-white reformasi mantle is now beginning to appear striped with dynastic purple now that the party is led by Anwar, its president is his wife, and has as one of its new vice presidents his daughter.

And Zaid's ruthlessly honest analysis of Malaysia's problems, particularly the need for a re-evaluation of the position of the Malays, his calls to an end to rent-seeking and for the building of a new meritocracy that does not unduly stress race or religion, is almost unmatched. Perhaps the only other Malay politician to advance something similar convincingly is Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah, the veteran finance minister who is, unusually for an UMNO MP, fondly regarded and admired across the spectrum. Significantly, he wrote the preface to Zaid's latest book, "I, too, am Malay".

What are its chances? Kita has already been dismissed as a "mosquito" party – a minor irritant, but whose bite has no significant impact. Asked what effect it would be likely to have, one leading UMNO MP said it would have none, apart from appealing "to a few people in Bangsar" – a dismissive reference to the Kuala Lumpur enclave with a long and occasionally notorious reputation for liberalism and permissiveness.

If that is brave UMNO talk, the opposition coalition may have more worries. Even if Kita does not field many candidates in the next general election – its ambition in that field is so small that Zaid admitted to me that they may not win "any seats at all" – in Peninsular Malaysia, it could still cost Pakatan dear.

The key industrial state of Selangor, for instance, is already on a knife edge. The Pakatan state government has dealt poorly with a number of issues recently, appearing divided and handing the Barisan propaganda victories over signs bearing the logo of Prime Minister Najib's 1Malaysia policy, the question of whether Muslims should be allowed to work in establishments that serve alcohol, and the appointment of a new state secretary that has led them, disastrously, to be portrayed as being disrespectful to Selangor's sultan. It is not implausible that a few votes siphoned off to Kita could lose Pakatan its proudest gain of the 2008 election.

Zaid's goal, however, is more both more modest and yet more ambitious than insults suggest. His "moderate, democratic and liberal" party, he conceded, was not about to try to win the next general election. "We are in this for the long haul," he said. "Kita is not just a political party; it's a movement, it's an ethos to be handed down to future generations. This is about real change in the way we do business. Because what we have now just isn't working."

And he does have a plan. "The answer is the middle class here," he told me during our interview. Well, that's Bangsar at least.

For a more imminent change, he said, look east. "The answer is Sarawak and Sabah." He elaborated yesterday. The people of Malaysia's Borneo states, who have provided a "fixed deposit" for the Barisan government in terms of MPs for decades, should stop voting "for a regime that has denied them for the best part of our independent years."

Far more non-Malay and non-Muslim than the Peninsula, but with considerable numbers of the indigenous peoples who are legally privileged along with the Malays as bumiputras – sons of the soil, they can be "the lynchpin of change," said Zaid. "They can determine if Malaysia is to remain a cosmopolitan multi-ethnic democracy or be ruled by the politics of hegemony. They can determine if Malaysia is to remain a free, secular democracy or a tyranny of the majority."

Zaid has not only a plan, but an ally in the person of Jeffrey Kitingan, a former PKR vice president who announced the formation of the United Borneo Front to campaign for a better deal for Sarawak and Sabah on the same day Zaid unveiled news of Kita last month.

As Kitingan pointed out recently: "West Malaysians take up 166 seats in parliament which are fragmented almost 50/50 after the 2008 elections. If all 56 Sabah and Sarawak MPs amalgamated and had the Borneo Agenda at the forefront of their hearts and their minds, they will be able to have a greater say in parliament."

All pie-in-the-sky? Maybe. But look at the proposals so far, and what you find is a new, loose alliance that speaks to a genuinely multiracial audience, that promises to safeguard but also give a fairer deal to all bumiputra, whether Malay or not, while ending discriminatory practices against Chinese and Indians and acknowledging their contribution to Malaysia. Oh, and guaranteeing the superiority of civil law over shariah courts and protecting freedom of religion.

Zaid talked a lot yesterday about the country's founding prime minister, the genial, tolerant Tunku Abdul Rahman. Actually, he is going further than the Tunku would ever have dared in terms of urging a unity that does not over-privilege one section of society, or its faith, over another. It sounded, in fact, rather a lot like a new Malaysia. Were it not already the title of someone else's policy, he could even have called it a One Malaysia. Now there's a thought....

Sholto Byrnes is a contributing editor of the New Statesman (UK) and divides his time between London and Kuala Lumpur.