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7 burning questions for the new Malaysia

by: Oon Yeoh

Going into the general election, the conventional wisdom was that Barisan Nasional would win again. It was thought that the power of incumbency was too strong. BN had too many things tilted in its favour, not least of which was the gerrymandering which carved out constituencies in its favour. Everyone you talked to would say: "Hard lah for Pakatan to win". Yet, win it did in spite of all the disadvantages it faced (and there were plenty).

Dr Mahathir was not the only reason Pakatan won but he was a key reason. It's fair to say without Dr M joining Pakatan, this victory would not have happened. He was the catalyst that really turned the tide in favor of the opposition. Both Anwar and Kit Siang got brickbats for joining hands with their former nemesis but they were pragmatists. They understood that they needed something special if they ever wanted to wrest Putrajaya from Najib and gang. So they adopted the policy of "the enemy of my enemy is my friend." And their gamble paid off big time. 

The non-Malays, especially the Chinese, were already solidly pro-Pakatan. And it was widely assumed that East Malaysia (Sabah and Sarawak) would remain BN's fixed deposits. The unknown factor was how the Malays in the peninsula would vote.

The assumption about the Chinese proved to be correct. MCA and Gerakan were pretty much wiped out. The assumption about East Malaysia however was not correct. Sabah nearly fell to Pakatan and the opposition made solid inroads into Sarawak. And, as we now know, the Malays in the peninsula ended up voting  against BN (the West Coast went for Pakatan while the East Coast went for PAS). 

Najib famously coined the phrase "Chinese Tsunami" in the last election. Many were wondering whether there would be a Malay Tsunami this time around. Turns out it was a Malaysian Tsunami that ended six decades of BN rule. 

Most Malaysians could not believe it when the magic "112" (number of parliamentary seats) was achieved by Pakatan. As the night wore on, that number continued rising. In the end, Pakatan (which comprised PKR, DAP, Amanah, Bersatu and Warisan) got at total of 121 seats. If you include the Pakatan-backed independent P Prabakaran, you have a grand total of 122, which is a comfortable majority.  

Immediately there was speculation that BN would join forces with PAS to try to form a majority. But if you do the math, you can see that this clearly was not enough. BN had 79 seats and PAS 18. Together that's 97. There was even talk that BN would try to convince Warisan to switch camps. Although that was pretty ridiculous considering how badly BN had treated Warisan-president Shafie Apdal, for the sake of discussion let's consider such a scenario. Still not enough. Warisan, with its eight seats would raise the total to 105. Still seven seats short of a majority. There was simply no way BN could shore up enough seats to form a majority. It was game over. 

In light of this new era in Malaysian politics, here are seven key questions worth pondering.

1. Will Malaysia's political system go back to a one-party (coalition) rule situation?

BN was an overwhelmingly dominant force in Malaysian politics for more than half a century. Until very recently, Malaysia was effectively a one-party system. Even though the opposition started making significant inroads two election cycles ago, the component parties were often bickering among themselves. PAS even left the coalition and started becoming chummy with BN. It was only in GE14 that the opposition (sans PAS) was able to unite under one common symbol (PKR's logo) and compete as a cohesive (though not formal) coalition. 

Now that it has won power, will Pakatan grow to become such a dominant force that it will eventually reduce BN to being a token opposition (much like how Pakatan component parties were for much of Malaysia's history)? 

Very likely. How can this be so if BN has 79 MPs? This is not a lot but it's not a tiny number either. The thing is, over time this number will only decline. It might not even take until the next election cycle for that figure to drop as some MPs might start to jump ship. Even if BN can hold on to most of its MPs until the next election, in GE15 that number will dwindle. BN will not only lose more federal seats, it will lose more state seats too in the next election.

Just look at the situations in Penang and Selangor to see what will become of BN throughout nationwide. Once those states fell to Pakatan there was no chance of it ever going back to BN. The thing is BN had become so thoroughly despised that it was not hard for Pakatan to become grow more and more deeply entrenched in the states that it won. This will happen at the state level and it will happen at the federal level too. BN, including UMNO, will be reduced to becoming the mosquito parties that Pakatan components used to be. 

For sure Pakatan will make mistakes. For sure people will grumble that Pakatan cannot fulfill all of its promises. There might even be a scandal or two. But its shortcomings will pale in comparison to how rotten BN had become after six decades of rule. And people will remember that. Multiple generations of Malaysians (grandparents, parents, children and in some cases, grandchildren) know just how bad BN was. They will never want to go back to that. And so Pakatan will become more and more entrenched.  

Is that a good thing? No. It's generally never a good idea to have a one-party system. That said, if you have to have a one-party system it's undoubtedly better to have Pakatan than BN. But it's not ideal. Having no credible opposition may cause Pakatan to become complacent, arrogant and yes, corrupt (although it's hard to imagine it ever becoming as bad as BN). 

I can't imagine any scenario where BN can revive itself and become a credible opposition. Our best insulation against Pakatan evolving into a BN is the dynamics of the component parties within Pakatan. Which takes us to our next point.

2. Will any one party dominate Pakatan?

No. Unlike the BN situation where UMNO lorded over all the other component parties, in Pakatan it's almost a party of five equals. Granted, the numbers don't really reflect this -- PKR has 47 (plus one friendly independent) while DAP has 42. Bersatu, Amanah and Warisan have 13, 11 and 8 respectively. So in terms of numbers they are certainly not equal. But in terms of spirit they are more equal than ever was the case in BN. You see, in Pakatan each party has its own unique strengths which it brings to the table. 

PKR has Anwar who is the future of the party. He won't be the PM for presumably another two years (based on the agreement that Mahathir will serve for two years before handing it over to him). But when he does takes over, he will serve for possibly two term (health permitting, of course).  

DAP, which has the second highest number of seats, has a strong non-Malay (especially Chinese) factor going for it. Yes, PKR is technically a multi-racial party but in reality it's a predominantly Malay party. DAP is also nominally multi-racial party but let's be honest, it is a predominantly Chinese party. One that has the fervent support of the non-Malay electorate that has long abandoned MCA. MIC and Gerakan. 

Bersatu is the party of Mahathir. Yes, he is old (92 going onto 93) and has but two years to achieve all of the things he needs to achieve before his time is up as PM. But during those two years, his role will be absolutely critical. It is he above all who has the tenacity and political force of will to push through whatever tough changes need to be made to fix Malaysia. Bersatu is also the party that can attract rural Malays, something PKR is not as good at doing. 

Amanah, having sprung out of PAS, is the religious party in the coalition. The importance of having such a component party cannot be over-emphasized. It's also a party that gets along remarkably well with DAP. Together, they can stand up to PKR.

The last component is Warisan. It has the smallest number of seats in the coalition but it is Pakatan's key party in Sabah (although the coalition does also have DAP in East Malaysia, which operates rather independently from the DAP in the peninsula). 

So, as you can see, each component party within Pakatan has its role to play and is significant in its own way. That was not the case with BN's component parties. There was a time when MCA was an important partner within BN, especially in the early days. Malaysia's first finance minister was actually from MCA. Imagine that. But for at least two election cycles prior to GE14 it had already become a non-player. In fact, UMNO's Nazri Aziz regularly belittled MCA for being the insignificant party that it had become. One that was not only irrelevant but despised by the very community that it was supposed to represent because it was seen as being subservient to UMNO. 

So while Pakatan is also a coalition the dynamics among the parties are totally different. There is no one dominant party, no big brother like UMNO that can impose its will on the others. And that's a good thing. 

After being sworn in as prime minister, Dr M was asked about the formation of his new Cabinet. To that, he responded: "Although I am the prime minister, I am bound to consider the views of the other component parties. We have to divide the number of ministers between us." 

3. What will happen to MCA, Gerakan, MIC?

These parties have been thoroughly decimated. MIC has two seats, MCA one and Gerakan zero. Together, these three "key" component parties of BN have a grand total of three seats (compared to UMNO's 54). If their bargaining power with UMNO was extremely weak before GE14, it's now reduced to nothing. 

It almost doesn't make any sense for them to stay in BN anymore. Whereas in the past, UMNO could at least give them some crumbs, now it has nothing to offer. No ministerships. Nothing.  

So will the likes of MCA finally bring itself to leave UMNO? You would think so but then again it might not. It was none other than Nazri who eloquently explained why when in 2011 he likened MCA to “a wife who complains all day long that she was being abused, raped and not given enough food, but yet does not want to divorce her husband.”

Psychologists say women who stay in abusive relationships do so because they have become so acclimatized to their bad situation that they can't bring themselves to leave despite the abuse. Nazri was spot on in 2011. Is his analysis still applicable in 2018? We shall see. 

Whatever the case, MCA has become so obsolete, it might as well cease to become a political party and instead transform itself into some kind of NGO or social welfare society to help Chinese communities. It would probably be more effective in such a capacity than as a political party where it has zero relevance and no chance for revival.  

4. What is happening in East Malaysia?

For the past 13 General Elections, East Malaysia was considered BN's fixed deposit. Tons of federal seats were guaranteed to fall into BN hands. The opposition barely existed there until the past two elections where it started to make inroads into urban areas. Still, Sabah and Sarawak -- which has a disproportionate number of federal seats -- were deemed to be BN's fixed deposit. 

Prior to GE14, conventional wisdom dictated that there was no way Pakatan could win in either Sabah or Sarawak, and that the only way for it to get federal seats there would be through horsetrading after the elections.

The thinking was that if Pakatan could somehow win enough seats in the peninsula that it would cause a few East Malaysian politicians to cross over, this would spark a herd mentality situation where everyone starts thinking of switching camps for fear of being left behind in a sinking BN ship. It's a plausible scenario. Everyone wants to be with the winning team.No one wants to be on the losing side. 

As it turned out, East Malaysia was not quite the fixed deposit that everyone thought it would be. Pakatan made some inroads into Sarawak and very nearly took over Sabah. Still, in the end BN controlled both state although the situation there, especially in Sabah, is very fluid. 

In Sabah, UPKO (United Pasokmomogun Kadazandusun Murut Organisation) apparently switched sides to Pakatan, until it transpired that it actually didn't. But wait a minute. Didn't STAR (Parti Solidariti Tanah Airku) president Jeffrey Kitingan say it would be leaving BN? Yes he did.  But apparently that's not the case. 

Isn't this all very confusing? Yes it is but that's Sabah politics for you. Suffice to say, these are early days and we haven't seen the end of the horsetrading. In fact, it's only just beginning. Shafie himself has predicted that the newly-installed BN government in Sabah will not last long. 

5. What becomes of PAS?

Going into the elections it was widely assumed that PAS would be a big loser for leaving Pakatan. A survey by Invoke Malaysia concluded that PAS would get zero parliamentary seats in GE14. 

Turns out PAS got 18 federal seats which is way better than anyone expected. And not only did it retain Kelantan but it also picked up Terengganu again. It's also a kingmaker in Perak where it could tilt the balance towards BN (or Pakatan). It's hard to say which way it will go although given its stated Islamic state ambitions (hudud etc) it will probably not end up with Pakatan. 

PAS is by no means a loser in all this. So, who are the big losers? That leads us to the next question below.

6. Who are the big losers?

Question No. 2 already looked at just how far MCA, Gerakan and MIC have fallen. So there's no need to repeat it here. But yes, they are big losers. 

Rahman Dahlan (Minister in the PM's Department) and Salleh Keruak (Communications & Multimedia Minister) were the Comical Ali's of the Najib Administration. More than a few people were glad to see them defeated just because of how annoyingly ridiculous they were. 

In Malaysian politics there have always been figures who clearly think it's their destiny to become the prime minister of Malaysia. Najib, son of a former prime minister, was one of them and he actually made it to the top. Khairy Jamaluddin, son-in-law of a former prime minister, is another but unlike Najib, he won't make it. 

His political fortunes were on a high when his father-in-law Pak Lah became PM after Dr M stepped down. He was the man who had Pak Lah's ears. Suave, hip and Oxford-educated to boot, KJ was the rising star in UMNO. Then everything nosedived when Najib dislodged Pak Lah as UMNO President and PM of the country. KJ wasn't even made  minister at first despite being the UMNO Youth leader. 

Not one to easily give up on his dream, KJ worked hard to convinced Najib of his loyalty. He defended Najib even when evidence of 1MDB hanky panky started pouring out. As an Oxford grad who can surely understand what was being reported in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Financial Times and so on, he knew what is was all about. He made his political calculations and in time, managed to earn Najib's trust. But he bet on the wrong horse. 

Some pundits have speculated that since KJ is so smooth and sophisticated he might even be able to charm his way into the good graces of Pakatan and rebuild his political career there. That's not gonna happen. Mahathir hates him. Anwar hates him. Guan Eng hates him. To be fair, his political career is not exactly over. He did, after all, win his seat and will be serving as an opposition politician. For someone like KJ though that's as good as finished. 

7. Will Najib be prosecuted?

Mahathir has said a few times already that Pakatan is not out for revenge. That doesn't mean they won't prosecute people for crimes though. We follow the rule of law, he said at a press conference. And for good measure, he added: "However, let's say if Najib does something wrong he will have to face the consequences."

If anyone thinks there's going to be a blanket amnesty for misdeeds by members of the previous government they should quickly disabuse themselves of that notion. Dr M has already made it clear that changes were afoot. "Certain heads must fall," he said in his maiden press conference after being sworn in as PM. "We find that some people were aiding and abetting a prime minister who the world condemned as a kleptocrat."

There's probably going to be a Royal Commission of Inquiry on 1MDB. MACC will probably be instructed to take a new look into the matter. And a new AG will want to prosecute the culprits behind the biggest financial scandal this country has ever experienced (and there have been quite a few, ironically under Mahathir's watch as PM the first time around). 

Does Najib have anything to worry about? Only if he's done something wrong.

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