Tidying up back gardens

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EI SUN OH

IN my last article, I mentioned the Malaysian Islamist party PAS’ recent decision to so-called “go it alone” in the next Malaysian general elections, instead of coordinating their election strategy with that of the main opposition coalition. I argued that in essence, this is nothing but a shrouded decision to solidify PAS’ alliance with UMNO, the major ruling party in Malaysia.

What brought me to this sweeping conclusion? Well, for one, in the next round of Malaysian general elections, it would mainly be the rural instead of the urban or suburban constituencies which could decide which side of the political divide gets to form the next government, Malaysia being a parliamentary democracy whereby the majority party (or coalition) in the parliament gets to form a government. In these rural, mainly native-majority constituencies, political support is usually divided among UMNO, PAS and the “native”, “component parties” of the major opposition alliance. UMNO usually commands a slightly higher degree of supports there, mainly because it has the advantage of a prolonged incumbency and with it, an almost limitless supply of political resources. If the opposition parties “unite” such that they contest UMNO one-to-one, then there might still be a fighting chance for them to win. But if PAS dispatches candidates to those constituencies contested by their erstwhile comrade parties—as “going it alone” would almost inevitably mean, there will be at least three-cornered electoral fights—such contests will only benefit UMNO in a plurality-win system, as the opposition votes will be split. As such, PAS’ “going it alone” in effect flattens UMNO’s road to yet another round of electoral victory. Why PAS chose to take such steps which appear to be illogical is unclear, and is the subject of intense political rumors. It any case, it looks like a road of no return for PAS.

On the other hand, the new Malaysian opposition alliance looks set to also streamline their internecine factions. They even published a list of co-leadership in the alliance. The bright spot of the list is of course the inclusion of representatives from Bersatu, the new party formed by Mahathir Mohamad, the former Malaysian prime minister who has since fell out with the current prime minister of Malaysia. It remains to be seen in the remaining few months until the election, whether the “component parties” of the main opposition alliance would actually be able and willing to sincerely cooperate with each other in facing the general elections. The voters will certainly take this into consideration when voting day comes.

Indeed, by law the Malaysian general election has to be held in the next one year. As such, during this crucial period, it is imperative for both the ruling party and the opposition coalitions to try to streamline and consolidate to the maximum extent. This means of course to tidy up one’s own back garden, so to speak, before brushing up to confidently face the external opposing politicians. Otherwise, it would indeed be a sore point and an expensive lesson to discover during the campaign period or even on voting day that it was actually your own party comrades who are pulling your legs, such that your winning chances are rapidly diminishing.


In Malaysia, the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition is the incumbent government, both at the federal level as well as in most of the states. For BN, the streamlining and consolidation before the next general election actually has very little to do with pruning the ideological or political differences between its various component parties. In the early days of Malaysia’s nationhood, political powers were more evenly distributed among the various BN (or rather its predecessor, Perikatan) component parties. Over the next half century, however, BN’s political discourse has evolved to such an extent that UMNO, which possesses the most number of parliamentary and state assembly members, has come to dominate the overall BN political agenda. Other BN component parties have correspondingly since been relegated to rather “decorative” roles, their main political missions being to showcase the multiracial appearance of BN (as most of the component parties are ethnically based).

These other BN component parties, when faced with an unenviable situation of UMNO having already made a decision contrary to their liking, can at most come out before their various major ethnic constituencies to make some noise, to gingerly go over the motion of not agreeing with UMNO’s decision, and other similar decisions. At the end of the day, these component parties may not challenge UMNO’s absolute hold on ultimate political power. They have instead to try hard to placate their own political supporters upset with UMNO’s almost unchallengeable decisions on political, economic or social issues, such that hopefully these supporters won’t switch their votes to the opposition.

Next week: Why this gradual decline into political subservience of BN’s component parties.

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