After a series of power grabs, there are few ideological differences among the country’s political parties and groupings in power. If UMNO as a phenomenon has run out of gas, its raison d’etre — Malay supremacy — needs some reconsideration.
For the first elected government since independence that is not based around the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) to fall within 20 months, one has to blame betrayal and claim treachery. But then, such terms are ethical ones, and therefore do not mean much in Malaysian politics, or maybe in politics in general.
In February last year, enough Members of Parliament from the then-ruling Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition crossed the parliamentary floor to bring down that government. This showed that the last push by the reform movement headed by Anwar Ibrahim, which put it into power, was simply advancing one bridge too far.
Mahathir Mohamad, whose support was needed to gain enough votes to bring the Barisan Nasional government down in 2018, returned as prime minister after 15 years in retirement. But he exhibited neither enough ambition to reform the system, nor enough remorse to rectify the institutional decay that his earlier protracted period as prime minister (1981-2003) had visited on the country, to stay the course and to keep his promises to his PH allies.
But as if it were a case of instant karma, the Perikatan Nasional coalition that formed the new government in February 2020 came to power just in time to rule during the worst pandemic the world has ever experienced. The hotchpotch coalition had managed to convince the Agung that they had enough parliamentary support to form a government without the need for a new election.
Malaysia seemed to manage rather well for most of 2020, but as the pandemic ran its steady course, and as patience, imagination and resources ran thin. The lack of a proper war and recovery plan that went beyond targeted lockdowns and rigid bans on travel, and that sought to take advantage of the disruptions in order to build back better, soon became painfully obvious.
As 2021 dawned, vaccines began arriving on the market. The pandemic started revealing cluelessness among those in power, and serious weaknesses in the information management and implementation ability of the public service.
Legitimacy has no doubt been this government’s problem since Day One, but its flat-footedness just as the light appeared at the end of the tunnel has outraged all and sundry. An advantage of taking power just when the pandemic broke was that Malaysians in general withheld biting criticisms of it. The country was in crisis, so politics was best shelved for the time being; an unspoken public understanding came into play.
Perhaps, one can see this as a honeymoon period that most new governments get to enjoy, albeit pandemic imposed in this case. The government which came in via “the backdoor”, as popular parlance now describes it, got more goodwill than it deserved, thanks to Covid-19.
On 11 January 2021, an eight-month national emergency was declared. Most considered this unnecessary, and nothing more than an elaborate ploy by Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin to stay in power. However, growing unease over the declining situation within the Council of Rulers became increasingly apparent. This finally led to the Agung calling for the Prime Minister to reconvene parliament “as soon as possible.” The call, which was made public on 15 June, was in effect giving the speakers of both Houses a scolding for dragging their feet and in effect defying his wishes.
It has now been decided that Parliament will reconvene, but on 26 July, only five days before it was due to end on 1 August. But what has been gained is that the emergency will not be extended, which was what the prime minister was suspected to be planning.
The Significance of Party Splits
What we are witnessing in this story, seen in a large context and a longer time frame, may be the bankruptcy proceedings, as it were, of the Malay First Agenda. In more concrete terms, the splits in UMNO, something that that party had been prone to since its very beginnings, have been growing in frequency and severity. These splits finally led to its fall, aided by the 1MDB scandals becoming global events.
In more concrete terms, the splits in UMNO, something that that party had been prone to since its very beginnings, have been growing in frequency and severity.
In 2020, the toppling of the Pakatan Harapan government achieved something Malay supremacists had wanted all along — effectively an all-Malay government. But beyond the fulfilling of that goal, no significant ideological difference is apparent among the top leaders in PN, UMNO and even the Islamist Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS). To the common man, top-level politics in Malaysia today appears to be about power as a goal in itself — no nation-building vision, no unity programme, and no economic development masterplan that can be taken seriously.
Malaysia’s recent political history is replete with examples of brazen power grabs or attempts to hold on to power. Mahathir returned to power in May 2018, and his fall occurred after only 20 months. He is still hoping to return to power despite having just celebrated his 96th birthday. Anwar Ibrahim tried to but failed to pull off what appeared an easy transition to power. Muhyiddin, a relatively colourless figure, has just played his latest move to outplay UMNO by co-opting the party’s chieftains into his inner circle: Ismail Sabri as Deputy Prime Minister and Hishammuddin Hussein as a Senior Minister. UMNO President Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, on suffering this effrontery, has declared the ending of his party’s support for the government. Pushing himself into the fray, UMNO veteran Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah has signalled his wish to become interim prime minister to end the chaos and exercise proper management over the pandemic. Observing the political machinations, one cannot be blamed for thinking that UMNO as a phenomenon has run out of gas, and its raison d’etre — Malay supremacy — needs reconsidering.
In short, all the major Malay leaders active since the late 1980s have fought each other to a standstill. No wonder practically every analyst studying Malaysia is now calling for a national reset. This is a telling situation, and perhaps a hopeful one.
Ooi Kee Beng is Visiting Senior Fellow at the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.