Ahmad Zahid Hamidi

Ahmad Zahid Hamidi at the launching ceremony of BN machinery for the Johor State Election at EduCity Sports Complex, Iskandar Puteri, Johor Darul Takzim in 2022. (Photo: Zahid Hamidi/Facebook)

Malaysia Must Pursue A New Order of Stability via Democracy

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UMNO President Ahmad Zahid Hamidi has publicly argued that Malaysia should return to the old order with UMNO as the singular dominant party and Barisan Nasional ruling with two-thirds majority. It is important for the nation to ask, what sort of new political order should emerge?

An old political order has been dissipating in Malaysia, but what replaces it remains to be clarified — and pursued.

The current class of Malaysia’s parliamentarians was sworn in on 16 July 2018. The Constitution provides that Parliament automatically dissolves five years from the day MPs were sworn in — not five years from polling day, 9 May 2018 — which means that Malaysia’s 14th Parliament expires in about (or “less than”) one year on 15 July 2023.

The three-week parliamentary sitting that just started on 18 July may go into the annals of history as one of the most consequential. Among others, a long-resisted anti-party hopping law will be passed.

The old order ruled Malaysia for 61 years, from Independence in 1957 up to the 2018 general election, at which point the UMNO-led Barisan Nasional coalition was the world’s longest-serving elected authoritarian government. UMNO-BN took part in the Sheraton Move that toppled the Pakatan Harapan government in February 2020. Subsequently, UMNO engineered the collapse of Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin in August 2021. One of its leaders, Ismail Sabri Yaacob, became the third Prime Minister since 2018, but UMNO remains deeply divided.

UMNO President Ahmad Zahid Hamidi has publicly argued that Malaysia should return to the old order with UMNO as the singular dominant party and Barisan Nasional ruling with two-thirds majority. It is important for the nation to ask, what sort of new political order should emerge?

The fluidity and instability of Malaysian politics derive from three sources of the old order’s power maintenance that are at odds with contemporary realities.

First, the fear factor. Post-election violence in 1969 and high-handed persecution of opposition figures caused many Malaysians to fear change and dissent, and to think that an iron-fisted government would keep things in order. UMNO also played up fears of so-called non-Malay domination and of DAP as the “other”. After three PMs in three years since 2018, Malaysian voters do not fear change of government anymore. Malaysians crave responsive and effective government, not a return to dominant coalitions.

Second, the imperial Prime Minister, crafting legitimacy by delivering development and centralising federal power. The Malaysian Prime Minister was for decades the sole locus of power. Government resources and decisions were concentrated in his hands. The PM was also the UMNO president and BN chairman, dictating who could contest power and how resources would be distributed. Cabinet and Parliament were treated as rubber stamps and the PM’s actions were scarcely questioned, as evident in the revelations of the 1MDB-related corruption cases.

The PM is no longer regarded as wielding all-consuming power and a magic wand. He is just another politician who must hold his government together. He must deliver results, but cannot command loyalty by simply dispensing goodies. The fates of recent PMs are self-evident: Najib Razak and his deputy Zahid Hamidi are facing criminal charges; Dr. Mahathir Mohamad lost power to a parliamentary coup while Muhyiddin stepped down after he couldn’t prove his numbers as instructed by the King.

In future, “stability” must come from having a set of rules governing the entire political class. In place of the old order underpinned by the fear factor, imperial prime ministership, and winning and ruling by any means, a new sense of trust and respect for democratic institutions and rules should emerge for everyone to feel that it’s a fair game.

UMNO-BN cannot claim sole ownership of developmental legitimacy as Pakatan Harapan and Perikatan Nasional both have the experience of governing. The contest is now among three coalitions that have governed the nation at some point.

State governments are also growing in assertiveness. Many states, dissatisfied with the lopsidedness of federal-state relations, are demanding a recalibration. A new deal is needed to hold the federation together, otherwise centrifugal forces, especially in Sabah and Sarawak, will pull the nation apart.

Third, an unlevel playing field. In the old order, democracy was only for show: electoral boundaries were heavily gerrymandered, election laws and procedures were skewed in favour of incumbents, voices of dissent were quashed and the media muzzled, corruption was widespread, and the bureaucracy was used and abused by politicians from the ruling coalition. These have been torn down to a certain extent, but a new set of democratic rules needs to be put in place before the next general election.

Rule-setting is important because the next election is unlikely to produce a single winner. The recent Melaka and Johor state elections showed that UMNO-BN is commanding a maximum of 40 per cent of votes and 50 per cent of Malay support. Of the 165 peninsula seats, UMNO-BN is only leading in 70 now while Sarawak and Sabah parties are not necessarily on board with the idea of a return of UMNO the big brother.

Much as UMNO-BN has been portraying itself as the source of political stability by promoting a return to old times, the fact is that the party cannot even hold itself together as one. UMNO is deeply split between the “Court Cluster” dominated by Zahid and Najib, and the “Minister cluster” led by Ismail Sabri.

In future, “stability” must come from having a set of rules governing the entire political class. In place of the old order underpinned by the fear factor, imperial prime ministership, and winning and ruling by any means, a new sense of trust and respect for democratic institutions and rules should emerge for everyone to feel that it’s a fair game.

All political forces should set up “traffic rules” for everyone to navigate better in the new era.

Besides the forthcoming anti-hopping law to counter the blight of defections that overturn election results, this is also an opportune time to institutionalise equal constituency funding for government- and opposition-represented constituencies, and to devolve more powers to the states, especially Sabah and Sarawak. Given that parliament does not have to be dissolved until 15 July 2023, legislation on fixed-term parliament to provide certainty and more time for “rule-setting” is eminently worthwhile.   

Four years after the old order was defeated, Malaysia is at a crossroads. It is incumbent on key leaders to responsibly steer the nation towards a new political order, a new phase of stability via democracy.

2022/214

Liew Chin Tong is the Opposition Leader in Johor State Assembly. He served as Malaysia’s deputy defence minister from July 2018 to February 2020.