Malaysia’s First Unity Government Convention: The Art of Keeping Enemies Close
Malaysia’s new Unity Government is in a state of consolidation and relative stability. The current unified coalition structure will stay in its current semi-permanent state, whereby it retains the trappings of a coalition without formalisation.
On 14 May 2023, the Malaysian Unity Government (UG) held its first national convention at the World Trade Centre Kuala Lumpur. The event was steeped in history and irony. Pakatan Harapan (PH), which before the November general elections was an arch-rival to the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), shared the same stage with Malaysia’s oldest political party.
For decades, the venue had hosted the annual UMNO General Assembly, that congregates the most powerful Malay men in the country. The event helped the party leadership structure to foretell the Cabinet rankings in Malaysia. For a long time, experts considered the UMNO elections the “real” elections and UMNO General Assembly the “peak arena”. The stage also hosted fiery speakers with populist and right-wing tendencies, with the traditional Malay dagger, keris, paraded on several occasions. Indeed, leaders of progressive Pakatan Harapan (PH) were amused that they were speaking from the same stage where they were once demonised.
More importantly, the UG convention was one of the many steps towards consolidating the partnership between the four coalitions: PH, Barisan Nasional (in which UMNO is the leading party), Gabungan Parti Sarawak (GPS) and Gabungan Rakyat Sabah (GRS). In February 2023, the UG formed a secretariat and had its first meeting. Thereafter, three committees (strategy; elections; monitoring of government policy and politics) were formed. Preceding the six state elections in West Malaysia, PH and BN decided to cooperate and negotiate seats among themselves.
In the UMNO President’s speech, Zahid Hamidi even suggested that the UG go into the next general election as one unit. This is plausible in theory, but unlikely.
Granted, the UG’s recent collaboration implies a move towards consolidation. The member coalitions do not want to be seen as taking part in a marriage of convenience, but partners of mutual interest that are capable of contesting and governing as one.
This makes sense for three reasons. First, the degree of complementarity of the coalitions and parties is high. Consisting of four coalitions and 19 parties, the UG represents all races, religions, and regions broadly and deeply — they are kings of their respective categories. PH is considered the leader of the urban, non-Malay and progressive groups; GPS the Sarawak collective, representing Muslim and non-Muslim bumiputeras; GRS the largest coalition in Sabah; and BN the oldest leader in the rural Malay community. The coalitions have a rich history, loyal grassroots, and fierce machinery that could deliver what they promise. Unlike the Muafakat Nasional cooperation pact between UMNO and Parti Islam SeMalaysia, the UG’s strongholds do not significantly overlap. This makes negotiations easier.
Second, the UG striving for some form of permanence could act as a shield against right-wing politics, largely the domain of the opposition, Perikatan Nasional (PN). The coalitions in the UG share a common characteristic of appealing to centrist beliefs, and if this is aligned, the UG may go into elections as a centrist bloc, making them an attractive option for middle-ground voters against the right-wing bloc.
The upshot is that Malaysia’s democracy would enter a new stage of maturity, where coalitions can work together in government and still compete against each other when elections come.
Third, a more solid UG structure could guarantee its full five-year term. With 148 seats, or a two-third majority at hand, the only risk factor is an internal one. With the anti-hopping law in place, the opposition’s piecemeal poaching of individual UG MPs will not succeed in changing the government, unless a massive change of opinion happens internally within the UG, leading to one or more coalitions or parties to defect en bloc. A firmer UG structure creates commitment and sunk costs, giving it the potential to outlast state election defeats and dips in popularity.
However, for the foreseeable future, there is a high likelihood that the UG structure will stay in its current semi-permanent state — that is, possessing the trappings of a coalition without formalisation. In other words, the UG will not be formally registered as a coalition with the Registrar of Societies, nor pursue a common policy platform or manifesto, nor merge parties or coalitions.
Two reasons undergird this: The refusal to absorb other coalitions’ failures or shortcomings, and the limiting effect on coalitions’ ambitions.
To other coalitions in the UG, UMNO (and by extension, BN) still poses a triple threat that could easily upend the UG: Deputy Prime Minister Zahid’s court cases, the possible pardoning of the convicted former prime minister, and a potential wipeout at the state elections. Though in varying degrees of severity, any of these events could substantially shift public opinion of the UG and be exploited by the opposition. The most immediate of the three threats is the state election polls, whereby an UMNO wipeout could put the UG in an awkward position in dealing with the public’s clear rejection of its core partner.
Even if we assume none of the triple threats materialises, a more formal UG structure would theoretically limit coalitions’ ambitions to pursue more power, which is contrary to their natural instincts. The highly complementary makeup of the UG also implies a division of labour that is already the basis for UMNO-PH current seat negotiations: UMNO to deliver the rural Malay votes, and PH to deliver the urban non-Malay votes. At the same time, the inevitable desire for each coalition to expand their influence may mean that such a formal (and theoretical) UG structure may never last. For example, even though UMNO is at its historical lowest in seat counts, this did not stop it from demanding more seats in the upcoming Selangor state elections.
For the East Malaysian coalitions, GPS and GRS, they would even consider formalisation a non-starter given these reasons and their preference for flexibility in alignment with the victors.
Interestingly, no other coalition has responded to Zahid’s proposal to go into the next general election as one UG unit. This could be because the other coalitions understand that the risks of absorbing other coalitions’ failures are high and that limiting their respective coalition’s ambitions is unwise.
The upshot is that Malaysia’s democracy would enter a new stage of maturity, where coalitions can work together in government and still compete against each other when elections come. It forces the voters to evaluate their choices by coalition, where coalitions in government could appear as competitors on the ballot box with the opposition, rather than the simpler “government versus opposition” dichotomy.
In any case, the UG convention showed that UMNO needs the UG partnership more than its partner coalitions given its dwindling support levels. It may have shown its cards too soon.
James Chai is a Visiting Fellow at ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute and a columnist for MalaysiaKini and Sin Chew Daily.