President of the ruling United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) and Malaysia's prime minister, Najib Razak (C), and former deputy prime minister and UMNO deputy president Muhyiddin Yassin (far L) stand for the party anthem during the annual congress in Kuala Lumpur on December 10, 2015. (MOHD RASFAN / AFP)

UMNO’s U-Turn on RUU 355: What Makes Coalitions Stick in Malaysia?

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The Barisan Nasional government's U-turn on changes to RUU 355, which will give the syariah courts more extensive powers, suggests that the coalition dynamics of politics are behind the move. Put simply, the coalition’s survival is equally, if not more important than UMNO’s electoral appeal.

Prime Minister Najib Razak’s announcement that the Barisan Nasional (BN) government is not going to table the proposed changes to the Syariah Courts (Criminal Jurisdiction) Act 1965 (Act 355), or RUU 355, came as a surprise to many.

This is because only two weeks ago, deputy Prime Minister Zahid Hamidi just confirmed that the government would in fact table the bill in parliament.

While some would be keen to believe that the U-turn is only a ploy by BN all along to split the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) from the other opposition parties, a more concrete reading of the situation suggests that it is the dynamics of coalition politics within BN that stemmed the move.

It may be tempting to argue that Pakatan Rakyat fell apart because, unlike BN, the three component parties enjoy an equal footing in relation to each other.

More specifically, East Malaysian component parties of BN that has successfully pressured the UMNO-led government to steer off this collision course pegged by an issue that would foster polarising attitudes across Malaysia.
Contrasting this to what happened to Pakatan Rakyat, one can see that different coalitional dynamics have led to different outcomes over what is essentially the same issue—the proverbial hot potato that is Hudud.

PAS’s insistence on tabling amendments to the Hudud bill in Kelantan in mid-2015 was swiftly followed by the unravelling of Pakatan Rakyat with the avowedly secular Democratic Action Party (DAP) announcing the ‘death’ of the coalition a few months after.

Yet, even as PAS and UMNO engaged in a ‘will they, won’t they’ dance in getting RUU 355 passed (with prospects of further political cooperation), when the clock strikes twelve, UMNO fell back to its common position, which is that RUU 355 will not be taken up as there is no consensus among the component parties of BN.

It may be tempting to argue that Pakatan Rakyat fell apart because, unlike BN, the three component parties enjoy an equal footing in relation to each other. Hence, it is difficult to reach a point of consensus, as seen in their failure to nominate an opposition leader after Anwar, or that of a shadow cabinet.

However, this makes it even more remarkable that BN’s hegemon, UMNO, with many clear supporters of the bill within the party, has to back off at the last minute in favour of the position held by the smaller parties that do not even control half of all BN’s parliamentary seats.

In other words, the leadership has decided that the coalition’s survival is equally, if not, more important than UMNO’s electoral appeal. The party, by virtue of contesting mainly in Malay-Muslim majority areas, will now have to explain the decision, perhaps with some peril, to its constituents.

Credit should be given to the late Adenan Satem, former Chief Minister of Sarawak, whose strong position against RUU 355 has set a line no East Malaysian politician would dare to backtrack from.

Even so, such regionalist sentiments, as captured by the ‘Sarawak for Sarawakians’ movement, is accommodated by the BN framework and worked in its favour rather than against it. This is shown in the results of the recent Sarawak state elections. To hold regionalism at this sweet spot and not allow it to slide into secessionist fervour will be a preoccupation of BN leaders for some time to come.

All in all, this episode has shown that the spirit of consociationalism, although not practice consistently, is still a binding factor for BN. That coupled with many other factors, such as the coalition’s winning streak since Malaysia’s formation, could be the best explanation why BN is the longest reigning multi-partite political coalition in the world.