Pakatan’s gifts to Malaysian democracy

How can a coalition’s calamitous first term in office — which fell shy of 22 months — be categorised as a positive? A positive turn for democracy.

Well, it was. And no, this is no fanboy piece. null

Pakatan spectacularly collapsed under the weight of its own political confusion. It did not muster even the respectability of failing to reach expectations.

But while its demise is expounded by all and sundry, the spur to democracy its reign brought mustn’t be devalued.

To begin with, Pakatan has to be seen over 12 years as it was formed in the aftermath of the 2008 general election. The 14th General Election two years ago was the pinnacle and also the marker for its proceeding fall from grace.

Everyone can rule

You, me and the Wu Tang Clan. Democracy is about participation and representation, but only through the contestation among groups to achieve power. 

Therefore, the viability of options determines the possibility of options. An impossible option is a dead option.

And if options are still-born, then the contestations become dead rubbers.

Barisan Nasional’s (BN) reductio ad absurdum (simply put, the constant positing the opposite is absurd, which means that as the incumbent it does not ask for votes on its achievement but because the rest are ridiculous) strategy died with GE14. 

While other groups or parties can be petty, naïve and rife with disagreements, as in Pakatan, it was not dead as a choice.

In this new reality, administration is not only BN’s domain.

Malaysia can cope with a different set of leaders. Well or not, great or dismal, is a separate matter. Malaysia won’t collapse, and it did not. Therefore, other parties can emerge in the future.

Malay power, no more a banana split

Malay unity is a constant goal

The country was Malay, and then others happened to it.

While Malays can’t control all, they can control their own destiny.

These, the oft-quoted premises. From them come all other conclusions, mostly about Malays under threat.

In the Forties, while the prized unity between the left and right was found with the opposition to the Malayan Union, it was cut into half as PKMM (Parti Kebangsaan Melayu Malaya) left the umbrella formed by Umno shortly after.

In the early 50s, PAS or the cleric division split from Umno. Then two decades of quiet over Malay unity, as PAS remained firmly a regional powerhouse.

During the 80s, tempers flared and the dissenters (Semangat 46) found a place in a loose coalition with PAS. Some success was followed by disillusionment, as Umno regrouped when dissenters returned.

Anwar Ibrahim’s dismissal in 1998 brought reformasi to Malaysia, and the choice of a multiracial and not race-based party turned the whole process on its head, and saw the march towards 2008.

The Pakatan experiment pushed the question of Malay or Malaysian to new frontiers. No more was the choice binary. Malaysia had grown too much to be just about whether a Malaysian was Malay or not, or whether ethnicity determined everything.

It’s not merely the choice to prioritise being Malay or not.

The Pakatan government was trampled upon by friends and foes because it set the conditions for a fair debate about race without the courage to pursue it. It licks its wounds outside the corridors of power but the embers continue to probe us as a people. How long can a house divided find unity?

The creation of a super-Malay government — Umno, Bersatu Pribumi, PAS, PKR rebels — with no discernible Chinese or Indian presence, and Borneo staying out of the coalition, sustains the various discussions of how to divide power among the four Malay groups.

It has become clearer recently, while Malay groups can be brought together for common goals like the Himpunan Melayu Bangkit (Malay Unity Rally) in 2019, the idea of a single Malay party cannot sustain the aspirations of Malays, let alone Malaysians.

State vs federal dynamics

The 12 years of Selangor and Penang emboldened other states to demand more autonomy. There was a time when the Umno president determined the mentri besar and ketua menteriexcept in Kelantan.

No more is that in practice.

Malaysians today are aware of state power.

Sarawak’s decision to ask for more oil revenue and say no to Putrajaya almost at fixed intervals, along with support for all measures to underline state autonomy to the consternation of the federal government sets the tone for the decade to come.

Regardless of the Sabah election and the Sarawak one early next year, the dictum is to defend state rights.

State and federal power share is the cornerstone of a federation, and every civil debate and interplay of power only tightens the democratic rigour of the country.

The depreciation of Mahathir Mohamad

The new social media reference to Mahathir is “Atok” (grandad), but the tone is as much deferential as it is deflationary in highlighting the nonagenarian’s decline.

The legend of Mahathir has been taken down a peg or two down.

For this, the column acknowledges its Schadenfreude over this development.

Mahathir gave himself the title of father of development, and if he did retire, then his legacy would have been intact.

However, his participation in Pakatan turned bittersweet. Joyous scenes in May 2018 turned ugly two years after.

Mahathir’s insistence of never changing stripes or apologising for the past came to haunt him. He expected to bring the best of progressive ideas without being honest about the situation. These led to his leadership appearing clumsy, outdated and perpetually in the blame game.

He had an isolated view — that Umno only rotted when he left and he’s returning as the saviour. History now shows and will continue to shed light on his complicity in the past.

Now, as the leader of an unregistered party with his son at the helm, he’s slowly creeping away from the base of national power.

Which has long-term value.

Larger than life characters with dictatorial traits are always giant shadows on democracies. Right-sizing Mahathir and disincentivising his imitators with his present failures, can only be a boon for Malaysia.

Pakatan’s dance fadeaway

Today, there are massive questions about Pakatan Harapan’s future.

Yet, Pakatan’s past is far more substantial than decorative despite its disappointing present.

More than the left-coalition in the 1960s (including Gerakan) and Semangat 46-led APU (Angkatan Perpaduan Ummah), the 12 years of Pakatan has erected a foundation for others to pick up the gauntlet.

The speed of recovery will be decided by how adaptable what’s left of Pakatan can be.

Again, that’s for its leaders to decide.

As for regular voters who love democracy, and are here for the long run, Malaysia’s better for the Pakatan experiment.

We should thank the coalition for services rendered.

By Praba Ganesan – MALAY MAIL

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