‘History is a bad motorist. It rarely signals its intentions when it is taking a turn.’
COMMENT | They say, “history is a bad motorist. It rarely signals its intentions when it is taking a turn”. Sometimes, it is external factors like the strike of a massive comet, widely believed to have caused dinosaurs’ extinction.
At other times, we know too little of the complex interdependence between actors in history. Social scientists called those surprises “unintended consequences”. Others may call it “karma” or “poetic justice”.
In “unintended consequences”, outcomes disconnect from one’s intentions because there are other actors whose reactions are overlooked by the original actor.
Thirteen years ago, on this day, Malaysia’s history was changed by the “Political Tsunami”. But few celebrate or commemorate it now, a year after the “Sheraton Move”.
What if I tell you, from the ‘Political Tsunami’ to the ‘Sheraton Move’, and the five major events between and after them are just “unintended consequences” you may have overlooked?
No 1: The ‘Political Tsunami’
Intention: Voters wanting to teach BN a lesson.
Outcome: The start of BN’s irreversible decline.
On March 8, 2008, a total of 8,188,915 Malaysians went to the polling booths. Of these 3,767,711 voted for PAS, PKR and DAP. There was a net increase by 1,382,005 voters compared to 2,385,708 who did the same in 2004.
Most of those new voters for the opposition trio were not thinking about changing the government at all. Most were reformist and middle-ground voters wanting the country to be less corrupt and more open. Others were Umno dissidents led by Dr Mahathir Mohamad, who accused then prime minister Abdullah Badawi of weak leadership.
Both wanted to teach Abdullah Badawi a lesson for not delivering what they wanted after winning a super landslide of 64 percent of votes and 91 percent of seats.
Traditionally, either of these two fear factors could save BN in crisis: Malays’ fear of losing their New Economic Policy (NEP) privileges and non-Malays’ fear of another May 13.
Abdullah’s 91 percent parliamentary majority disabled the fear-based defence mechanism. Who would foresee that the opposition would take 37 percent of seats and five state governments when the dust settled, and the federal government may collapse with just 30 MPs hopping over to opposition?
If enough people thought about the likelihood of regime change, the Political Tsunami would not have happened. Fortunately, people forgot that we have a First-Past-The-Post (FPTP) electoral system that ruthlessly punishes gamblers with bad luck.
No 2: The rise of Najib Abdul Razak
Intention: Anwar Ibrahim hoping to oust Abdullah with frogs.
Outcome: Anwar installing Najib, who would jail him for the second time.
Because Abdullah was hanging on an unprecedentedly narrow margin of 58 seats (140 to 82), Anwar Ibrahim – whose release in 2004 happened under Abdullah’s watch and earned the latter Mahathir’s wrath – drummed up the talk of regime change on Sept 16, 2008, by courting 30 BN parliamentarians to cross over.
Many opposition leaders and supporters defended the move, arguing that Umno would not allow democratisation to happen, and the opposition must launch a preemptive strike before Abdullah’s deputy Najib took over.
Consequently, Abdullah survived Anwar but not Najib, who Mahathir and Muhyiddin backed. Najib took over the job Anwar craved on April 3, 2009, and under his watch, Anwar, who failed to win the 2013 election, was imprisoned for sodomy again on Feb 15, 2015.
No 3: Najib’s near-miss in 2013
Intention: Pakatan Rakyat (PR) hoping to oust BN with stronger non-Malay support.
Outcome: Malays’ anxiety marginally saving BN.
Abdullah’s gracious acceptance of voters’ verdict in 2008 permanently demolished one of the two fear factors that BN’s survival hinged on – the ghost of May 13.
Once the non-Malays, especially the Chinese, were convinced that regime change would not result in a riot, it was no longer rational for them to vote for BN when they hated its discriminative policies.
That psychological emancipation was shown in the strong showing of the Chinese in various protests over electoral frauds and environmental destructions from 2011 to 2013.
However, the dismantling of one fear factor triggered the other. Many Malays feared that a Pakatan Rakyat government would dismantle all privileges that Malays enjoyed under Article 153 and the NEP.
So, the Malay’s anxiety drove enough Malay votes to swing back to BN in enough marginal constituencies to save BN, which won 60 percent of seats despite only 47 percent of votes. That in turn demoralised for about two years PR’s non-Malay/liberal base, who saw no chance of real change.
No 4: The May 9, 2018, regime change
Intention: Najib using PAS to split Pakatan Harapan’s Malay votes.
Outcome: Harapan winning power with 48 percent of votes.
Labelling GE13 as a “Chinese Tsunami”, Najib abandoned his moderate “1Malaysia” posture and went all about to court Malay votes by selling Malay unity and enticing PAS with the prospect of implementing hudud punishments in Kelantan.
That successfully split PAS and buried PR in 2015. The successive Pakatan Harapan would have been too weak to win Malay votes, but the 1MDB scandal – instrumental for Najib’s financing of GE13 which he narrowly won – blew up a month later, paving the way for Mahathir’s break with Umno and subsequent leadership of Harapan.
Najib’s brilliant strategy of splitting Harapan’s Malay votes backfired. Harapan won 30 seats where Umno and PAS votes combined would constitute a majority. Najib delivered “New Malaysia” for Harapan voters who were only 48 percent of voters.
No 5: The ‘Sheraton Move’
Intention: Harapan hoping to break-up and absorb Umno.
Outcome: Umno and PAS in power amidst Harapan’s infighting.
Feeling insecure with its 48 percent base, Harapan – Bersatu in particular – hoped to break up Umno through defections.
Of all reforms promised, Harapan was least interested in dismantling BN’s legacy in unfair incumbency advantages, from discriminative constituency funding, legislative marginalisation of opposition, to selective prosecution.
Instead of enticing the new opposition into a healthy competition, Harapan’s calculation was conventionally Malaysian – giving the opposition meaningful roles hurts the government in the next election.
It backfired. On one front, Umno and PAS fearing their irrelevance doubled down on Malay-Muslim nationalism, with Harapan’s retreat on Icerd in December 2018 as the Umno-PAS partnership’s first major victory. On the other front, Umno defectors strengthened Bersatu’s hand to outplay Anwar and the rest of Harapan.
With the alarming defeat in the Tanjung Piai by-election in November 2019, Mahathir and Bersatu decided to reshuffle the coalition. After some twists, Umno and PAS are in power.
No 6: Malay disunity in government
Intention: Malay nationalists wanting Malay unity in government.
Outcome: Umno and Bersatu proving Malay unity is impossible.
Muhyiddin’s government is 95 percent bumiputera and 85 percent Muslim. Four out of seven Muslim-dominated parties are in the government. The assertive ‘non-Malays’ and the ‘compromised Malays’ in DAP, PKR and Amanah are kept out. Nothing could be better from a Malay-Muslim nationalist’s perspective.
Unfortunately, Umno, Bersatu and PAS are like three brothers going after the same love interest (Malay-Muslim conservative voters). Once their rival, Harapan, was out of the game, the brothers started fighting each other. And compared to Harapan’s time, inter-ethnic tension somewhat resides.
No 7: Fluid post-election coalitions and party-hopping
Intention: Voters wanting two stable and moderate coalitions.
Outcome: Three to four blocs in the 15th general election. A post-election coalition government is most likely.
From the 2008 political tsunami to the 2018 regime change, possibly half of Malaysians hoped to see a steady competition between two stable and moderate coalitions. It was a noble pursuit and instrumental in mobilising voters to oust BN. But it was a pipe dream for many structural reasons.
The next election would see Harapan, BN and PN fighting each other in the Peninsular, and GPS and Sabah parties would likely fight their own game before deciding which of the three main blocs to back nationally. Expect a hung parliament, post-election coalition governments, and party-hopping after GE15.
Two ways of looking at unintended consequences
How you look at unintended consequences may marginally decide where you are in the next wave of history. And there are at least two ways.
First, you are powerless before the force of history. You don’t know what will happen next. All your bets and endeavours may be lost unexpectedly. It is best not to plan too much and work too hard. No hope, no despair.
Second, even if you lose everything today, the game is not over as long as you can survive till tomorrow. Even if the last wave has sunk your ship, the next wave may land you on a paradise island. You just need to be pragmatic in adapting to the changing circumstances instead of cursing them.
It is ok to aim high for your next move but always buy insurance first. Never be too arrogant to mistake yourself as the destined winner in the casino. God could be answering your opponents’ prayers too.
Yes, I am talking about life. And Malaysian politics too.
By : WONG CHIN HUAT (an Essex-trained political scientist working on political institutions and group conflicts) – MALAYSIAKINI