By ‘Abidin Muhriz

5 June 2008

Now that exhortations of change are the norm rather than the exception – indeed emanating from the cabinet itself – perhaps it is time for us to look at another ingredient of democracy which should be redefined in our mission to advance to the next stage of political sophistication: ideology.

International media coverage of the general elections tended to portray the contest as one between two individuals: the Prime Minister and the former Deputy, whilst the parties they led were seen as of secondary importance. But where they were described, the BN was a moderate coalition of race-based parties and the opposition a strange alliance of multiracial liberals, socialists and Islamists. The dominance still placed on individual leaders in Malaysian politics indicates how reliant we are on a person to suggest to us how we ought to think, rather than associating ourselves with the person who matches the ideology we already possess.

It is normal in the UK to remain within a party even if the leaders are not of your particular faction, and each party has several historically established ones – but here membership of a political party is more likely to be influenced by satisfaction with the leader. It’s a trend we saw when Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah formed Semangat ’46, or when Dato’ Seri Anwar Ibrahim formed Keadilan, or when Dato’ Nalla Karupan formed the MIUP.

More recently Tun Dr Mahathir quit UMNO and cajoled others to do the same. Alas there hasn’t been the mass exodus he had hoped for, and all of Pak Lah’s contenders are staying within the party. Whether this is primarily because they think it’s easier to oust the leader from within, there’s still a very real opportunity for ideological reform within the UMNO. Its raison d’être has always been to provide enlightened leadership of the Malays, by the Malays and for the Malays, within the framework of the BN coalition. But the damage it suffered on 8 March 2008 has raised questions: while many argue that most Malaysians did not in fact wilfully vote against race-based politics, commentators generally agree that a return to overt Malay ethno-nationalism would be an unmitigated disaster, despite purblind calls for such a move. So the question is how the party should evolve.

Although ‘left’ and ‘right’ were hardly used to describe our parties during the election, there have been attempts to place them on this continuum. The ‘left’ has come to encompass the DAP (a member of the worldwide fraternity Socialist International) and the dominant, social democratic faction of PKR – although it is important to note the existence of leftist strands within PAS. But the latter’s oft-stereotyped fundamentalist wing is placed on the ‘right’, alongside the UMNO with its ethno-nationalist origins. According to this logic, the ‘far right’ includes the most virulent keris-wielders or fanatical supporters of a nation governed by syariah.

But there are two further reasons why the UMNO has been placed on the right. The first is that has been populated by elites, enabling comparisons with traditional aristocratic parties elsewhere, often of right-wing bent. Founded in a palace and led by a prince, the UMNO was the vehicle for Anglophile Malay aristocrats who had the good fortune of negotiating us to Merdeka, before evolving into the party of new Malay wealth (via corruption, cronyism and nepotism if necessary). The second is simply that the UMNO-led BN defeated the communists – the logic being that an enemy of the left must have been on the right.

But these are spurious reasons in these times for a party to be labelled right-wing. The British Conservative Party or Japanese Liberal Democratic Party are deemed to be centre-right not because of ethno-nationalistic notions or the social background of their members, but because their political philosophy tends to support economic liberalisation, market forces and solutions offered by organic institutions such as the family and civil society instead of state intervention.

By these standards, the BN would hardly be on the right, and it’s telling that while the Malaysian left (particularly the DAP) does profess itself to be so, the ‘right’ never does. Furthermore, despite the fact that the DAP’s Alternative 2008 Budget and PKR’s Malaysian Economic Agenda indicate some desire to move away from state control in our economy in favour of less price distortions and freer trade, no one acknowledged these as the essential economic components of the classical liberalism which drives most right-wing parties around the world. However, the strengthening of institutions such as parliament, federalism, press freedom, the judiciary and the anti-corruption agency are in line with the right’s emphasis on protecting individual liberty and decentralisation. While there is evidence that the Pakatan Rakyat are advocating such things, the government have changed their tune too. A reformed UMNO might adopt the mantle of a new right even further, whereas Pakatan Rakyat might eventually be restricted by its socialist and social democratic elements which instinctively trust the intervention of the state. The evidence either way is difficult to read.

Among our recently-elected ADUNs and MPs are young people previously involved in overseas campaigns with parties deeply rooted in political philosophy. My hope is that they use their experience to appreciate the multiple identities that the general election accentuated. For upon Merdeka we were not just a contract of races: we were a federation of states, a unity of young and old, a marriage of kampong and city, a coalition of rich and poor – but above all, we were a nation of shared aspiration. Inculcating a politics of ideas would be the straightest path to realising the dream of a Malaysian Malaysia.

An edited version of this article was published in The Sun, 5 June 2008

Leave a comment