Much has been said about the instability of Pakatan Harapan in the past few days. Truly, the infighting, changes in decisions on working with PAS within PKR and the different component parties having their own agendas do not make for pleasant viewing for Opposition supporters. However, on that last point, there is a need to review whether voters should be concerned if there are differing views within the coalition.

The need for conformity within a political coalition is overrated. It originated from decades of single mindedness in politics that called for forced stability. When Malaysia was newly established it was a country with people so different, they needed a unifying core with which to tie themselves together. Even before the Federation of Malaya was formed, a coalition of different parties had to come together and fight with a single-minded message. This was Independence. Umno, MCA and MIC were representing different people through ethnicity (which was a good political move to placate a divided electorate) but all talked about one message.

So strong was this need for conformity that less nationalist, more leftist organisations were disparaged and even criminalised. This carried on after Independence in an attempt to slowly build unity through an artificial conformity. Further differences were vilified and Barisan Nasional grew to become a block of many political parties that all agreed with each other on all issues. It is funny really when we see Gerakan not making so much as a peep against racial politics and policies when it stands for a non-ethnic approach as the basis of its political struggle, be it in politics, economics, education and culture. It is that contradiction between personal party philosophy and coalition practice that makes BN a peculiar entity.

This has just gotten worse over the years as the extent of racial politics and the influence of Umno grew. 86 of the 129 seats in the Dewan Rakyat are now held by Umno, making its influence in BN massive. Is it such a stretch of the imagination to say that BN policies will tend to follow Umno’s and any opposing voices within the coalition will be quickly silenced by the holder 67 per cent of its seats?

Comparing this to Pakatan Harapan, DAP holds 36 seats while PKR holds 28. Admittedly Amanah (6) and PPBM (1) hold very few seats currently but they have never taken part in an election before so cannot be judged in the same way. In Pakatan Harapan, there is real political weight when one party disagrees with another. This, instead of being detrimental to the health of the coalition, is, in fact, very healthy. What we need to understand is that each party has its own circle of influence and agenda. Not all policies that one party comes up with would transcend to their non-supporters. Hence, differing positions would force parties to sit down and come up with policies that might not make everyone happy but can at least be acceptable to the most number of people.

In Pakatan we have a better democratic environment while Barisan is too Umno-centric for its identity politics to be positive. The whole reason BN had ethnicity-based parties was so that these different groups would be adequately represented. Now, it seems parties which are multiracial by composition are becoming increasingly popular. On this basis alone, that the Opposition coalition will be made up of component parties which are individually powerful while Barisan will be dominated by a single party, it seems more practical, to preserve a more democratic process, to vote for Pakatan.

With this being said though, it is an extremely optimistic view favouring the side of Pakatan. There are still serious problems with the Opposition coalition that require a lot of work to resolve. While healthy discourse and debate between component parties, or even individual members, is a sign of a healthy democratic system, keeping the public in the dark on the direction of a party or the whole coalition is irresponsible. The best way to solidify the seriousness of the coalition in its direction would be to talk about issues and policies from the get-go. This is where Harapan falls flat.

It seems along with the need for conformity in politics we have inherited the same brand of identity politics to be the norm for parties on either side of the divide. This system of focusing the political narrative to the cramped corridors of racial, religious and language considerations strips the rakyat of the incentive to talk about policy-matters such as progressive taxation, affordable housing and governmental reforms. Oftentimes, the Opposition seems to be comfortable in harping on the supposed failures of BN rather than their own stance on key issues.

We are stuck in a never-ending loop of the government and Opposition slinging mud at each other and justifying their own dominance from denigrating their opponents. It seems more like the empty applauses obtained from their own loyalists have made these parties believe that chasing more claps and hurrahs through taglines and buzzwords would suffice in place of actual policy making. It wouldn’t. The most it can do is attain cheaply gotten votes leading to disappointment in the future.

Pakatan Harapan has a potentially sustainable democratic model in their diversity in opinions and political weight behind each. However, until they break away from the decades-old model of identity politics, they cannot boast to be better than Barisan Nasional. How can they, when all that seems to differ is in their name?

Arveent Kathirtchelvan is the Founder and Chief Coordinator of #Liberasi. This article was first published in the Malay Mail Online on the 5th of September 2017.



by Arveent Kathirtchelvan

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