Malaysiakini Letter

Ideological contestation urgently needed in M'sian politics

Aira Azhari
Published:

LETTER | The devastating loss in the Tanjung Piai by-election has left the Pakatan Harapan coalition reeling. Although by-elections do not normally trigger a change in the federal government, the crushing defeat in Tanjung Piai has forced Harapan to reflect upon their commitment to reforms and on their strategy in managing a Malaysia that is increasingly polarised by race and religion.

The weeks following the defeat has also seen the rapid (and very public) escalation of political mudslinging within Harapan’s largest component party, PKR. While factionalism in PKR is not exactly new, the public nature in which these quarrels and disagreements have occurred is rather disturbing and has caused many supporters to question its leaders’ capabilities in governing the country. The battles being fought at the leadership level have also affected states such as Sarawak and Malacca, as well as the party’s youth wing.

Differences between members of the same party are a common occurrence, even in mature democracies. The Republican Party in the US is divided over support for President Trump, and the 2018 midterm elections saw the Democrats regain hold of the House, a result that is no doubt a sign of protest against the Trump presidency. The Democratic Party also faces a conflict between individuals such as Hillary Clinton, seen as being too “corporatist” and the more “social democratic” individuals such as Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. 

The Conservative Party in the UK has always held different ideals about the country’s relationship with Europe, which then led to David Cameron calling for a referendum that resulted in consequences none could have predicted. The Labour Party in the UK has gone through various phases under different leaderships, taking a more “hard left” stance in some years and moving closer to the centre under Tony Blair’s "New Labour" period.

The deep internal conflicts faced by these parties are, to some extent, motivated by different, often contrasting visions of how the nation should be governed. Furthermore, they speak to differing worldviews held by leaders within the party, who sought to push or pull the party’s position further to the left, right or centre, within the spectrum of political ideology. These worldviews have real consequences on policy implementation, for example, the Thatcher years are remembered for the privatisation of key national industries and the marginalisation of trade unions, clearly influenced by her libertarian stance. 

With political parties that have certain positions along the political ideology spectrum, citizens can make well-informed choices about the direction of their country.

In Malaysia, Amanah’s split from PAS was the culmination of longstanding disagreements regarding the brand of political Islam that should be championed. In fact, one can argue that the differences between PAS and the members who left to form Amanah remains to be the clearest ideological split in Malaysian political parties to date - but that is a topic for a different day.

The crisis currently faced by PKR, however, is different from the examples cited above. At the heart of the conflict is a power struggle between the forces aligned to party president Anwar Ibrahim and deputy president Azmin Ali. The origins of the conflict between these two factions are unknown but it has been made worse by the uncertainty in the transition plan from Dr Mahathir Mohamad to Anwar. So far, there has been no indication that the disagreement between Anwar and Azmin has anything to do with conflicting ideals about how Malaysia should be governed, or differing views on economic policies. 

Neither do the separate camps aligned to the two leaders indicate that their support is based on certain economic, political or moral principles. In fact, nothing thus far suggests that the split within PKR is due to any differences in worldview, ideology, or at the very least, vision for the country. Instead, the deepening crisis seems to be motivated purely by individual personalities and political ambition.

Factionalism caused by support for individual personalities and political ambition has spillover effects on the country’s governance and more importantly, on the people’s trust. Politicians who are preoccupied with their own political survival are not likely to think about what policies will work best in a country like Malaysia. Citizens, whose primary concerns are low wages, scarce job opportunities, access to quality education and a safe environment to live in are not likely to appreciate such fixations on power by their elected leaders.

Perhaps it is too much to ask our politicians to use principled and ideological-based arguments to articulate their vision for the country when most political parties do not have a firm theoretical or philosophical basis in forming their proposals. This is why, when elections come, the surest path to victory is for all parties to compete on the basis of “who can offer more free stuff to the people.” 

The consequence of that is what we are seeing now - more and more politicians coming forward to say that their manifesto promises are unachievable and unrealistic - despite the enthusiasm these same politicians showed when the Buku Harapan was launched before GE14.

As a voter myself, I argue that Malaysians deserve greater differentiation between political parties and candidates in order for us to make informed choices on who our next leader should be. Instead of simply promising that things will be free or cheaper if they come into power, promises should be guided by larger questions such as - do we want to be a state that provides welfare for its people, funded by a progressive taxation system? 

Or do we want a small state that allows markets to roam free and provision of goods and services left largely to the private sector? What is the role of government in the economy? Any individual who desires the prime ministership should, first and foremost, be able to answer these questions and be magnanimous enough to step aside when their ability to deliver on promises become compromised. 


The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.

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