Anwar, with his wife, former Permatang Pauh MP Datuk Seri Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail (left) and daughter,
Lembah Pantai MP Nurul Izzah Anwar, speaks to the media on the day of his swearing-in at Parliament, 28 Aug 2008
(Pic courtesy of Merdeka Review)
IT appears fairly safe to say that from the Merdeka weekend to 16 Sept 2008, our national narrative is and will be coloured by speculative fictions.
The 16th of September, also Malaysia Day, has added significance for Malaysians in the coming weeks since it is the day on which opposition leader Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim has pledged to form a new, Pakatan Rakyat-led government.
But hope, further enforced by the prime-minister-in-waiting’s landslide victory in the Permatang Pauh by-election on 26 Aug 2008, now comes inflected with doubts about the future.
Such uncertainties explain the mood at the Parti Sosialis Malaysia (PSM)-organised Forum Politik Kiri: Apa Selepas Permatang Pauh? at the Kuala Lumpur and Selangor Chinese Assembly Hall on 29 Aug.
The panel at the forum comprised Sungai Siput Member of Parliament (MP) Dr Jeyakumar Devaraj, who is also PSM central committee member; PAS MP for Shah Alam Khalid Abdul Samad; Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) supreme council member Badrul Hisham Shaharin; Malaysiakini chief editor Steven Gan; and columnist Hishamuddin Rais.
Three days after Anwar’s historic win, and a day after he was sworn in as MP and made opposition leader, the audience at the forum had more doubts than certainty about the future government envisioned by Anwar and the Pakatan Rakyat.
During the post-forum question-and-answer session, the panel was queried as to whether Anwar’s promise would come to pass. Above and beyond that, the audience wanted to know whether the Pakatan Rakyat, a loose and somewhat uneasy coalition comprising PKR, PAS and the DAP, was actually prepared for the ramifications associated with transitioning into government.
The road in Permatang Pauh, lined with flags and banners for the by-election
that saw Anwar’s return to Parliament
No different from the BN?
Discussion was frank. Among the issues tossed on the table were the future conflict among Pakatan Rakyat component parties because of their sometimes wildly divergent ideologies; the possibility of PAS jumping ship, as symbolised by the party’s reported talks with Umno; and the threat of violence come Malaysia Day in view of the previous flashpoints in our political past.
One succinct audience member, identifying himself as an “orang muda yang non-partisan”, observed that during the Permatang Pauh by-election he saw opposition adherents lapping up their leader’s rhetoric without question or reflection. He saw these supporters as a “complete Xerox of Barisan Nasional (BN) supporters”, and wondered whether the Pakatan Rakyat government, if it comes to power, could avoid turning into a facsimile of the regime it replaces.
There are, of course, concrete reasons to feel a little apprehensive. Anwar’s comeback may be one of the greatest in any Malaysian political career; Permatang Pauh demonstrated Anwar’s ability to shrug off allegations of sexual scandal.
Perhaps inoculated against it by the 1998 sodomy charge that was overturned by the Federal Court in 2004, fresh accusations have only served to strengthen Anwar’s popularity and further dent the BN’s credibility, a political feat few manage.
The Pakatan Rakyat governments of Kelantan, Kedah, Penang, Perak and Selangor have, considering challenges such as destroyed records, arguably done okay. Yet the coalition’s current plans appear nothing if not shaky.
More than 30 needed
If the Pakatan Rakyat is to gain a simple majority in parliament, it will need 30 BN MPs to switch teams. According to Malaysiakini’s Gan, however, it will need more.
Since the slated jumpers are rumoured to be East Malaysian, it will not correct the non-Malay-to-Malay ratio imbalance, which already preoccupies some quarters. “I feel that until and unless you see 10 to 15 Umno MPs defecting, only then will you have a credible alternative,” Gan said.
In any case, this is by no means a sure thing — and, since it is ethically questionable (defection is a telling term), not a reassuring way to form a government that promises better and more transparent governance.
“Will 16 Sept happen?” said Gan. “I asked Anwar: ‘Are you bluffing?’ He answered: ‘I’m privy to information I can’t divulge.'”
Assertions to be cautious were made most strongly by the panellists themselves, in what was to be a candid and fairly rhetoric-less consideration of the possibilities facing the Malaysian polity.
Hishamuddin provided portentous commentary, warning that, in light of angry crowds storming the Bar Council and protests against rock concerts (incidentally, Avril Lavigne was performing that night, right across the street in Stadium Merdeka despite objections by PAS Youth), the current menace to Malaysian society is “ketuanan Islam/Arab” — ketuanan Melayu in sheepskin.
Go right for the left forum “This is coming soon,” Hishamuddin said, apocalyptically. “They are now speaking on behalf of God. The battle will be with something unknown.” More significantly, this was a barb that PAS would have felt.
“It took Anwar 40 years to realise that Malaysia is a multicultural country,” Hishamuddin said, in reference to the former Umno rising star’s coloured past. The implication was, what with PAS’s well-publicised talks with Umno on “Islam and current Islamic issues, the Malays and national unity”, some quarters of the Islamist party might not necessarily subscribe to the Pakatan Rakyat’s credo of plurality.
Khalid, who appeared that evening in a shirt that sported Chinese calligraphy (he had attended a celebration hosted by the Chinese community in his constituency earlier that evening), clarified that Islam is PAS’s main ideological goal, but reassured the room that there would be no place for an alliance with Umno.
As for zealotry, he asserted that everyone has the right to religious beliefs and values, but they would be overstepping that right should they try to force those values upon other communities — a particularly salient point for multi-ethnic, religiously diverse Malaysia.
It’s worth noting that on 27 March, Khalid became the first elected Muslim MP to step into the Roman Catholic Church of the Divine Mercy in Shah Alam, for which he received a standing ovation.
The people’s business
More pressingly, Khalid, whose brother is domestic trade and consumer affairs minister Datuk Shahrir Samad and Umno supreme council member, maintained that the most important step now for the fledgling coalition of the Pakatan Rakyat is to close ranks.
“We can’t carry on in this situation,” Khalid said, referring to the Pakatan Rakyat’s lack of formal cohesion, and of a manifesto. “We’ve got to sit down and come up with what we agree and disagree on, and to agree to disagree, as long as these issues don’t interfere with the practical workings of government.”
The problem of internecine conflict is real, but according to Khalid, the signal from Malaysian voters is clear: “We have to rule together. This is a mandate from the population. We’ve got to iron out our differences.”
Dr Jeyakumar, speaking in his capacity as PSM central committee member, confirmed that working together would mean compromise. The Pakatan Rakyat’s stand on foreign direct investment, for example, is far from PSM’s principles; but since there is no third, socialist option, they are starved of choices, he said.
“The Pakatan Rakyat is massively superior to the BN,” Jeyakumar asserted, citing the opposition’s consistency in matters such as race relations. The current political climate is, in his opinion, a prime opportunity to break away from divide-and-rule race relations and from corruption, unsavoury realities still endemic to Malaysian politics.
Moving forward is paramount. “We should focus on the common issues. We’ll deal with our (PSM’s) demands when they (Pakatan Rakyat) come into power.”
The panel, from left: Hishamuddin, Gan, Badrul, Jeyakumar and Khalid Jeyakumar, who delivered a resounding victory over MIC strongman and president Datuk Seri S Samy Vellu in the 8 March 2008 elections, speculated on whether the projected crossovers to the Pakatan Rakyat would precipitate the BN’s collapse. “If we deny the BN federal power, it is likely that they will shrink,” Jeyakumar explained. “We will not have a two-party system. The BN will crumble.
“If this comes true, if there is a single coalition in government, then there’s a possibility that the Pakatan Rakyat will turn out like the BN,” Jeyakumar continued.
The only thing in the way of this forlorn state of affairs is the people’s will. “This is our role. The people of Malaysia made the Pakatan Rakyat sit at the same table. We must hold the politicians accountable for their promises.”
Acknowledging problems and initiating dialogue was the evening’s lesson, and the Pakatan Rakyat representatives on the panel were eager to show their willingness to engage.
Badrul Hisham — more popularly known as Chegubard, Khairy Jamaluddin’s challenger for the Rembau parliamentary seat in March — spoke plainly: “Anwar is only an icon for the moment. But we will need lobbies, ready to drag leadership through to fruition. Leaders need to be continually compelled for things to get done.”
Active citizens’ involvement is key. “You can’t keep saying that government is their business,” Badrul said, referring to the standard Malaysian tendency to disengage and complain. Stewardship of the future is a shared, involved duty. “Government is our business.”