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Power transition vs clash of ideologies

  • The differences between Mahathir and Anwar are more than just the love-hate relationship between the two men, but also the confrontation of their diverging political faiths.

By Dr Zhang Miao

The dust has long settled over the 14th general elections, but there is still no finality to the handover of premiership.

Almost 17 months now and soon the final countdown will start as the clock ticks towards the two-year handover deadline, but the power transition remains a mystery today. The factional fights within PKR will only exacerbate the unpredictability.

The love-hate relationship between Tun Mahathir and Anwar Ibrahim has become old memories towards the end of the last century. The split between the PM and his deputy was not just a way for Mahathir to crush his immediate subordinate's excessive political ambitions, but was also a rude solution by a hardline leader to tackle ideological discrepancies.

Early this century, following the expansion of the middle class as well as constant changes to our social structure, the “fair and democratic” cross-community political philosophy began to emerge with “Save Anwar” as its mission. And the Reformasi movement that followed gave rise to cross-community political campaign.

Prior to the May 9 general elections last year, Mahathir and Anwar shook hands under the banner of “toppling Najib”. With overthrowing Umno being the primary motivation force for the reconciliation, sure enough political differences and personal grudges took a back seat.

That said, there are intrinsic differences between the “defending bumiputra rights” communal politics, and the “equality, democracy and liberty” cross-community political philosophy.

The differences between Mahathir and Anwar are more than just the love-hate relationship between the two men, but also the confrontation of their diverging political faiths. And such a confrontation begins to re-surface after the collapse of Umno, as evidenced by the PH government's self-contradictory positions in a number of race-related issues.

It is hard for authoritarian racism to coexist peacefully with the universal values of equality and righteousness. Mahathir will never approve the political appeals of the Reformasi movement, as his autocratic rule was the exact target of Reformasi some two decades back. How possible will he allow the reform pledges of Reformasi to kill his own political legacy? Moreover, how do we expect a political strongman who has never been thrown into the prison unjustifiably to understand the noble meaning of “equality and righteousness”?

As such, the Mahathir-Anwar handover of baton is not just administrative transition but also a transition from one political philosophy to another. What holds things up is not just a man's political ambitions, but ordinary voters who have effective ballots in their hands.

In democratic politics, power is all about the number game. Anwar may have learned to be a little “more patient” by now, but the reality is that the urban middle class that supports his political dream is still numerically inferior to the majority of conservative Malays scattered across plantations and villages. And this is the major reason PH cannot afford to take the risk by decisively completing the handover task.

If Anwar wants to have the upper hand in this tug-of-war, he will have to reawaken the Malay community's “equal rights” political consciousness by way of constantly lifting their socioeconomic levels. Only the emergence of a sizable middle class will fundamentally lend the much needed support for Anwar to ultimately materialize PH's reform agenda.

Anwar's dilemma now is his lack of a powerful middle class that will help him materialize his reform dream of a fair and just Malaysian society, as well as a unified PH strategy to firm up the coalition's support base among majority of the Malays, not to mention the need to tame down the growingly intense factional conflicts.

Besides internal incohesion, PH still needs to deal with real external threats from the opposition. An Umno-PAS alliance that is already expert in racist agendas is now prowling at the gate!

The incoherent reactions of PH component parties over a recent spate of issues such as matriculation quota, Zakir Naik incident and teaching of Seni Khat at vernacular schools, among others, have put everyone in confusion, showing how unprepared the ruling coalition is in the face of aggressive enemies. Mishandling of such sensitive issues will cause a further drain of PH's Malay votes and a further delay in the handover plan, which will unfortunately put things back into a new vicious circle.

The biggest difference between a politician and a statesman lies with the fact that a politician is only concerned about the stability of his administration, while a statesman sets his sights on the nation's future.

Improving the national economy may be the most important political agenda that will unite the nation now. The PH leadership should draw up long-term plans to spearhead the country's socioeconomic development, implement institutional reforms and optimize the education system to fundamentally close up inter-community conceptual differences and income disparities. This is the only way to create a Malaysia for all Malaysians and accomplish the country's total economic and political transformation.

Of course, building up a system is a protracted process but it is hugely beneficial to the country's long-term development. If PH is unable to quickly put itself in a more advantageous position in race-related issues in which it is not an expert, it may lose the next election. But, that is not the end of everything, as it can still stage a powerful comeback after another five years, when Malaysian voters become more politically mature and when they yearn for a government that is firm, decisive and with a macroscopic vision, not an immature PH that is still clueless and divided in the midst of race politics.

Without such foresight and audacity, PH will only dance to Umno-PAS' racist tune and fall into their trap, in the end failing the mandate given by the voters while letting a golden opportunity to build a New Malaysia slip by.

There are unpredictabilities along the road of reform, and indeed it is at times inevitable to avert the destinies of compromises and concessions. Building a New Malaysia will require a statesman who is firm and resolved, not an indecisive politician who cares only about his own political safety.

Honoring election pledges and promises will not only reflect the nobility of a person's characters but also is a form of respect for the voters who have wholeheartedly supported PH.

Indecision over power transition will further arouse internal conflicts within the ruling coalition and tear our society apart, bringing great shame to democracy under the so-called New Malaysia.

(Dr. Zhang Miao is Associate Professor at Xiamen University, China.)

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