Malaysia: The Musical Chair of Malay Politics

22 Aug 2008
Princess Diana once said “three’s a crowd”. This is truism not only for the dwellers of Kensington Palace, but also for Malay politics in Malaysia.
If one is puzzled by the never ending political manoeuvring centred around sodomy allegations against Anwar Ibrahim and suggestions of defection to the opposition by standing UMNO members of parliament – to say nothing of other rumours and possibilities – the unique dynamics of Malay political representation in Malaysia portends some useful explanations.
After the sea-changing March 8 elections earlier this year, Malaysia’s Malay constituency had split three ways, between the United Malays Nationalist Organisation [UMNO] (winning 29.99% of national votes, returning 79 Malay/Bumiputera parliamentarians), Partai Keadilan Rakyat [PKR] (18.56%, 20 Malay parliamentarians and 11 non-Malay ones) and Partai Islam Se-Malaysia [PAS] (14.58%, 23 Malay parliamentarians).
Such a three-way split is uncommon. For 46 out of the 52 years since Malaya’s home rule election in 1955, the Malay ground had been largely shared by only two parties – on the government side, UMNO, and in the opposition camp, PAS.
In the 50s and 60s, PAS had been the prime force of the Malay opposition despite the presence of nationalist, socialist or regionalist Malay-based parties like Parti Negara, Parti Rakyat and the Perak Malay League. It was only when PAS joined the UMNO-led Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition in 1974, that Parti Sosialist Rakyat Malaysia had the chance to capture some PAS supporters to almost quadruple its vote share from 1.13% to 3.97%. The leftist party however still failed to win any representation in the Parliament.
By and large, the two-party format withstood the test of time, even during the UMNO-PAS cohabitation interregnum between 1974 and 1977. This temporary unity was bound to be uncomfortable as both Malay-Muslim parties believed in and advocated communal unity – UMNO in Malays, and PAS in Muslims – a differentiation that was problematic for a variety of reasons.
After their bitter divorce in 1977, UMNO and PAS respectively dominated the pro-establishment and anti-establishment Malay vote up to 1990. In between, two splinter parties emerged from PAS’ schisms, directly or indirectly caused by the unhappy UMNO-PAS union. Neither of these parties managed to shake PAS’ core support or carve a segment out of the UMNO base. They were to die quietly in years to come.
Tripartism made its debut in Malay politics during the 1990 elections when Tengku Razaleigh’s Semangat 46 Party (S46) emerged on the scene. Even then, the existence of three parties was not intended. The Kelantan prince cum UMNO senior cabinet minister formed his nationalist splinter party only after UMNO was de-registered by the courts over electoral irregularities. That in turn followed a battle royale in the 1987 party elections between the factions of Razaleigh and party president cum Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohammad. The premier who won a wafer-thin victory of 41 votes (2.9%) shrewdly purged his rival supporters by excluding them from the New UMNO he formed to succeed the deregistered one.
The 1990 general elections were therefore Razaleigh’s surrogate battle to win the crown of premiership. To achieve this gaol, his S46 party formed two coalitions – one with PAS, and the other one with Chinese-based Democratic Action Party (DAP) – to rival BN.
No one knows if UMNO would have survived had Razaleigh’s coalitions won the election. But S46 immediately lost its relevance after its miserable performance in the poll. The brief period of tripartism ended in 1996 when Razeleigh dissolved S46 to rejoin UMNO after his party performed worse in the 1995 polls. The UMNO splinter party had found its support base increasingly eroded by both UMNO and PAS.
UMNO split again somewhat two years later with the purging of Anwar Ibrahim, then deputy to Mahathir. However, the wave of Reformasi did not produce a three-party dynamic in both the 1999 and 2004 polls. The majority of the anti-establishment Malay votes had gone to PAS and the survival of PKR, the party set up by the Anwar faction was in question even until last year.
As the co-existence of parties that court the Malay vote is historically untenable, intense manoeuvring has taken place since March 8. Like three players competing to grab two chairs in a game of musical chairs, UMNO, PKR and PAS all want to make sure that the victim is someone else.
For Anwar, the third party that should be winnowed out is of course UMNO. And vice versa, UMNO wants to eliminate the multiethnic-in-principle PKR which is the anti-thesis of the Malay nationalist UMNO.
PAS is divided into two – one faction shares Anwar’s goal of eliminating UMNO, while the other feels that the party has been sidelined by the PKR after March 8 and perhaps made irrelevant with the talk of multi-racial politics. This explains the rumblings of a union between UMNO and PAS again
After the March 8 elections, PAS wanted to compete with PKR in attracting UMNO turncoats so that it would not be dwarfed by the PKR, should UMNO collapse. Some senior leaders were authorised to approach UMNO parliamentarians, but UMNO turned the table around by making counteroffers.
Eventually, the pro-Pakatan Rakyat faction gained the upper hand in PAS. For the moment at least, all talk of UMNO-PAS cooperation has stopped. However the rumours of party defections continue, not least because of Anwar Ibrahim’s campaign – from Permatang Pauh (the constituency in which he is fighting a by-election on 26 Aug) to Putrajaya (the administrative capital).
But then, why can’t there be room for the third party? The answer lies in the electoral system which makes intra-ethnic pluralism extremely costly. Under the first-past-the-post (FPTP) system, the winner takes all. If a majority group is evenly divided into two groups, a united minority group may emerge victorious.
PKR’s multi-racial platform represents a unique gamble – the multi-racial model seems to have convinced the Chinese and Indian citizenry, but the PKR needs to expend serious political capital explaining multi-racial politics to Malays, many of whom remain undecided and unsure.
The Malay elite and masses are likely to only dare allow two-party competition when they constitute a super-majority, such as in the states of Kelantan and Terengganu, where Malays represent about 90% of the electorate. The split of Malay votes between UMNO and PKR-PAS in ethnically mixed West Coast states like Perak and Selangor in the aftermath of the 2008 elections, remains an anomaly.
For Malaysians and foreigners who wonder when the dust will settle, the answer may be depressing; until one of the three parties that is splitting the Malay vote, UMNO, PKR and PAS, loses this game of musical chairs.
Wong Chin Huat reads electoral system and party politics at the University of Essex, and teaches journalism at Monash University (Sunway Campus – Malaysia).