The victory of Pakatan Harapan in Malaysian GE14 gave some hope. It was a model where different political factions came together to create a powerful political force that ousted the ruling coalition in Malaysia. I attended numerous events where local activists in Singapore were celebrating Pakatan Harapan’s win in May this year and our activists were hoping that Dr Mahathir could play an advisory role to bring about democracy in Singapore.
With the outbreak of maritime disputes between Singapore and Kuala Lumpur, any help from up north is met with scorn and suspicion. The new coalition government in Malaysia is not only struggling with domestic issues such as the temple riot and a Malay pushback which opposes the ratification of ICERD; it is also not able to bring to fruition much of the electoral promises. Which has prompted some to say that the Pakatan Harapan offers little inspiration for our activists to draw on.
In an interview in July this year with Michelle Ng of the Democratic Action Party, she spoke of a new dawn where people of all races lived peacefully and happily. She also spoke about how the Reformasi Movement has heralded a new era in Malaysia, where all races were equal, and a system of meritocracy would prevail.
If yesterday’s Anti-ICERD rally was anything to go by, UMNO and PAS, the two main opposition parties are taking Malaysia down a very dangerous path. If the former avatar of UMNO was corrupt, the new incarnation is politically ruthless – at the Anti-ICERD rally, UMNO called for Malay unity to regain power. It almost seems like Malaysia has taken one step forward and two steps back where meritocracy is concerned.
There are two forces driving Malaysian politics today, a movement to rid the nefarious political elites through the Reformasi movement and the other is populism and identity politics – the two combined is a potent mix of political tea-leaves, which would take years, if not, decades to undo.
From the outside, it looks like the Pakatan Harapan coalition is standing on thin ice, with Lim Kit Siang leading the charge for equal rights for all races. The party leaders in PH are trying to balance the needs of its coalition partners while at the same time trying to appease the Malay voter bank. It is a constant balancing act and the tenuous coalition has just turn out to be a marriage of convenience – a ticket to gain access to the corridors of power.
Depending on the person that you speaking to in KL, you’ll hear a different story about Zakir Naik, an Indian fugitive who has sought political asylum in Malaysia or a Muslim clergy who is persecuted by the ruling Hindu fundamentalist in India and has found a new home in Malaysia. Either way, the Indian MPs in Pakatan Harapan felt it necessary to voice their concerns about his sermons which were religiously inciteful. Dr. Mahathir said that Zakir could stay as long as he behaves himself.
According to Merdeka Centre, Pakatan Harapan’s voter base are mainly ethnic minorities and urban liberal Malays youths. The rural Malays are still supportive of UMNO. The anti-ICERD rally drives a wedge into the coalition with Dr M and Anwar Ibrahim caught in-between.
With so many issues at their home front, one would think that PH would spend more time settling domestic issues, fixing their economy, and settling the racial tensions which are rearing its ugly head from time to time. On the contrary, the PH government has been in an endless spat with Singapore on many other issues – from the price of raw water from Johor, to high-speed rail project and now it has “unilaterally” extended the Johor-port limits all the way into Singapore’s maritime port at Tuas.
Our local political pundits were quick to point out that this is Dr. M posturing. Balbir Singh called it Mahathirism. Speaker of Parliament, Tan Chuan Jin said in a Facebook post that it is Mahathir back at his old tricks. Maybe so, but I’ll argue that populism has taken a new form. The battle for mindshare is no longer about economic left or right. It is cultural populism and it has come right here at our doorstep.
Cultural populism is a worldwide phenomenon and it manifests itself differently in different cultures: As a Hindu fundamentalist movement in India; white-heterosexual men in America who were losing out to women at their workplace and Black Americans; xenophobic movements in Europe and the force behind Brexit. All these have one thing in common, a form of nationalistic fervour, a distrust of the nefarious ruling elite and identity politics.
Seen in this light, you’ll soon realise that there is a good reason why the political elite from around the world feel that Facebook is a threat to democratic institutions – it is platform that promotes and propagates cultural populism and a vehicle that proliferates disinformation by various political actors.
Singapore’s political DNA is very different from Malaysia, and I don’t see race-based politics playing out as a populist movement and neither do our activists have the stomach for it. However, there is a real possibility of nationalistic movements or anti-foreigner sentiments flaring up to gain widespread traction.
Malaysia offers valuable lessons in politics and it teaches us that there is a need to get our politics right. We need to reject identity politics in all forms, whether it is against ethnic minorities or foreign nationals that have made Singapore their home. For now, dewy-eyed Michelle Ng can take heart that the darkest hour is just before dawn. As for our political activists at home, who were looking at PH or more precisely Dr. M for inspiration, they can of course hold a candle in hope of a better tomorrow.
There is a lot to be gained through mutual economic cooperation with Malaysia. While economic competition between the two should be encouraged, maritime disputes need to be handled with due care. The heightened tensions give the two governments avenues to deescalate the current conflict through international tribunals.
Most importantly, let’s leave identity politics at the tip of Peninsula Malaysia and we do not welcome it through the redrawing of boundaries and incursions at Point 20 Sliver into Tuas Port.