Malaysia's 'back door government' consolidates

March 17, 2020
A 'Clown Najib' placard at a Bersih rally in Kuala Lumpur in November 2016. Photo: Khairil Yusof/flickr.

Malaysia now has a new government dominated by politicians who were part of the corrupt former Prime Minister Najib Razak's National Front/Barisan Nasional (BN) government, which was voted out in the country's 2018 general election.

A new cabinet was sworn in on March 10 after the king appointed Muhyiddin Yassin as prime minister, following the defection of several MPs from the elected Alliance of Hope/Pakatan Harapan (PH) government. The new government's majority has yet to be tested in parliament and its resumption, originally scheduled for March 9, was postponed to May 18.

Green Left spoke to Socialist Party of Malaysia (PSM) deputy chairperson
S Arutchelvan (Arul) about the latest political developments.

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Former PM Mohamed Mahathir's assessment is that the new government will be able to survive any no-confidence motion moved by PH when parliament resumes. Do you agree?

If we count the political parties represented in the new expanded cabinet, Muhyiddin already has the support of 113 MPs — slightly more than 50% of the 222 in the parliament.

Currently, there is no serious opposition to the appointed government and many people are asking for it to be given a bit of time. There is talk from a number of parties in parliament about forcing a snap election after parliament resumes on May 18. However, Muhyiddin has also been trying to consolidate his position.

In the non-Malay minority communities, there is fear about the Malay dominance in cabinet, but the new government has assured the public they will be fair to people from all ethnicities. When the Islamic Party (PAS) — which has three ministers and five deputy ministers in the new cabinet — was questioned by the media about their plans to introduce Islamic law, they said: there is no urgency on that, let's focus on the economy.

Mahathir blames Najib for "masterminding" the PH government's collapse, but he expresses no shock or surprise that MPs from his own party, Bersatu, are so easily bought off with cabinet positions. What is your comment on the number of MPs and state assembly members from other parties in PH who have jumped over to other parties recently?

It is clear that there are lots of “frogs” around!

Both Bersatu and PKR [People's Justice Party, the largest party in PH] are split.

Even DAP [Democratic Action Party, the second-biggest party in PH] and AMANAH [National Trust Party] members are jumping.

This is a very bad sign for PH. 

In addition to the federal government, three states previously ruled by PH have collapsed: Johor, Perak and Melaka, because of PH MPs — especially from Bersatu — jumping ship. The stable PH state governments are Penang, Selangor and Negeri Sembilan.

Kedah, whose chief minister is Mahathir’s son, is very shaky and may fall. The other states were already in the hands of PAS and UMNO [United Malays National Organisation, the party that dominated the government from 1957 to 2018].

There have been protests outside the offices of the two Perak state assembly members from the DAP, who jumped ship. These were in the seats of Tronoh and Buntong, where the PSM stood two very good and tested community activists. If they had been elected, as they could have been if the DAP did not stand against them, at least the people there would not be regretting, as they are today.

All PSM candidates are carefully vetted before standing in election and they are committed to stand by the political platform they took to the election.

In contrast, the PH parties have demonstrated that they have no party line or party discipline. Their politicians are not strongly committed to the PH political platform and many of them are just power crazy — that is what keeps them going.

The current situation is not transparent. Politicians can change parties after an election without even telling the public. They just submit a statutory declaration to the king, in the case of federal MPs, or to the local sultan, in the case of state assembly members. They should at least be compelled to do it in parliament. 

We need laws against such party hopping. If a politician hops to a different party, perhaps there should be a by-election and perhaps the hopping MP should be not be allowed to contest in that byelection.

Have the recent developments set back the movement for democracy? What are the chances for rebuilding a broad democratic movement of the streets like we saw at the height of the Bersih [the Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections] mass protests a few years ago?

Yes, this has seriously set the movement back. Some people say we are back to where we started in 1998 with the Reformasi movement. Others say we are going back to a dark time like 1987 when then PM Mahathir carried out operasi lalang [“operation weeding”, in which more than 100 movement activists, opposition politicians, intellectuals, students, artists, scientists and others were detained without trial under the notorious Internal Security Act] or even further back!

Generally, people are fed up. The collapse of the elected government has added to the economic pain people were already suffering, even before the threat of COVID-19. Now, many people are feeling really helpless. Many non-Malays see no hope at all for the country and are thinking of emigrating. Most people cannot afford to emigrate, so they only feel fear.

On the positive side, younger people are fed up with the old generation of politicians and their parties and the PSM's membership has increased in the last two weeks.

There is an opportunity to rebuild a broad democratic movement of the streets, but there is currently no clear leadership towards this. Many previous leaders of Bersih 2.0 have lost their political authority with the people, because some blame them for their involvement in the factional politics of the former PH government.

Bersih leaders have also been incorporated into the official governmental electoral reform sub-committee.

So, Bersih is in a dilemma. It fears that if it calls a mobilisation against this backdoor government, the turn out won't be very multiracial and this could politically backfire on the movement.

The COVID-19 pandemic is also putting people off from attending meetings and protest rallies. Then, at the end of April, there will be the fasting month of Ramadan, before the parliament sits. That will also make holding rallies harder.

The PSM plans a nationwide speaking tour to get feedback from the people on the current situation and to argue for building a third force in politics.

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