A little over a year into its term, Pakatan Harapan (PH) is beset with serious internal discord and challenges from without. It has come to the point where many, including senior PH leaders, are now wondering whether the coalition will even survive the next elections.
Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad, of course, dismisses all such talk, even threatening disciplinary action against fellow Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (PPBM) members who question the party’s direction. Perhaps he feels it does not reflect well on his leadership.
But denial is not an option. There is rising public anger, disillusionment and disappointment over PH’s management of the economy, the slow pace of institutional reforms and the handling of sensitive issues relating to race and religion. Indeed, many of the same people who once cheered Mahathir on and hailed him as the nation’s saviour are now clamouring for him to hand power to Anwar Ibrahim.
Is PPBM the problem?
It’s not that the public is impatient or fickle; they are simply fed up with the lack of direction, the infighting and the needlessly provocative issues that keep cropping up. Regardless of what Mahathir may think, many inside the coalition are now urging an immediate course correction to stop the haemorrhaging of public support.
One thing that is not talked about much, however, is whether PPBM itself is part of the problem. Time and again, PPBM appears to be out of step with its coalition partners. They seem to lack team spirit, they do not appear to share the same commitment to and passion for reformasi that animate the rest of the coalition.
Take the Zakir Naik issue, for example. Despite the fact that he is a deeply polarizing and controversial figure, PPBM leaders from Mahathir downwards appear to be bending over backward to protect him, oblivious to the immense political damage it is inflicting on PH as a whole.
Even now, before the dust has time to settle, Mohd Rafiq Naizamohideen, a PPBM supreme council member no less, is recklessly aggravating the situation by inviting Naik to attend a prayer session in Melaka. UMNO and PAS have taken heed of the ban against Naik but not PPBM. Of course, they say they have obtained permission from the police but the larger issue is why Naik and why now?
Worse still, Rafiq appears to be trying to turn the issue into a religious one by suggesting that he is somehow standing up for Islam and the rights of all Muslims when all he is doing is grandstanding.
It is worth remembering that all through this long-running saga, no one has ever denigrated Islam or questioned the right of Muslims to invite anyone to preach, pray or speak. Indeed, hundreds of Muslim preachers and speakers have visited our shores without any problems. It is Naik’s constant belittling of other faiths and, more recently, his politically charged comments about Malaysians of Indian and Chinese origin, that is the problem. Does Rafiq not understand this?
And what does it say of PH solidarity when PPBM dines and fusses over the very person who is currently suing their colleagues in PH? Mahathir could, of course, easily put an end to this charade but he allows it to go on and on.
It is this perfidy of PPBM leaders that has caused many to turn against PH. Many will never again vote PPBM because leaders like Rafiq have too much of the UMNO mentality in them. We didn’t exorcize UMNO from Putrajaya only to see their ghosts stalk the halls of power again.
It was also a PPBM leader who upped the ante a few weeks ago when tensions were already high over the khat issue by saying (according to press reports) that “it’s time for Malays to rise up and defend Malay culture before it is destroyed.” This is the kind of inflammatory racially-tinged remark that is the hallmark of UMNO-PAS, not something we expect from a PH leader.
Finding common purpose
I suppose we shouldn’t be too surprised by PPBM’s lack of reformist zeal and commitment to the core values of PH. They were, after all, latecomers to the reformasi struggle, jumping on the bandwagon just in time to enjoy the fruits of victory that others had fought long and hard for.
They also came in with a different, more UMNO-like mindset. Though they were one of the smallest parties in the coalition with the least electoral support, they grabbed more than their fair share of cabinet posts. And, instead of working with the multiparty majority they won at the ballot box, they schemed from the get-go to recruit UMNO members to grow their own party. They also meddled in the affairs of PKR by bringing Azmin Ali into cabinet knowing full well that it would only exacerbate tensions between Azmin and Anwar.
The cumulative effect of their actions has been disastrous for PH as a whole, damaging intra-coalition unity and distracting the government from fulfilling its promises. Unless change comes quickly, there might well be nothing left for Anwar to inherit when he finally takes over.
Everyone understands, of course, that it is imperative for PPBM (and Amanah) in particular to win greater Malay support but it should do so without alienating PH’s non-Malay base. Becoming a mirror image of UMNO-PAS is tempting and easy but it is no longer a guarantee for electoral success. Too much has changed since GE14 to go back to the old ways.
A far more sustainable alternative would be for PPBM to work in good faith with its coalition partners on an agenda that would attract the all-important Malay vote without jeopardizing non-Malay support, an agenda that all coalition partners can defend and promote with equal vigour, passion and commitment for the good of the nation.
We have a historic opportunity to break from the past and chart a new course, one that is based on the principle of win-win for all ethnic groups. It is not an impossible task if PH leaders themselves demonstrate the unity and respect that they are demanding from the rest of the nation. Isn’t that the promise of hope that PH once held out to all Malaysians?
[Dennis Ignatius | Kuala Lumpur | 5th September 2019]