Ambassador at large Bilahari Kausikan should interpret political developments in Malaysia as part of a larger worldwide trend of regime change among dominant party regimes

Media Statement by Dr. Ong Kian Ming, MP for Serdang, on the 8th of October, 2015

Ambassador at large Bilahari Kausikan should interpret political developments in Malaysia as part of a larger worldwide trend of regime change among dominant party regimes

In his op-ed entitled “Singapore is not an Island”,[1] Bilahari Kausikan, Singapore’s Ambassador-at-large and R Nathan fellow at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, was quick to interpret the current political struggle in Malaysia as one that pitted the Muslims against the non-Muslims and the Malays against the non-Malays, specifically the Chinese.

I was surprised by his choice to interpret the political events in Malaysia through this narrow lens, especially given his diplomatic experience, rather than to examine the political forces in Malaysia as part of a larger global trend where regimes that were once seen as impregnable, were brought down through a peaceful electoral route. And it is this route which the opposition forces in Malaysia are committed to.

Malaysia’s Barison Nasional (BN) coalition is currently the longest ruling government via popular elections in contemporary political history. But it is not the longest. The Institutional Revolutionary Party or PRI ruled Mexico unchallenged from 1929 to 2000 with regular elections at the presidential, gubernatorial, legislative and municipality levels. It dominated state institutions, the legislature and every state governorship and its rule was seemingly unchallengeable. But in the 2000 presidential elections, the PRI candidate, Franciso Labastida Ochoa, lost to PAN’s Vicente Fox Quesada, a former Coca-Cola executive and governor of Guanajuato, in a three horse race.

In 2000, the uninterrupted rule of the Kuomintang (KMT) party in Taiwan was also ended with the victory of the Democratic Progressive Party’s (DPP’s) Chen Shui Bian, also in a three horse race.

More recently, Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which had dominated post-war politics in Japan for more than half a decade, lost the 2009 general elections to the Democratic Party of Japan (DP).

Other less well known dominant party regimes that have lost power via the electoral route include the Socialist Party in Senegal (1960 to 2000) and the Colorado Party in Uruguay (1947 to 2008).

What did these regimes have in common? Many years of political dominance had led to ever increasing amounts of unchecked corruption. Inter elite splits within the ruling coalition had slowly weakened them over time. And the opposition had consolidated and / or strengthened over time in order to pool their forces to defeat the long ruling regime.

This is the context in which Malaysia is finding itself today. Given Malaysia’s electoral system i.e. a parliamentary rather than a presidential system, the opposition cannot count on winning power via elite splits in a presidential race. Furthermore, in a grossly malapportioned electoral system, the only way in which the opposition can win a majority of seats is by winning at least some of the semi-urban and rural seats on top of the urban seats it overwhelmingly won in the 2013 general elections. And given that these semi-urban and rural seats are predominantly Malay or Bumiputera (in Sabah and Sarawak), this would mean that the opposition would have to win a larger % of the Malay and Bumiputera vote. No one in the opposition is deluded in thinking that we can win a majority of seats just by winning an overwhelming majority of non-Malay and especially Chinese votes. Nor are we deluding our supporters into thinking this.

Indeed, Ambassador Kausikan should be reminded that 40 Bumiputera (39 Malays and 1 Kadazan) opposition Members of Parliament were voted into office in the 2013 general elections compared with just 32 Malay MPs in the 1999 general elections which saw PAS emerging as the largest opposition party.

What we want to do, in fact, what we HAVE to do, is to build a broad-based coalition which can win at last 60% of the popular vote (which would mean winning a significant percentage of the Malay and Bumiputera vote). We can do this not just by highlighting the excesses in terms of corruption and abuse of power by the ruling coalition, the rise in the cost of living due to the ham fisted implementation of the Goods and Services Tax (GST) and the pathetic attempt by the ruling coalition to raise inter-ethnic tensions but also by presenting a set of clear policy alternatives on how a new opposition coalition can govern better compared to the ruling regime.

Ambassador Kausikan is right to say that Singapore has “no choice but to work with whatever system or leader emerges in Malaysia.” But one cannot help but wonder if his fears about a possible transition in power in Malaysia, especially one that is peaceful and well-ordered, is driven more by his fears of such a possibility in Singapore in the distant but foreseeable future than for his concern of what might happen in Malaysia?

Dr. Ong Kian Ming
Member of Parliament for Serdang