Dennis Ignatius: A House Divided, a Nation Adrift

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Some six decades after independence we have come to something of a dead end.

In the last two years, our nation has witnessed some of the most tumultuous events in its history. UMNO which had helmed the nation without interruption since independence fell abruptly in 2018 in large part due to the massive 1MDB corruption scandal. In the year UMNO fell, ‘Merdeka’ was celebrated with renewed national pride; it was as if we had gained our freedom all over again. Hope for a new beginning, a national reset, soared.

We congratulated ourselves that such a stupendous change had occurred peacefully. Indirectly making a comparison with the Arab spring, we prided ourselves that we were somehow more mature, more politically seasoned than our counterparts in the Middle East where anarchy has been a constant companion of political change.

Perhaps our self-admiration was a little premature; to be sure, there has been none of the violence and chaos, but we are now witnessing the political instability that change invariably kindles.

Less than two years after the earth-shattering 14th general election, we are a house divided, a nation adrift on the waters of uncertainty. Pakatan Harapan is just a distant memory now. A backdoor government bound together only by ambition and lust for power holds sway in Putrajaya. They may have the power (at least for now) but they lack the moral legitimacy that in a democracy only the voters can confer.

Disarray and dysfunction increasingly hallmark both the political system and the parties that sustain it. Despite all the hubris about Malay unity, for example, the so-called Malay unity government that sits in Putrajaya is anything but united. UMNO and PPBM can barely get along with each other. Beneath the pretence of partnership is real rancour and resentment; it’s only a matter of time before they turn on each other.

PAS, for all its theological blather about Muslim unity, remains wary and distrustful of UMNO.  They are political scavengers feeding on a decaying system – happy to take what they can get from UMNO and PPBM while being careful to give nothing away in the states they already control. Few in both UMNO and PPBM really trust them.

On the opposite side of the aisle, former leaders of the late great Pakatan Harapan gather in their presidential councils and pretend that they are still a viable force. Their erstwhile leader sits ruminating in the lengthening shadows of his own folly while their presumptive leader tilts Quixote-like at the windmills of Putrajaya. The personal animus between the two ensures that both will be consigned to the margins.

The DAP has been left high and dry once more; both the people the party allied itself with in recent times – Hadi Awang (Pakatan Rakyat) and Mahathir Mohamad (Pakatan Harapan) – did a Brutus on them. With Anwar already marcescent, the party has no one else to hitch its wagon to. In any case, its own failure to evolve into a truly multiracial party (only two of the 30 members on its Central Executive Committee are Malay, for example) has become a millstone around its neck.

What’s more, our political parties are not just divided amongst themselves, they are deeply fractured internally as well.  In UMNO, factionalism has reached levels not seen before with senior leaders engaged in a vicious war of words against each other. In PPBM – home of frogs and backstabbers – the original frogs are suspicious of the latter-day ones. Few will probably survive the next political cull (GE15). And of course, PKR is now a pale shadow of what it once was thanks to internal dissension.

There are plenty of partnerships no doubt – ‘pakatans’, ‘perikatans’ and ‘gabungans’ – but little real relationships. Mahathir despises Anwar; Anwar is sullen and resentful of the way Mahathir treated him. Abang Johari, Zahid Hamidi and Hadi won’t work with Lim Guan Eng; Guan Eng doesn’t exactly see eye to eye with Anwar. Muhyiddin is condemned by everyone in the opposition and barely tolerated by many in his own cabinet. And, of course, it would suit everyone if Najib would just go away.

While the politicians bicker, public trust in both the system and its leaders plummets to new lows. Their treachery, hypocrisy, avariciousness and unprincipled behaviour are simply nauseating. Indeed, they are so shameless and without honour that even criminal convictions or multiple charges of corruption have not deterred them from campaigning or demanding senior positions in government. Nothing is sacred anymore.

In short, there are hardly any credible and competent leaders left to follow. No wonder voters are restless, agitated, and turned off. A popular joke making the rounds neatly sums up the prevailing sentiment: “The [Covid-19] vaccine should be tested on politicians first. If they survive, the vaccine is safe. If they don’t, the country is safe.”

Such is the disdain for politicians that many now dream of an independent third force; there are, after all, still many good men and women out there who care deeply for the country. They have never been more needed. Thus far, however, talk of a third force remains only a fantasy of hyperactive WhatsApp chat groups.

Clearly, some six decades after independence, we have come to something of a dead end. The post-independence political architecture has carried us as far as it can go. Our internal contradictions – democratic yet autocratic in so many ways, religious yet utterly corrupt, a secular constitution in an increasingly Islamic polity, a multi-ethnic society led by irredeemably racist leaders, needing to look ahead but always fighting yesterday’s battles – are rendering us increasingly dysfunctional.

In view of the political impasse, some UMNO leaders are pushing for fresh elections. It’s hard to say whether they really want fresh elections or are simply using the threat of one to intimidate the prime minister into making further concessions. Given the deep divisions within our nation, however, it is unlikely that fresh elections will result in a decisive victory for any party or coalition. Until a new political equilibrium is established, we might have to reconcile ourselves to shaky coalition governments led by uninspiring leaders.

All this political instability couldn’t have come at a worst time. The economy shrank 8.3% in the first half of the year due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Fitch, the international credit rating agency predicts at least 10 years of slower growth thanks in part to political instability. Tens of thousands of fresh graduates will join the growing pool of unemployed. Our industries are languishing; our businesses are stuttering. Real economic pain and hardship are in store for the nation. The next few years might be the most stressful years we’ve ever experienced thus far.