Dennis Ignatius: An Opposition that continues to disappoint

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Pakatan Harapan as it is now constituted is a spent force.


Since signing the MoU, Ismail Sabri appears to have effectively sidelined Pakatan Harapan. All the opposition does now is make a lot of noise; real accomplishments are few and far between. No one even knows what Pakatan Harapan even stands for these days.

In the meantime, with the MoU in his pocket, Prime Minister Ismail Sabri continues to govern with reckless abandon, pursuing the same old Ketuanan Melayu agenda that has wrecked so much damage on the nation.

It should be clear by now that Ismail Sabri is either too weak or too committed to the old ways to undertake the kind of meaningful reforms he talked about soon after coming to power. Just look at his actions since he was sworn in – a deeply flawed Malaysia Plan (12MP) that perpetuates a discriminatory approach to nation-building and does nothing to help those trapped in the B40 group, a budget (2022) that overwhelmingly favours one group over others and an outrageous plan to reward his predecessor with property worth RM100 million.

At the same time, Ismail Sabri has kept silent as his coalition partner PAS continues with its relentless campaign to impose its religious agenda on the nation, curbing the sale of alcohol and banning lotteries.

But none of this is really surprising. What is astonishing, however, is the response of Pakatan Harapan and the leader of the opposition.

During the debate on the 12th Malaysia Plan, several opposition MPs waxed eloquent about the inherent weaknesses of the plan. They demanded an end to racial discrimination and stressed the urgency of moving towards a needs-based policy that would focus on the B40 group. They did not, however, fight tooth and nail to oppose the plan; it passed with a voice vote. When I called around to try to find out how Pakatan Harapan voted, I was met with hostility.

It was déjà vu when it came around to the budget. Opposition leaders took umbrage over the racial bent of the budget and the hugely disproportionate allocation of resources. Bumiputera empowerment programmes were allocated RM11.4 billion while similar programmes for non-Bumiputeras got a mere RM300 million. It took institutionalised racism to a whole new level.  Sabah and Sarawak were also not given their fair share despite the significant contribution both states make to federal revenues.

Astonishingly, the budget too passed at the policy stage with a voice vote. Calls by Muda and Pejuang for a bloc vote went unheeded. It prompted Syed Saddiq to complain that “with all the criticisms levelled at the budget, the others should have stood with us on the unfairness of the budget to all”.

It was only after it was revealed that Cabinet was considering gifting Najib a RM100 million piece of property as part of his retirement benefits that PH leaders finally found the courage to go on the offensive. They are now demanding a meeting with the prime minister. It might be a case of too little too late.

Part of the problem is that the PH leadership is itself deeply divided. While PKR and Amanah were all in favour of accepting frogs from other parties to contest under the PH banner in Melaka, for example, the DAP was adamantly opposed to it.

On both the alcohol and lottery issues, there were also clear differences. PKR and Amanah were subdued in their reaction for fear of alienating Malay support while the DAP felt compelled to respond to non-Malay angst. Interestingly, the joint statement by Kuala Lumpur MPs urging City Hall to reverse its decision to limit the sale of alcohol was signed by all seven non-Malay PH MPs; their Malay colleagues in the opposition declined to join them. In Kedah, it also fell to the DAP to challenge the curb on lotteries while Malay opposition members held their peace.

According to some sources, the same dynamic was also at work during the vote on both the 12th Malaysia Plan and the budget. Malay PH leaders were fearful of offending Malay voters despite their reservations whereas non-Malay PH leaders felt compelled to register their disapproval.

In this sense, the RM100 million gift to Najib was a godsend for PH; finally, there was one thing they could all agree upon, something that would please their respective bases without any downside. However, now that Najib has indicated that he will not be accepting his retirement gift, PH will be lost for issues once more.

At the end of the day, Pakatan Harapan needs to decide whether it is worth holding on to that useless MoU with Ismail Sabri. After all, what has it accomplished apart from official status for the leader of the opposition and higher constituency allocations for all MPs? Is that worth the slow erosion of the fundamental principles that once animated Pakatan Harapan? What’s the point in having more parliamentary select committees when parliament itself is failing?

If there’s one takeaway from the just concluded Melaka state elections, it is that Pakatan Harapan as it is now constituted is a spent force. It cannot hope to put up even a decent fight in GE15 without making far-reaching changes. Reformasi must now begin with a reform of Pakatan Harapan itself. And it must start with Anwar stepping aside in favour of a new leader. – Dennis Ignatius