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The prospects of coalition-making


This piece was originally written by MP for Bukit Mertajam, Steven Sim Chee Keong on 23 June 2015 after the year’s PAS-Muktamar that led to the breakup of Pakatan Rakyat. The article explored the suggestion made by DAP veteran, Lim Kit Siang who invited Malaysians to “think the unthinkable”.

Fast-forward five years, this discussion is still as relevant today.

The Pakatan Rakyat coalition ceased to exist post 2015 PAS-Muktamar.

Two months ago, Lim Kit Siang proposed a crazy idea; a post-BN, post-Pakatan Rakyat “Save Malaysia” grand coalition. Many criticised him, including allies and supporters and even DAP members.

Lim, the DAP parliamentary leader, was inviting Malaysians, including Malaysian politicians, to “think the unthinkable”, going beyond the much cherished two-party system into something else.


What does this “something else” look like?


I was to discover part of the answer when I joined Lim on a trip to the Middle East.

In Egypt we met with popular political icon, the social democrat Ziad Bahaa el-Din, a one-time deputy prime minister in the post-Morsi administration.

Bahaa el-Din’s diagnosis of Egypt’s unending political instability is acute: each regime systematically alienates the supporters and members of its opponent. That works out to about 20 to 30 percent of the population each time being excluded from the political process.

Ziad Bahaa el-Din in 2014.

Hence, successive governments since the time of General Hosni Mubarak have been paralysed by mass protests.

After the Rabaa massacre in August 2013, Bahaa el-Din proposed an initiative “to preserve the democratic path” initiative, a cabinet-level programme to facilitate national reconciliation to move Egypt away from the political stalemate since the fall of Mubarak.

One of many protests against Hosni Mubarak during the Arab Spring.

All political players were invited to participate in the initiative to sort out legal and constitutional issues in order to ensure the country’s democracy will function normally. The goal is to figure a way out of the deadlock caused by stubborn political partisanship. In the initiative, partisanship does not matter as much as the preservation of democracy in Egypt.


But what about Malaysia?

For illustrative purposes.

The end of Pakatan is not the end of the struggle for a better Malaysia. After the 16th PAS Muktamar, it is safe to say that the opposition coalition Pakatan Rakyat has ceased to exist.

I think the questions on our mind are: what about the “two-party system”? What about ending the BN’s half-a-century rule? And what’s next for our politics?

I think those questions are more relevant than to “mend the unmendable” and to fix what is already broken.

But really, what can we expect from now on?


Moving beyond labels: The substance of our struggle

The Pakatan Harapan coalition was formed after the breakup of Pakatan Rakyat.

First of all, we are moving from the pursuit of a two-party system to a more pluralistic party system that requires a much more dynamic coalition-making. It is no longer about a fixated coalition, nor labels.

In the old system, you pit one brand against another: “PAS ganti Umno” or “Pakatan ganti Barisan”. But if politics is just about choosing between two labels, then we run the danger of choosing between two different brands of a product, but with the exact same content.

What we need is to redo the maths, to enable real change – not just the superficial change of brands.

What is more important is really the essence, rather than the form of the coalition.


No more marriage of convenience, not in BN, not in Pakatan. We must move away from asking, “who is working with who” to “what are their working principles?”


Election campaigns must not be about brands and names only, but policy and political programmes. So, campaign slogans will no longer be the simplistic, “PAS ganti Umno” but rather, “Dasar Parti X ganti Dasar Parti Y”.

As such, we have to move away from merely adversarial politics (‘I am against you, no matter what till kingdom comes’) to cooperative politics (‘Let’s reach a centrist consensus on this issue’), where the focus should not just be on party labels but on national and people’s interests.

DAP veteran and MP for Iskandar Puteri, Lim Kit Siang.

And as Lim Kit Siang said, such a coalition “must not be an opportunistic get-together but must be based on a programme of principles and the national interests”.

For Malaysia today, the “programme of principles and national interests” is the Common Policy Platform (CPP), tried and tested and accepted by 52 percent of Malaysians in the last general election of 2013.

Today, whoever can accept the CPP is our friend, even if they are from PAS, or Umno, for that matter. If former deputy education minister Saifuddin Abdullah of Umno can accept the CPP, then he is our friend.

The party or parties that will win the next general election will be the one(s) that will uphold the CPP.


Coalition-making reflects democratic aspiration

The Pakatan Harapan coalition in 2018.

Secondly, post-Muktamar, coalition lines are not just being shifted or realigned, but they are transformed from solid lines to dotted lines. In other words, we are moving from fixed coalitions to more dynamic coalitions that will give better expression to a healthy democracy.

What do I mean by this?

Take for example in Penang, when PAS assemblyperson Mohd Salleh Man made his decision to reject PAS central committee’s order to sever ties with DAP, as well as reaffirm his commitment towards the CPP.

Mohd Salleh was merely reflecting the wishes of his local constituents who voted him in 2015, based on those principles. And as such he remained very much part of the Penang ruling coalition.

MP for Bukit Mertajam, Steven Sim in 2019.

On the surface, nothing seems to change in Penang, but essentially, something radical has happened underneath. While the sole PAS assemblyperson is still in coalition with DAP in Penang, his commitment was not merely because of party lines and labels, but rather an expression of the democratic aspiration of his constituents.

In the same spirit, such should be the case for the Selangor state government – PAS assemblypersons may still be in government but not in the same way as before, because now everyone is in government by virtue of their commitment towards the principles we are fighting for, not merely because of labels or any outward forms of cooperation. This is the prospect now laid before Selangor Menteri Besar Azmin Ali.

In fact, leaders should be like Lim Kit Siang, inaugurating a new era of coalition-making that better reflects the wishes of the people.


Decentralisation in coalition making

For illustrative purposes.

As we demand for greater decentralisation and strengthening of local democracy, and without resorting to creation of minute provincial parties so that there is still some kind of centripetal commitment, political parties need to allow a more dynamic coalition configuration according to the expressed wishes of the people.

Under such configuration, politicians at the local level must be allowed a sufficient amount of freedom to champion local aspirations that may not be the same in each state. For example, a DAP leader in Sarawak should be allowed to make certain policy decisions that differ from the central leadership, according to the context and needs of the state. 

While party central leadership should set the broad ideological agenda, local leaders should be empowered to decide and even form (or break) alliances on sub-national issues. We can then imagine a hypothetical scenario where Party X and Party Y are in coalition in Penang but not in Sarawak, or at the federal level.

This may sound alien to us here in Malaysia, but in countries such as Germany, such coalition-making is not only possible, but also possible between traditional opponents.

This will in turn give rise to a pluralisation of ideas within a political party, such as that in the United States of America, where southern Democrats are different from northern Democrats, although ideologically both of them still share common threads that are distinct from the Republicans. What this does is to bring the party to a more centrist position, especially at the federal level.


End of EPL-type politics

For illsutrative purposes.

Malaysians, and most people in the Westminster parliamentary system, are familiar with what I call an English Premier League (EPL)-type politics. You support your favourite football team and you hope they will win: My team, right or wrong.

In such a system, winner takes it all. It is assumed that only a strong one-party, one-man (the prime minister) government can deliver results. However, as voters become more educated and demanding, such a system may not be practical.

Take the United Kingdom for example. In 2010, voters decided that none of the two major political parties – Tory and Labour – can offer a programme inspiring enough to garner a strong majority. Hence, the Conservatives had to form a coalition government with an unlikely ally, the Liberal Democrats.

Of course, coalitions are not new in Malaysia. The BN and its predecessor, Perikatan (Alliance) were coalitions. In the 70s and 80s, BN even attempted a grand coalition together with major opposition parties such as Gerakan, which was ruling Penang, PAS that was ruling Kelantan and Parti Bersatu Sabah (PBS), which was ruling Sabah.

However, due to the dominance of Umno in the coalition, the BN, especially since the Dr Mahathir Mohamad era, operates more like a single party, reflecting mostly Umno’s views and philosophy.

Constituents and supporters must be prepared for a much more blurred line of competition. Politics is not a football field, or much less a boxing ring where the fight is zero sum. No point betting on one party, like one is betting on a football team.

The important thing is how politics can essentially work to bring about the best compromise possible in a democracy. Those who are used to the EPL politics will need to re-tweak their perspective.

Originally written on 23 June 2015,
Steven Sim Chee Keong,
MP for Bukit Mertajam.

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