What’s keeping Malaysia’s Opposition together?

— Bridget Welsh
The Malaysian Insider
Oct 10, 2012

Oct 10 — What keeps the Malaysian opposition Pakatan Rakyat (People’s Alliance) together? The quick answer often given is the common search of political power.

While power frames the relationships between three disparate political parties – Islamist PAS, secular-committed Democratic Action Party and the umbrella reform-oriented PKR of Mr Anwar Ibrahim – it is not the glue of the opposition alliance. Were this the case, PAS would have left the coalition when UMNO floated the offer of joining the government in 2008 and intense jockeying took place within PAS.

The answer lies in the three parties’ shared moral compact. Pakatan Rakyat is an alliance of profoundly different backgrounds, with secularists, theocrats, conservatives and progressives working together. In a world wracked with tensions over religion and misunderstandings, Malaysia’s opposition stands out in bucking international trends of difference.


Three common principles bind the Opposition together. The first is deep concern with endemic corruption.

The problem of corruption is not new, and while Malaysia’s practices are assessed above many in Asia, including Indonesia, what has become increasingly apparent is that it has crossed the line of acceptability for many Malaysians. Survey results show that an overwhelming majority view their officials as corrupt and believe that their officials do not abide by the law.

Scandal after scandal, from the National Feedlot Corporation and Scorpene, to the recent revelations about the extension of the Ampang LRT, has inundated citizens. While there are many civil servants who work hard to deliver services, there are pressures within the system to conform to predatory practices.

Malaysian corruption was initially concentrated among the elite through the practice of “money politics”. But more and more, it is extending into everyday issues such as school fees, crime prevention and service provision.

Most basic food items, such as sugar and rice, are tied to non-transparent deals of politically-aligned businessmen, as are bigger items such as cars through Approved Permit licence allocations.

These weaknesses in governance share a common moral thread – a privileged minority using the system to their advantage, and this is hurting the majority and widening inequality.


This leads to the second shared principle – fairness. The three political parties each have a different take on what is fair, but there are areas of similarity: Namely, everyone should have a seat at the table; everyone should be treated fairly in a court of law; and social and economic inequalities should be minimised.

This shared view of fairness extends into the outrage over unfair legal decisions and deep-seated concerns about poverty and displacement of many Malaysians. Pakatan’s conception of citizenship has evolved into one in which all Malaysians are exactly that — Malaysians. It is a modern view of citizenship, in which everyone has rights and the government is to respond to the people, not the other way round.

The Opposition’s moral compact is also driven by a mutual interest in expanding democratic governance to level the political playing field.

Calls for the removal of the Internal Security Act (which was suspended and replaced by the more benign but less tested Security Offences Act earlier this year), electoral reform, freedoms of assembly, religion and speech, among other things, all fall under the umbrella of expanding political space and rights.

Ever since the reformasi movement of 1999, opposition activists have joined forces in highlighting democratic deficits and showcasing reasons for an expansion of democracy. Each protest and political crisis has brought the opposition together – from Bersih 1.0 in 2007, to the defections and subsequent takeover of the Perak state government in 2009. The bonds forged by protesting together are strong.

Since 2008, there have been significant efforts to rupture the Opposition’s moral compact on multiple fronts. The charges of sodomy and corruption have been tied to attempts to discredit opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim and raise doubts about his moral calibre to lead. The introduction of issues such as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual (LGBT) rights puts pressure on the relationship between the liberals and others within the Pakatan Rakyat.

The sensitive “Allah” issue that rose to the fore in 2010 tested the Islamists’ position. The push for Malay rights under the rubric “Ketuanan Melayu” reflects efforts to reinforce ethnic supremacy over shared humanity and equality, to reimpose the social contract of the past.

Each of these issues has not broken the ties between the opposition actors, and it is in part due to the prominence of the underlying principles that bring them together.


This is not a moral compact without problems, however. The biggest challenge for the Opposition lies within. It has to do with an issue being negotiated throughout the Muslim world: The place and form of Islamic law, notably hudud.

Globally, Islamist political parties from AKP in Turkey to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt are grappling with how to bring about Islamic governance while maintaining rights. For liberals, the introduction of measures such as hudud violates the shared democratic ideals, as there remains deep mistrust of Islamists in office.

For secularists, hudud violates their view of governance. Doubts persist in some quarters about whether the Islamists will continue to hold to the ideals in office, respect different religious rights and, importantly, tolerate difference within their own community.

Detractors point to Algeria and Iran as testimony to a potential violation of trust. Others more open-minded highlight the negotiated paths of Turkey and Morocco.

For Malaysia, the hudud issue remains on the agenda, unresolved and unlikely to be so before polls. In public remarks, Mr Anwar has stressed the centrality of dialogue and principle of consensus. There appears to be a working agreement to agree to disagree.

Among Islamists there has been a global trend towards greater accommodation of difference and an appreciation of constitutional frameworks for governance. Many in the PAS old guard, nevertheless, are tied to the vision of a religious theocracy that is increasingly becoming outmoded, even in Egypt where the President comes from one of the historically strongest advocates of these measures, the Muslim Brotherhood.

Islamists the world over are having to reprioritise their principles in order to govern societies, and PAS will have to as well. What is important is that it will need to do this on its own terms, rather than respond to ultimatums from allies and opponents alike.

Hudud will remain salient to this campaign, because at its core, it puts pressure on Malaysia’s Opposition to reassess, reaffirm and reinforce their common moral priorities. It is this common ground however, that is Pakatan’s moral compact — and for now it is on firm ground. — Today

  1. #1 by dagen wanna "ABU" on Wednesday, 10 October 2012 - 8:53 am

    And the real reason: ABU.

    Yeah. That is it.

    “Satu Umno Style.”

  2. #2 by yhsiew on Wednesday, 10 October 2012 - 9:01 am

    Political FILTH of the ruling coalition is keeping the Opposition together.

  3. #3 by dagen wanna "ABU" on Wednesday, 10 October 2012 - 9:05 am

    Sorry a little diversion.

    About the scorpene investigation in france. What is going on? Read this:


    KUALA LUMPUR: The lawyer acting for human rights group Suaram in the Scorpene probe has slammed French government prosecutor Yves Charpenal for his “contradictory” statements to the media.

    Yesterday, Charpenal had told national news agency Bernama that there was no ongoing trial in the 2009 multi-billion Scorpene submarine deal between Malaysia and France, as it was still under investigation by two French judges.

    “I am aware about all the fuss kicked up by certain media [organisations] in Malaysia over this matter but what I can say is that this is nothing more than a trial by the media,” he was quoted as saying.

    But Suaram’s lawyer William Bourdon said in a statement today that there had never been a question of an ongoing trial, as the investigating judges were still continuing their probe on the Scorpene inquiry.///

    We in malaysia adopt the british system. Here our legal process is adversarial in nature. The police investigates and the judge would just rule based on the sufficiency of evidence tendered by the prosecution. France has the inqusitorial process. Unlike our judges, french judges are empowered to investigate. This is what is taking place right now in france. So no trial yet just investigation stage. And like the police, investigating judges can call upon ppl who are connected with the case to give statements (evidence).

  4. #4 by Jeffrey on Wednesday, 10 October 2012 - 9:22 am

    The 3 ‘disparate’ opposition parties are bound together by both ‘moral compact’ against corruption/excesses and ‘common search of political power” but between the two the priority consideration – especially in the case of PAS- is political power and not the outward claim of moral compact (as Bridget argues). PAS unwavering objective is to establish theocracy/hudud. For that, it has to be in a coalition that it could not just share power but be dominant in dictating policies based on its command of support from the majority and dominant segment of Malay/Muslim voters. This objective sees surer chances of success in longer term with PR than BN for 3 reasons: (1) within BN, PAS will have to join upon UMNO’s terms and thereafter always be an appendage in terms of power relative and second to UMNO; (2) after 50 years of power and excesses, UMNo/BN is on the wrong side of the march of history as younger Malaysians will reject it; (3) the best leverage an Islamist party has, if political upheaval in contemporary muslim dominant societies were an indicator, is that the banner of religion (as that carried and waved by PAS) will always succeed as people tend to turn to faith as if it were the answer to moral decay of corruption – eg the Iranian revolution against Shah, the booting out of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt or Ben Ali in Tunisia. To share power with UMNo is not a guaranteed power solution since its too enmeshed in patronage/corrupt culture to reform from within and to partner with it is to lose the leverage to hold the high moral ground to fight corruption, necessary to get the votes and support.

  5. #5 by Jeffrey on Wednesday, 10 October 2012 - 9:35 am

    Political parties and politics itself exist for the ends of power in relation to which ideology (whether UMNO’s Ketuanan, PAS’s Hudud/theocracy or Anwar’s Social justice or DAP’s secular Middle Politics is but only the means to serve and facilitate the attainment of it). To emphasize “moral compact” and common cause against social unfairness/injustice override the thirst for power is to romanticise an ideal that is simply not true. It is naive to think that majority of politicians are pursuing this vocation of politics to serve principally ideology and public interest and not themselves that power enables. If one believes that, one can believe anything.
    a- and politics itself

  6. #6 by Bigjoe on Wednesday, 10 October 2012 - 9:41 am

    I have to say I am pretty impressed with PAS for keeping the faith in the PR alliance even as someone like Nasha attacking them from within their party.

    Someone like Nasha point out the difficulty of political Islam in this country which is not different than in any other jurisdiction. Modern politics is cynical enough and political Islam an even more convenient cynical politics.

    Nevertheless, negative politics are effective, divide and conquer are effective and tests of our nation citizentry as much as it is political leaders. We can be sure the many aspiring politicians that will fail us, the one thing that cannot fail us is the citizentry of this country and their true self.

  7. #7 by Godfather on Wednesday, 10 October 2012 - 11:23 am

    I was speaking to some retired civil servants recently and they all think that the time has come for regime change, because the existing regime is driving the country over the cliff. All educated people can see what is happening. Preventing the country from being driven over the cliff is a very strong glue that bonds everyone.

  8. #8 by waterfrontcoolie on Wednesday, 10 October 2012 - 12:17 pm

    One point that keeps me asking: How come some of the so-called Pious Leaders, even in PAS have never seem to consider Corruption as SIN! They seem to side step this issue completely giving the impression that it is part of their nature????? Why? Is it because of the 50 plus years of such behaviour? Surely it is NOT their INNATE Nature by any measure! Or is this rule applicable across the board on Most local politicians? They don’t see any social stigma on such behaviour more akin to the businessmen who said it is okay so long that you make profit?? If the recent changes in Indonesia are any indications, then we may still have some hope; though I think in general the percentage of the population over there seem to lot more rationally especially among their educated lot!

  9. #9 by monsterball on Wednesday, 10 October 2012 - 3:49 pm

    Hungry for true freedom …..be united as Malaysians..and all are sick of massive corruption…are just a few reasons why Opposition are united.
    If we are talking about Opposition parties…it’s the same reasons too.
    We are Freedom Fighters!!!

  10. #10 by monsterball on Wednesday, 10 October 2012 - 3:51 pm

    Opposition parties and vast majority Malaysians have the same objectives.
    They want to get rid of rouges and thieves.

  11. #11 by limkamput on Wednesday, 10 October 2012 - 11:30 pm

    As usual Jeffery is seeing enemies behind every tree. Of course as humans we have weaknesses and selfishness but surely different political parties and the personalities involved must evoke some differences. If everything is the same, then how do we explain why some countries have better government than others? They are, as you said, all governed by wicked men after all. The opposition may not share a common aspiration, but surely they are brought together by a common threat, which if left unchecked, would carry this country to the precipice of ruin.

  12. #12 by boh-liao on Thursday, 11 October 2012 - 6:52 am

    What’s keeping Malaysia’s Opposition together? They r a bunch of ppl loved 2 b tortured, ridiculed, [email protected], locked up, beaten up by UmnoB/BN n their agencies
    Sometimes they think they r super-humans, can fly 1 like a bird, but landed DEAD
    They loved 2 hv paints splashed on their properties n cars n buses, like Joseph n his amazing technicolor dreamcoat
    They r seks maniacs too, as exposed by MMK, UmnoB/BN

  13. #13 by Jeffrey on Thursday, 11 October 2012 - 7:25 am

    We have here PAS’s Nasha, a member of its powerful syura council, accusing falsely Sarawak DAP conducting prayers seeking the formation of a Christian state during its thanksgiving dinner after the 2011 Sarawak state elections – with an obvious calculated objective to undermine coalition’s partner in the eyes of Muslims and drive wedge between PAS & DAP. And yet all PAS could do – and even this is from 2nd echelon leaders like Khalid Samad, and not from even the supreme syura council – that his statement is his personal opinion, has nothing to do with PAS etc. Doesn’t this suggest that Nasha has many followers within that party that it dares not sack or take disciplinary against him in fear of wrecking the party itself??? Hudud is not part of Buku Jingga setting out common aspiration and yet no less a personage lile PAS Mursyidul Am (Spiritual Advisor) (Nik Aziz) could openly state with impunity that if DAP has a problem with Hudud it could leave the PR pact (as they have previously done before). What do all these portend in context of common aspiration versus common threat?

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