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Beyond Umno Vs PAS

Elections as opportunity

By Philip Khoo

“Is Any Opposition Better Than No Opposition” - the lead story in Aliran Monthly last month - raises many important issues about the future of this country.

Everyone would benefit from reading the article with an open mind, taking to heart the serious questions it raises about PAS’ direction, and asking themselves where they would like to see Malaysia headed — and then think about how one might go about achieving it.

This is especially true of those sympathetic to PAS and its agenda of an Islamic Malaysia. Does PAS’ programme and actions go towards achieving its dream? Or, looking at real historical experiences elsewhere, will it instead realise a condition that is only Islamic in name and diktat, but will, in fact, be as distant from the civilization that produced an ibn Khaldun and an al-Khwarizmi, a Rumi and an ibn Rushd, as the Malaysia of today’s is?

Sadly, responses to criticisms by some senior PAS figures indicate that such reflection is unlikely to happen. This is tragic, indeed unconscionably blind, for it is clear that the most celebrated Islamist revolution of our age, the Iranian, is in trouble and resorting to ‘Islamically’ disguised secular instruments of repression and control to extend its life a little more.

Wrong Question…And Argument

Nevertheless, the article is wrongly titled and argued. It falls into a serious trap and is, in fact, guilty of the same enclosed mind-set, turning away from both present realities and from history. In doing so, it is illustrative of how successful the rulers of this country have been in shaping our thinking, constricting perspectives and stunting our ability to imagine options. An example of this is the recent and on-going controversy about English — with its imagined “golden age” of English in the past, when in fact that past was one in which a lower percentage of the population read, wrote or spoke English. So also in the case of the present issue of “any Opposition” or “no Opposition”.

It is hardly a question of “any Opposition” or “no Opposition”. An Opposition, or rather, Oppositions, exist and have existed, and they are not about to disappear no matter the dissatisfactions with them. Even if they were to disappear, other Oppositions would spring up, for the simple reason that the well-springs of discontent and disenchantment are not about to disappear.

Growing Discontent

Hence, the first issue has to be: What are these well-springs of discontent, and why is discontent channelled into the Oppositions we see today?

These Oppositions did not come out of nowhere. Nor is their character, even more the nature of their support, the product of the imagination of a few individuals. Rather, they have been deeply shaped by the actions, policies and dominance of the Alliance and of the BN. Not least, they have been shaped by the largely successful actions and policies of the BN to suppress multi-ethnic class-based secular oppositions, even ethnically-based secular oppositions.

The well-springs of discontent are no mystery. They range from the continuing, possibly widening gap, between rich and poor and the corresponding quality of life and life chances, to the hugely restricted and heavily policed space for democratic expression and dissent. They relate to the restricted opportunities for the average citizen, rural and urban, and the continuing sharp divide between the ethnic groups and between classes. If anything, they are likely to get worse in a world of rising inequalities and inequities, one in which many find themselves marginalised, their noses pressed to the glass dividing them from the cornucopia of consumption possibilities which they can see but not enjoy, while simultaneously many on the other side of the glass divide toss about in vague discontent.

Excluding Oneself From The Equation

The second issue: Posing the question as one of “any Opposition” and “no Opposition at all” is, in effect, to exclude oneself from the equation altogether. This is not something the writer of the article intends. As he notes, he has always found himself to be in the Opposition. Still, the posing of the issue does result in the unintended outcome of casting the choices as if one were in a supermarket choosing between brands, rather than that one is instead a participant in one way or another producing those very brands and not some others.

This leads to the third issue, in some ways related to the first: The terms of the argument in effect turn dynamic realities into static entities, almost cast in stone. In addition, the argument collapses what is a diverse Opposition into a singular one, unwittingly adopting the BN model where UMNO is clearly and evidently dominant and what UMNO says, goes.

In fact, however, the options are greater than, and will always be greater than “any Opposition” or “no Opposition at all”, or, put more starkly, PAS and UMNO. Indeed, the options are greater than what exists within the world of party politics, although admittedly party politics still remain primary, at least in this country, when an election looms.

To fail to see this, and to fall into the trap into which the writer of “Is any Opposition better than no Opposition at all?” has fallen is to end up backing the present ruling party, thus locking us into a situation which is the source of our present predicament. Indeed, the ruling party is precisely counting upon such a narrowing of perspectives as this leads to the view, “better the devil we know” or “the lesser of two evils”. This perspective induces paralysis and inertia, and perpetuates a situation which many say they wish to end.

And this is the fourth, perhaps most important issue: The need to adopt a broader perspective than that of party politics; the need to have a perspective in which party politics is just one component of a broader context and situation. Such a perspective enables us to see that party politics is the way it is at least partly because we are the way we are.

Learning From Our Women Activists


 We need only take a look at the success that Malaysian women activists and their organisations have had to see one option. There are two recent measures of that success, which are also partly pointers to the way forward. Three years ago, when the woman candidate for Siputeh was insulted for being a woman, the electorate reacted and handed her a handsome victory. Twenty years ago, this would not have happened; instead, it is likely that at least half the electorate would have considered it a ‘witty’ joke and laughed. In the intervening twenty years, while misogyny remains an unpleasant fact of Malaysian life, the climate of public opinion had changed significantly. How significantly can be gauged by what happened three months ago when, in the context of the Terengganu hudud law bill, it was clear that the one clear common ground for criticism of the bill was that relating to the treatment of women.

This example shows that the issue of opposition need not, indeed should not, be cast in the narrow terms of party politics alone. Rather, it should be cast in wider terms of opposition to an unacceptable situation, with effort directed towards changing that situation, with the result that what is changed includes the framing of party politics itself.

This took hard work and dedication — many of the women activists have been at it for the better part of their adult lives, stretching back a quarter century and more — regardless of the twists and turns of party politics. Undoubtedly, they have been assisted by the changing climate of world opinion, by the attention of international organisations such as the United Nations to issues pertaining to women, and so on. Those who wish to denigrate their achievements may even say that they succeeded because they did not challenge the structures and the balance of power in the country.

But they did, even if to a limited extent — for one of the dimensions of power in the country was and is the power of men to dictate the agenda of the day and the terms of discussion. No longer; at least, no longer as completely as was previously the case.

To return to the analogy mentioned above, while women activists and organisations may not have been quite able to change the brands altogether, they have succeeded in getting the brands to re-package themselves to some degree. This has modified them a little. We have the women activists to thank for this change of perspective, of the terms of discussion and, hence, the range of choices.

If this assessment is correct, then the issue is not one of “any Opposition” or “no Opposition at all”, and restricting that to political parties. Rather, it is one of choosing where and what one pursues in an imperfect world where nothing is ever as one would wish it, instead of perpetual complaints followed by frustrated handwringing. There is always the option of seeking to change the climate of opinion, the range of perspectives and the perception of possibilities, and in so doing, of changing the circumstances of our lives to some degree.

Beyond UMNO vs PAS

But in fact, even in the realm of party politics and, more specifically, in the impending elections, the range of choice is not so narrow.

For one thing, there are more parties than PAS in the Opposition. Whatever their weaknesses and their shortcomings, there is Parti Keadilan, PRM and the DAP. There are also individuals, whether in the ruling coalition or in the opposition worthy of our regard, and some of these individuals are facing threats from their own leadership for their “recalcitrance”. Would it not be in our interests to ensure that such individuals continue to have a voice? Thus, it is not and has never been an “all or nothing” option.

For another, it is pretty clear, and made more certain with the recent constituency re-delineations and the current state of the world, that the BN will win the forthcoming elections. Viewed thus, the choice is: What kind of a win? Do we seek to send a clear message of dissatisfaction by denying them a two-thirds majority? What if we find the range of Opposition parties not to our liking? Do we organise for a clear reduction in the voter turn-out, or indeed for a sophisticated campaign of spoiling votes? Do we organise around issues, supporting and campaigning for candidates prepared to endorse a particular plank? Should we begin to push the idea that elections are not just for political parties but an occasion for people to try and alter the terms of discussion and the publicly stated agenda?

Do we use the elections as an opportunity, or do we allow ourselves to be used opportunistically?

These are only some of the possibilities. Others can well think of many others. What we must not and should not allow is a self-imposed narrowing of perspectives and options. Least of all should we allow ourselves to think in terms of “any Opposition” or “no Opposition at all”.

Finally, for an organisation such as Aliran, one dedicated to altering the terms of public discussion and debate, to changing perspectives, there is the clear opportunity in the lead-up to the elections in tabling for public consideration a series of issues, local and global, that confront us today, and to do so in a manner that is not simply reactive to the powers-that-be or to “the Opposition”.