SundayTimes (Used by permission)
by Nurris Ishak
It was unexpected, to say the least. The recent loss of a two-third majority by
Barisan Nasional has left many members reeling. Equally, the opposition parties
are shell-shocked by the surprise win in five states. But is the country heading
towards a two-party system? NURRIS ISHAK writes
POLITICS is the art of the possible, said Otto von Bismarck
(1815- 1898), the Pr ussian politician and the first chancellor of Germany.
And so it is. The surprising outcome of the 12th polls was the talk of the town.
Everywhere, in kopitiams and in tea stalls, meeting rooms and dining halls, the
conversation revolved around those who had fallen out of public favour and those
who had risen despite the odds.
Many are wondering what the opposition's stand on policy issues, and whether the
state governments formed by the “opposition coalition” will live up to the
The defeats suffered by Barisan Nasional had left many top federal government
posts “unattended ”. Ministers such as Works Minister Datuk Seri Samy Vellu,
Women, Family and Community Development Minister Datuk Seri Shahrizat Abdul
Jalil and Information Minister Datuk Zainuddin Maidin we r e among the notable
The unprecedented inroads made by the opposition coalition has led to many
wondering if Malaysia is heading towards a two-party political system like in
the United States and Britain.
“From the looks of it, it will be a long time coming,” said Umno vice-president
Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin.
“We ’ll just have to observe how the democracy process evolves. There are still
a lot of parties formed on a communal basis. BN has created a precedent in a
sense of co-operation among its component par ties.
“The opposition cooperates only at elections.
But each party has its ow n self-interest and they all have their philosophical
“Take Pas and DAP, they are like the langit dan bumi (sky and earth). PKR claim
to have Malaysia’s interest in nature but they are very slanted.
“I don’t know how long before we can see a system that is parallel to the
twoparty American system which has the Republican and Democrat parties.
“The philosophy and constitution of Pas is to promote an Islamic state, and DAP
Malaysian Malaysia, while I’m a bit lost about PKR.” Muhyiddin said the
opposition parties are working together to serve each other’s interest, a
marriage of convenience.
“They fight together based on their own principles, for their common cause and
common interest. It is very introvert in nature and does not address the
“They still have to address racial issues, and each need to be treated
separately. The best collaboration is BN, and I am not saying it because I’m
“For over 50 years we had the Alliance, and it expanded to Sabah and Sarawak.
“We adopted a common stand on national interest.
Though each of us have our own party constitution, we have developed and created
better understanding. The BN has served Malaysia very well.
“Barisan Alternative (opposition coalition) is an alternative to BN but it is
not united. The relationship between them (the component parties) is actually
“Can Pas adopt DAP’s policies and vice-versa? Even now you can see they can’t
work, but that’s only one of many issues that they need to address.
“Until the parties can rationalise to serve national interest, I think it will
be a long while before we can have a two-party system.” According to Prof Dr
Shad Saleem Faruqi, legal advisor and professor of law at University Technology
Mara, “It’s too early to tell.” Like Muhyiddin, Shad says the opposition parties
are united by a common hatred of BN, but they do not have a common ideology or a
common programme for the nation.
“I can see Pas and PKR co-operating, but DAP is different. Putting DAP and Pas
in one side is a fanciful idea, they do not have a common leader and a common
manifesto, whereas BN has a common leader.
“There is also a clash of personalities. Lim Kit Siang and Datuk Seri Anwar
Ibrahim have their own ambitions and ideologies, and I cannot foresee that they
will be able to work together. ” Shad said the opposition had won because the
people were voting against BN, citing the loss of Datuk Seri Shahrizat Abdul
Jalil as an example.
“She was eminently qualified and a conscientious leader, but she lost to a
greenhorn. It doesn't matter who they had put up as a candidate.
Times have changed.
“Once BN would have been able to put any candidate, no matter how incapable he
or she may be, and the candidate would still win.
“I think the psychological shift needs to be addressed by Umno, MCA and MIC. It
is time they listen to the people.” Shad said the focus should be on the nation
and he expressed hope that one day the country's manifesto will be Negara,
Bangsa and Agama (country, people and religion) instead of Bangsa, Agama and
“Not that I do not place any importance of religion, but my allegiance to the
country will not prevent me from performing my religious duties.” Historian Prof
Datuk Dr Khoo Kay Kim said Malaysia has never come close to having a two-party
system, and at the moment, the signs are not pointing that way either.
"You can see that the component parties of the so-called Barisan Alternative are
squabbling among themselves. The same old problem such as the ethnic issue is
still a dominating factor.
“One would expect that the parties would have worked it out among themselves,
that in case they did well, who should be chief minister and menteri besar.
“One would have expected that sensitive issues would have been discussed, but
they have not done anything of the sort.” He feels the opposition should have
anticipated the outcome.
“Only after they won did they sit down to discuss, and now they’re quarrelling
among themselves. The voters had a high expectation from the opposition but
before they even started they have already let the voters down.
“The DAP-PKR-Pas coalition is not co-operating with one another so how can the
voters trust them?” Shad said there was high possibility that the people will
become cynical again.
“So many people have already said it will be very different when they finally
come to power.
“But if you talk to them about the possibilities of overcoming the traditional
problems that afflict the coalition parties, like ethnicity and power sharing,
they will laugh.
“It explains why many people still did not come out to vote.” UKM political
analyst and academician Dr Ahmad Nidzammuddin Sulaiman said if the alternative
coalition remains in power, the likelihood of a twoparty coalition system is
"But it has been said that politics is the art of the possible. Anything can
happen. Your enemy yesterday may well be your ally tomorrow.
“From what I can see, no one is very sure of the exact development in the next
few year s.” So how can Umno reinvent itself? Ahmad said the members of the BA
are co-operating, but they are experiencing “teething problems”.
“BN has been there since 1952, but this is the first time that the opposition
coalition is controlling state governments. They need to learn how to
co-operate, accommodate, negotiate without any bicker ing.” Ahmad gave India’s
political history as an example.
Since India achieved independence in 1947, the Congress party had wo n every
election until 1977 when it was defeated by the Janata party, a loose opposition
coalition led by Morarji Desai.
Desai’s government was a fractious coalition government, and thus failed to
achieve much owing to continuous wrangling and much controversy.
With no party in leadership of the coalition, rival groups vied to unseat Desai.
They held the government for three years and lost in 1980 when Indira Ghandi
came back into power.
“So now the BA is just like Janata. We don't know if they can last one term.” In
an article published in the NST on March 6, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia
academician Datuk Prof Dr Shamsul Amri Baharuddin said the standard “ruling
party vs opposition party” has been in practice since the introduction of modern
electoral politics in Malaysia.
Shamsul, who is also a current affairs commentator and the founder-director of
UKM’s Institute of Ethnic Studies, observed that in Malaysia, many splinter
parties have been formed by disgruntled BN component members.
Eventually, the party would join the ruling coalition. Similar patterns, too,
exist in other ethnic parties, such as MCA and MIC.
“As a result, a stable, consistent and identifiable ‘the opposition’ has never
been realised in Malaysia,” he noted.
In the 1990s, Pas, Semangat 46 and a few smaller parties formed a loose
coalition and succeeded in Kelantan.
The bigger coalition was Barisan Alternatif which performed quite well in the
1999 election, mainly at the expense of Umno.
“Because it was such a loosely structured coalition —indeed, a marriage of
convenience —it floundered and failed in the 2004 election.” But with an
experienced, respected, capable and charismatic leader, “the opposition” could
yet become a reality in the next few elections.
In other words, “the opposition” has to be in the form of an established and
registered formal coalition; a mirror image of BN.
University Malaya’s Faculty of law associate professor Dr Azmi Sharom said
though it is too early to tell if a two-party system in Malaysia is a
“This depends on how well the BA works together.
It cannot be a two-party system like those practiced in US and Britain as we
“The US Republican party is one single political entity, and not a coalition.
The same goes for Democrats.
“In Malaysia, none of the opposition party by itself hold enough political power
to stand on its own, it needs the help of the other two.
Even Umno cannot stand by itself to form a government.
“They have to be given a chance, it’s not that the Alliance got along perfectly
well from day one either.
We should give them a term or so and see how well they perform.”