Malaysia: PKR's New Politics


Marzuki Mohamad

The opposition People's Justice Party (PKR) held its annual national congress last December at a Chinese temple in Ipoh, a Chinese-majority area in central Peninsular Malaysia. The congress was attended by about 1500 delegates and more than 3000 observers. It was the biggest since the party's inception in April 1999 and was the first held after the release from prison of former deputy prime minister and now PKR advisor, Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim. The congress was also the first held after the merger, which brought about the birth of the PKR, of the National Justice Party (Keadilan) and its ally in the Alternative Front (Barisan Alternatif) Coalition, the People's Party of Malaysia (PRM).

After suffering major drawbacks in the March 2004 general election, the fledgling party sought to reassert its struggle for political reform, with a new strength found in the person of the charismatic Anwar. In a public address held in conjunction with the congress, Anwar spoke at length about the need to forge a new political consensus predicated upon the principles of justice, democracy and multiracialism. This new politics-with the fighting of corruption and a promise to formulate a fairer system of wealth distribution not based on ethnic identity high on its agenda-seeks to replace the politics of ethnic division that has long been a stumbling block to the emergence and growth of a vibrant, democratic, multiracial society in Malaysia.

Mustafa Kamil Ayub, PKR Secretary-General, hailed this new multiracial politics as a shift away from ethnic and class-oriented politics to one, which is values-oriented. Democratic ideals and their attendant values, in particular, are increasingly being embraced by Malaysia's multiracial population. He pointed to the growing number of people from various social classes and ethnic groups, who flocked the many party events and openly discussed contentious democracy and human rights issues, as a sign of the dawning of a new era in Malaysian politics. In the recent PKR polls, about one-third of officials elected in the central committee were non-Malays, even though more than 80 per cent of the delegates to the congress were Malays.

PKR's new politics is perhaps a part of a wider spectrum in the mainstay of Malaysian politics where ethnic discourse is being increasingly contested by other discourses, the most significant being multiracialism, developmentalism, Islam and democracy. The ruling National Front (BN) government, for example, has espoused the creation of a united Malaysian nation (Bangsa Malaysia)-entrenched in its Vision 2020 Statement first unveiled in 1990. It has subsequently relaxed its position on special privileges for Malays. This has included the gradual abolition of a quota system favouring Malays for entry into public universities; the offering to non-Malay students of places at boarding schools previously reserved for Malay students; and, the 'opening-up' of positions in the public service and the security forces to non-Malays.

Apart from occasional rhetoric on 'Malay superiority' and reference to the 'don't-stir-the hornet's-nest' analogy, the ruling United Malays National Organization (UMNO) has become less assertive in defending 'Malay rights' when it comes to approving important public policies. Moreover, a multiracial but predominantly Chinese BN component party, the People's Movement of Malaysia (Gerakan), saw the biggest hurdle to its proposed merger with the larger Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) as being that the latter was a specifically Chinese party. Thus, a new kind of 'politics beyond ethnicity' has been taking place even within and among the ruling political parties.

That ethnicity is being less emphasised in Malaysian political discourse poses several possibilities for the fledgling PKR in its effort to stamp its mark on the mainstay of Malaysian politics. On the one hand, it will help facilitate the party's effort towards asserting its multiracial identity to an audience more receptive to multiracialism. On the other, it will face a mammoth task in distinguishing its version of new multiracial politics from that of the ruling party. A continuing media clampdown, restrictions on public ceramahs (talks) and the absence of strong grassroots networking are among the obstacles facing the party in promoting its brand of new politics.

WATCHPOINT: Will the PKR succeed in reviving a more cohesive opposition front, in particular by settling outstanding differences between the Democratic Action Party (DAP) and the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS)-the biggest hurdle being the old politics of ethnic division framework?


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