“The Challenges Underlying Malaysia’s Proposed New Party”, a Commentary by Norshahril Saat

Commentary 2016/41, 4 August 2016

Reports are just in that a new opposition party will be formed, and Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin, former deputy Prime Minister, will be leading it. The proposed party, which has yet to be named, will require approval from the Registrar of Societies (ROS). Muhyiddin intends to submit an application to the body on the 5 August. He will act as the party’s president. Analysts are divided whether this new party will strengthen or weaken the opposition. Some argue that Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamed, who has said that he will be the first among equals of the new party, will foster opposition unity, which disintegrated after the jailing of Anwar Ibrahim in 2015. Yet, there are sceptics who contend that Mahathir’s history with UMNO in the past will complicate the new party’s standing in the opposition. Mahathir was after all, the UMNO President for 22 years. The ruling coalition BN (National Front) will only have to apply the same arguments that Mahathir levelled at his opponents in the past: that the opposition is ideologically fragmented; with PAS (Islamic Party of Malaysia) desiring an Islamic state, and DAP (Democratic Action Party) calling for a secular/multiracial state. How the new party positions itself between the forces calling for Malay dominance, Islamic state, and secular/multiracial state is crucial.

Muhyiddin’s move to form an opposition party is not the first by a senior UMNO member. So far, none have been successful in toppling the BN. In 1951, UMNO President Onn Jaafar, left UMNO to form IMP (Independence of Malaya Party) and in 1953, Party Negara. Both parties failed to make any inroads. In 1988, former Cabinet minister, Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah, formed Semangat 46 (Spirit of 46, UMNO’s founding year). While it did not do as well at the federal level, its partnership with PAS (Islamic Party of Malaysia) succeeded in capturing Kelantan in the 1990 elections. The party was dissolved in mid-1990s and some of its leaders re-joined UMNO. In 1998, UMNO sacked Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim, and he was jailed for corruption and sodomy. His wife led a new party Keadilan and formed an opposition coalition Barisan Alternatif (Alternative Coalition). In the 1999 elections, the opposition coalition failed to win federal power, but won control of Terengganu and Kelantan. The opposition performed poorly in 2004 elections, but performed well in 2008, when it denied BN its traditional two-thirds majority. In the 2013 election, the opposition repeated its 2008 performance, but still could not win federal power. In fact, the opposition lost two of the five states it controlled in the previous elections, Kedah and Perak.

What can the opposition learn from history? Undoubtedly, Mahathir’s experience and status as a statesman could help the opposition. But there are many obstacles before BN can be toppled: the opposition needs to explain the 1MDB issue to the masses clearly; present a united ideology; underline its power-sharing mechanism (including seat allocation during elections); collaborate with East Malaysian opposition parties; and most importantly, come up with a list of shadow cabinet.
Dr Norshahril is Fellow at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.
The facts and views expressed are solely that of the author/authors and do not necessarily reflect that of ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.  No part of this publication may be reproduced in any form without permission.