Democracy still vibrant in Malaysia, says don

Dr Farish A. Noor

KUALA LUMPUR: The emergence of new political parties in Malaysia suggests participatory democracy is still vibrant, academic and respected observer Dr Farish A. Noor says.

It shows Malaysians still believe in playing by the rules of constitutional democracy, says the Associate Professor at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.

However, he says in a comment piece in the Straits Times, “the splintering of parties and the emergence of new parties will also contribute to the splitting of votes at any coming election, making it more difficult to predict the outcome of political contests at both the state and federal levels”.

Farish notes that Malaysia’s political landscape has grown even more complex and diverse with the establishment of Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia, not too long after Parti Amanah Negara or Amanah was formed.

Bersatu and Amanah are basically made up of dissidents who once belonged to Umno and PAS.

Saying this suggests that shifts are taking place within the largest electoral bloc of the country, the Malays, he adds: “These developments are happening at a time when the political fortunes of all the parties in the country are hanging in the balance.”

He notes that the Merdeka Center’s poll last year showed that levels of public support for mainstream parties are dwindling, and the government’s overall approval rating had dropped below 30 per cent.

The dominant Umno’s popularity has waned, but so has the standing of PAS since it left the opposition coalition, says the political scientist.

However, he thinks, Malaysia has become so “thoroughly politicised” that the electorate has become saturated. In such a situation, it will be relatively difficult for any new party to break new ground and capture new bases of support.

The proliferation of parties, he says, “adds to an increasingly complex and at times confusing political landscape where identity politics and communal demands remain the norm and where political activism, when couched in communal terms, can appear divisive and exclusive.

“But on the other hand, the creation of more and more parties, NGOs and associations seems to suggest that the political system is still seen as a tool for mobilisation and a vehicle for some kind of political-social mobility. Parties in Malaysia often work as patronage-granting mechanisms that provide not only political goals but also social capital, credibility, prestige and means of acquiring power and resources.”

However, he observes, a worrying outcome of all this might be a situation where people lose faith in the political system, and regard both politics and the goal of state capture as futile and unnecessary.

That, Farish warns, would “suggest a deeper distrust of politics and the state altogether”.