KUALA LUMPUR: Malaysian politics has moved from being based on political ideologies to being based on personality.
It is as if the nation has returned to an earlier era – the Malay feudal era – when personality politics held sway and where loyalty to the leader superseded values and ideas.
According to Norshahril Saat, a fellow at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute, there was a time when political parties in Malaysia were clearly differentiated by ideology.
For instance Umno struggled for “ketuanan Melayu” (Malay supremacy) through affirmative action for Malays and bumiputeras but was willing to share power with the Chinese and Indians, PAS was an Islamist party and the DAP a secular party which fought for equal rights for all, though a majority of its members were ethnic Chinese.
But, today, Norshahril says in an opinion piece in The Straits Times, Malaysian parties continue to represent their ideologies only in name.
He says in Malaysia, politicians move across the political spectrum so quickly that party membership no longer seems to depend on ideology but rather, ties with certain personalities.
“The irony is that politicians who had for decades struggled for certain ideologies now seem willing to reverse them, or even cooperate with their ideological rivals.
“Currently, we have politicians who were once staunch ethno-nationalists struggling for pluralism. There are also devoted Islamists who turned liberal, then went back to their conservative ways. There are also Umno leaders who were once committed to multiculturalism but now behave like Islamists.”
Norshahril – who researches on Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia politics – says the neglect of political ideology shifts political discourse towards personality-based politics.
“This means that problems are analysed based on the behaviour of a leader. The solution to problems often comes down to the removal of a certain leader. “
He cites the fervour with which former prime minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad is going around campaigning to remove Prime Minister Najib Razak from office.
“The attack on Datuk Seri Najib and his family members overshadows the good that the Najib government has done.”
He says personality politics is evident in the PKR which insists on Anwar Ibrahim being prime minister if the opposition takes power.
Interestingly, he says, personality politics existed during the Malay feudal era.
“Stories in the classical Malay texts, such as the Sejarah Melayu (Malay Annals), showcased this principle of loyalty where subjects would defend their masters at all costs, even though it meant sacrificing their lives.
“For example, during the Malacca Sultanate, Malay warrior Hang Tuah accepted the death sentence decreed by the Sultan even though he was innocent. Hang Tuah eventually escaped the sentence, but came back to defend the Sultan to quell a rebellion by Hang Jebat.”
Today, Norshahril says, personality politics has led to the fluidity of political party membership.
Members join and quit parties simply because they follow their masters or have disagreed with them.
“The danger is that disagreements are not based on issues or policy outlook. As a result, we have witnessed many political u-turns in contemporary Malaysian politics. Nobody would have thought Dr Mahathir and Anwar’s family would ever reconcile. As for Dr Mahathir joining forces with the DAP, that is shocking to many.
“Personality politics may result in weak institutions because they revolve around individual members of the elite and are not anchored by institutions.”
Norshahril warns that such politics may also breed populism because power is attained through an individual leader’s appeal to the masses rather than through a battle of ideas.
“Over time, as politicians resort to populist statements to rally the masses, they make contradictory ones, and they are unable to articulate a consistent vision for a modern Malaysia.
“To this day, politicians are unclear about the status of policies such as BR1M (cash handouts to Malaysians), Act 355 (authority of shariah courts), and whether Malaysia should be a secular state or an Islamic state.”
Norshahril ends with a warning: “In the long run, Malaysians will bear the brunt of such personality-based and non-ideological politicking.”