The Barisan Nasional (BN, National Front) coalition, led by the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), an ethnic Malay party, was defeated in Malaysia’s fourteenth general election on May 8th 2018 against all expectations. It held power for six decades since independence in 1957. Pakatan Harapan (PH, Alliance of Hope) coalition won, and installed Mahathir Mohamad as prime minister for a second time. Meanwhile, in neighbouring Singapore, the People’s Action Party (PAP), in power for five decades since 1965, continues to govern with no end in sight.
With both deemed to be authoritarian regimes, why has one been dislodged from power, yet the other has endured? One way to analyse this question is by looking at opposition politics in both countries.
Analysts have scrambled to explain UMNO-BN’s defeat in various ways. The factors that have been highlighted include, among others, the almost universal derision for the then prime minister, Najib Razak and his scandal-ridden government, the rising cost of living, voters’ rejection of UMNO’s ethnic-based politics, its failure to connect to the Malaysian youth, and the influence of the internet and social media in shaping the minds of a very critical electorate.
While opposition alliances are not unusual in Malaysia’s elections – a pragmatic strategy owing to the uneven playing field nurtured by UMNO-BN’s hegemony – this round’s version was marked by a twist. As an alliance, in the sense conceptualised by Ernesto Laclau, PH was established in a “populist” way. Populism for Laclau – moving away from standard definitions that see it as a negative phenomenon – is the means through which counter-hegemonic politics is articulated and expressed. The forces within PH, consisting of parties disparate in their ideological convictions and political visions, managed to equivalentialise their demands against a common enemy, Najib and UMNO. The most significant development was the entry of Mahathir, once an UMNO prime minister himself, into opposition politics. In an ironic turn of event, Mahathir, seen as the architect of the many problems that had befallen Malaysia until then, was embraced as PH’s prime ministerial candidate.
The success of populism in the sense discussed here depends on the production of empty signifier(s), which are ideas through which a universal identity of the different forces making up the movement is expressed. One example is “the people”, which multiple movements can claim to represent in partnership with others, no matter how dissimilar they may be as individual groups. In late 1990s Malaysia, the idea of reformasi (reformation), a slogan popularised by Anwar Ibrahim, sacked as deputy prime minister by Mahathir himself, became the signifier around which anti-Mahathir forces coalesced. In later elections, the idea of rakyat (the people) became the signifier for Malaysia’s opposition against UMNO and BN.
According to Laclau, the leader him/herself too can become the signifier for the movement. Interestingly, in the case of PH, Mahathir himself became the signifier for the alliance. The meaning of Mahathir as a person and an idea came to be defined in a variety of ways, so as to allow the particular forces within PH to identify with him, and justify why they had decided to coalesce around his figure. After all, many in PH, including the now finance and defence ministers Lim Guan Eng and Mohamad Sabu, as well as Anwar himself, were staunch critics of Mahathir, and were once detained without trial under the Internal Security Act (ISA) during the latter’s rule. In the face-off against Najib and UMNO, Mahathir became, among many other things, a repentant autocrat, a lesser evil, a Malaysian patriot, a Malay hero, and a reluctant leader all at the same time. In this interesting discursive interplay, UMNO was left to disavow its connection to Mahathir, scrambling to redefine his meaning to its political hegemony, to no success. Until then he was a much-revered figure within UMNO, but the indelible mark that he had left on the party as a result of his 22-year rule proved difficult to shake off.
If we accept that the only politics that can bring effective success in the face of a domineering hegemonic order is a populist one, Singapore’s opposition forces lack the resources to mount a robust challenge to PAP’s rule. As the country prepares for a general election which is expected to be called soon, opposition parties have not been able to come together to articulate an alternative vision that will challenge the PAP’s hold on power. For instance, Pritam Singh, Singapore’s opposition leader, admitted recently that “opposition unity – notwithstanding friendly discussions and relationships among opposition members – remains a real challenge.”
Moreover, it is unclear whether there is an appetite among Singapore’s opposition parties to offer themselves to govern in place of PAP instead of only playing a check and balance role for the near future. In addition, it remains to be seen what could be a real opening for an opposition challenge to PAP’s rule. While authoritarian tendencies are deeply entrenched in its governing methods, it has not suffered major slipups as UMNO and Najib had. The PAP has also not experienced significant intra-elite fallouts in recent years which could split the party and consequently bring about a change in government through the rise of a popular movement that is led by leaders with wide-ranging appeal.
Finally, there is also the question of whether there is enough credibility and prospect within Singapore’s opposition, in a context where the PAP has an almost free hand to pluck highly educated individuals from any sector of the society to be trained for future political leadership. Would voters abandon “valence considerations” in favour of the unknown?