Is there an ‘-ism’ uniting the Pakatan Rakyat?

Ceritalah By KARIM RASLAN

After 50 years of Merdeka the people deserve to have choices, and hopefully a two-party system divided by some kind of ideological difference will emerge.

MANY people feel that the Pakatan Rakyat is nothing more than a cynical “marriage of convenience,” an alliance fuelled by a lust for power and money that will crumble within a couple of weeks.

While I have to agree that the Pakatan’s increasing proximity to the apex of power – namely Putrajaya – has made it more united, I’d also argue that there are some powerful ideological forces at work in the three component parties, and that these political philosophies do mesh.

If I am right (but let’s face it, I have been very wrong in the past!) the Barisan Nasional must respond to the Pakatan in an ideological and philosophical manner as well as politically.

Essentially, the Barisan has to figure out where it stands and what it stands for. Mere “politicking” – scare mongering, cancelling and or delaying federal development projects and threatening racial strife – is old school.

Such primordial, Mahathir-era strategies will not work going forward.

Indeed bullyboy tactics will only allow the Pakatan to stress its victimisation – thereby aligning its treatment at the hands of a mean-spirited, ungenerous Barisan with the rakyat’s sense of marginalisation.

This combination could prove fatal for the Barisan’s chances going forward.

Of course, the obstacles dividing the three Pakatan parties are formidable and we are right to be sceptical, but only up to a point. In the past, the Gagasan Rakyat and Barisan Alternatif withered under Mahathir’s scorn and the sheer brute force of the Barisan directed administration.

Certainly, the DAP, PKR and PAS’ difficulties over the formation of the Perak government and the ongoing Karpal Singh vs ‘Everyone Else’ spat over the Islamic State suggests that the Pakatan is by no means out of the woods.

There is no doubt that the “Islamic State issue” will remain the core ideological challenge facing the Pakatan.

Now, all of these concerns are perfectly valid, but a deeper analysis of the historical and ideological roots of the three parties reveals that they have much more in common than we give them credit for.

Let me begin with the DAP. We are all familiar with the DAP’s social democrat origins. As the “Malayan” half of the PAP after the 1965 Separation, the DAP inherited the socialist rhetoric without Lee Kuan Yew’s mean-spirited real politic.

Moreover the DAP has been a long-term member of the Socialist International, the worldwide grouping of socialist political parties that includes both the British and Australian Labour parties.

PKR’s socialist roots are even easier to identify.

The party came about after a merger between Keadilan and Parti Rakyat Malaysia (PRM) in 2002.

The PRM itself was a successor of the old Malay leftist parties, such as the Kesatuan Melayu Muda (KMM) and Socialist Front of the Merdeka era – the late much-loved writer/academic Rustam Sani being an important link in the chain.

The presence of the old PRM leadership within the PKR (such as Deputy President Syed Husin Ali) shows that the latter has more capacity for “socialist” thought then we are willing to acknowledge.

Its worth mentioning at this point the obsessive focus on Umno in our mainstream media has side-lined a newly emerging force, namely, the Malay “left”.

If one wants to understand this world, it’s worth reading work by writers such as the late Rustam Sani, the historian Farish Noor and watching Fahmi Reza’s ground-breaking documentary.

At the same time we shouldn’t forget Anwar Ibrahim and his friends and allies from ABIM (including Kamaruddin Jaffar who’s since become a prominent PAS leader) have had a deep and abiding commitment to social justice and equity, albeit with an Islamist tinge; witness their protests back in 1974 over the poverty and hunger of Baling’s rice-farmers.

While the PKR’s socialist roots are relatively well documented, PAS’ connection with these political ideas is less well known.

The party is often mischaracterised – incorrectly – as a purely Islamicist political force.

However, a deeper examination of the party’s roots will reveal that pre-Hadi Awang, PAS had strong leftist inclinations.

Certainly, it’s often forgotten that prominent Malay “alternative” leaders such as Burhanuddin Helmy once played a major role in PAS.

Today’s PAS is dominated by the ulama and they are generally wary of all “-isms” with the exception of Islam-ism.

Figures such as Nik Abdul Aziz, Abdul Hadi Awang and the much feared Harun Din have done their utmost to eradicate Burhanuddin and his successor Asri Muda’s contributions to the party.

Nonetheless, the younger generation of PAS leaders – technocrats like Husam Musa, Nizar Jamaluddin and Nasaruddin Mat Isa – are clearly more attune with left of centre issues.

They’ve been careful to identify with the oppressed and the marginalised – the many Malays left behind by the Umno juggernaut – formulating their party’s manifesto around populist issues that resonate on the ground.

Of course over the past decades there has been an on-going vilification of socialism and other leftist ideas, often in the name of “defending” Muslims against the concept of atheism inherent in more extreme political ideologies such as communism.

Still, socialism, populism or social justice – call it what you will – is a vital unifying theme for the Pakatan.

Moreover this kind of rhetoric cuts across racial lines, since the dispossessed are themselves ethnically heterogeneous.

As this becomes the core ideology around which the Pakatan coalesces, I hope that we will in future be able to talk about a “Social Democratic” Pakatan which will in turn force the Barisan to respond by finding its own political “centre”.

Interestingly, the Barisan with its more moneyed, property-owning, aristocratic and traditionalist ethos will evolve hopefully into a Malaysian version of the British Conservative party or indeed the American Republican party – both of which are enormously successful political organisations.

I know this all sounds slightly far-fetched but the prospect of a genuine two-party system divided by some kind of ideological difference is a very exciting prospect and after 50 years of Merdeka the people deserve to have choices.

Ideologies aside though, the final lesson is that both coalitions will need to gradually make their way to the centre if either is to capture enough of the “middle ground” to rule effectively.

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