Umno and PAS grassroots leaders often chide that the Pakatan Harapan-led government will be a one-term government, this after history was made in the 14th general election when Umno and BN become the federal opposition for the first time.
For Umno, which will cement its alliance with PAS this weekend, the move for it to unite with opposition parties is aimed at returning them to power in Putrajaya.
Some firebrand groups have even fanned racial and religious sentiments by claiming that federal power has fallen into the hands of the kafir (infidels), as though the Harapan government is a sign of the end of times.
However, to Umno’s more moderate deputy president Mohamad Hassan, said Umno should not be described as an “opposition party” because the term is considered “weak” and will not help the party’s cause.
But why does the term “opposition” still carry negative connotations in the “New Malaysia” era?
Parliamentary sovereignty an alien concept
Although Malaysia’s political structure is that of parliamentary democracy, power has remained concentrated in the executive since independence.
The Malay term kerajaan (government; with the root word raja meaning ‘king’), which is used to describe the executive, is in itself an interesting phenomenon. Prior to the arrival of the British, the Malay states were each ruled through a feudal system by an absolute and hereditary monarchy.
The arrival of the British put an end to the absolute power of the Malay rulers by the former placing officers titled as ‘residents’ in the Unfederated Malay States and advisors in the Non-Federated Malay States late in the 19th Century.
This system became the beginning of an executive body that assists a constitutional monarch’s rule to this day, with prime ministers and chief ministers as heads of government.
The administrative structure since the Federation of Malaya to the Constitution of Malaysia gives broad powers to the federal cabinet, ranging from income tax collection to cultural and tourism matters.
As a result, having a federal government that never changed hands until the 14th general election led to a cabinet with almost unchecked power, akin to kings without crowns.
In addition, the concept of parliamentary sovereignty is alien to Malaysia because, unlike the United Kingdom, Malaysia does not have a history of power struggles between her Parliament and the crown.
Thus, there is a lack of check-and-balance against government power by the opposition, and parliamentary chambers become like a theatre, especially with its inactive select committees.
Arguments by MPs carry little weight in the Dewan Rakyat and the opposition is given no role to help set or change policy.
For the opposition during BN’s rule, its playing field was in the coffee shops, at dinner banquets, in party offices and the front yards of their supporters’ homes.
Such activities were the staple of opposition politics and were often accompanied by fiery political speeches in a bid to win over the audience.
Ahead of the 14th general election, BN thought it could maintain its grip on power with the slogan “Dulu, Kini dan Selamanya” (“Then, Now and Forever”) and by curtailing Parliament’s ability to function as a platform to discuss government policy and build consensus with the opposition.
Nevertheless, Harapan’s win broke BN’s 61-year monopoly on power and opened the possibility that a government could be changed through the ballot box.
In Harapan’s rhetoric, the opposition institution must be respected in order to foster democracy. In Bersatu policy and strategy bureau chief Rais Hussin Mohd Ariff’s words, “the opposition’s dignity must be safeguarded”.
Moreover, Harapan’s manifesto promised that the opposition leader would be given the status and allocation of a federal minister and time would be allocated for the opposition’s agenda in Parliament.
This is in stark contrast to the “everlasting” government of before, where the government of the day could become the opposition and the opposition could become the government. It was only a matter of time.
But for the Harapan government, investing in the opposition’s welfare would be a worthwhile insurance policy that will pay off if Harapan is defeated in the next general election.
The premium for survival
The premium that Harapan must pay for its long-term viability is to share the stage in Parliament with the opposition, especially in the Dewan Rakyat’s parliamentary select committees (PSC).
While Harapan has indeed delivered on its promise to appoint an opposition MP to head the Public Accounts Committee, the chairpersons and the majority of members of other PSCs are from Harapan.
Not one of the PSCs, apart from the PAC, is chaired by an opposition member, even though the allocation of PSC chairpersonships should at least be distributed based on the number of seats each opposition party holds in Parliament, if not equally among them.
This is important because it would allow the opposition to set the agendas for the PSCs, allowing them to act as an effective check-and-balance on the government.
In addition, opposition MPs should be given the same treatment as government MPs when it comes to funding their parliamentary offices.
Deputy Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Mohd Farid Mohd Rafik previously told Parliament that government MPs were allocated RM300,000 per year to run their offices.
Opposition MPs don’t enjoy such a privilege and have to pay their office staff, secretaries and researchers out of their own pockets.
Although opposition parties can raise funds from their supporters, the government’s discrimination against the opposition forces their supporters to pay a “political tax” in addition to income tax.
Thus, if this “political tax” is not replaced with equal access to government funding, government parties today that could become opposition parties tomorrow will face the same discrimination by the present opposition once it forms the next government.
It will be difficult to foster a mature political culture if party supporters develop bitter enmity due to discrimination.
Being a good sport
Malaysia’s political arena doesn’t need to be a “winner-takes-all” deathmatch like the feudal kingdoms of yore.
The invention of the electoral system is meant to reduce the value of the crown and also reduce the cost of political competition.
This can be realised through the fair treatment of those who lose in an election so that they won’t have to tighten belts due to a lack of money to fund their comeback.
A healthy political contest needs to be prioritised so that feudal-like characteristics of our political culture can be replaced with good sportsmanship values.
Although there was fierce competition between the shuttlers Lee Chong Wei and Lin Dan, these two top badminton players are close friends off the court because both had played on a level playing field.
Thus, no matter how loud the slogan “one-term government” is shouted, losing power would not be a nightmare if government and opposition parties receive equal treatment.