Commentary: The great pity that was Malaysia’s short-lived Pakatan Harapan coalition

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(dn) MM post Malaysia GE 2
(Seated from left): Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, Dr Mahathir Mohamad and Mr Lim Guan Eng, leaders of three of the component parties in the Pakatan Harapan alliance.

SINGAPORE: Malaysia’s Pakatan Harapan (PH) government lasted less than two years.

After winning the 14th general election (GE14) on that historic May 9, 2018 to great fanfare, it crashed on Feb 24 this year following the sudden resignation of Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad and the departure of Bersatu from the Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition.

Many were surprised by this collapse, but a closer look at the nature of PH and how they behaved in government will show that the PH administration were riddled with problems.


The first problem was the nature of the parties that formed PH. The four parties in PH were very different ideologically. The main uniting factor was not philosophy but pragmatism.

The parties banded together to ensure a straight fight between PH against BN in GE14. Although PAS somewhat disrupted this strategy when they created three-cornered fights in 157 of the 222 contested seats, the partnership enabled each of the PH component parties to focus on constituencies where they had higher chances of winning, therefore optimising the usage of limited campaign resources.

Nevertheless, their ideological differences remained. This created hurdles for PH to govern effectively.

Unlike the old Barisan Nasional coalition, where the sheer size of UMNO made them the dominant party, PH had very different coalition dynamics.

Members of UMNO and PAS gather during the Ummah Unity Gathering in Kuala Lumpur
Members of the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) and Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) gather during the Ummah Unity Gathering in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia on Sep 14, 2019. (Photo: REUTERS/Lim Huey Teng)

No one party could claim the leadership position by default, making PH seem divided at times. In a country where the citizens are more used to seeing BN as a united coalition led by a dominant Malay party that is UMNO, PH was seen as incoherent and lacking a strong Malay leadership.


The second problem was PH’s failure to address Malay anxiety. This was a significant failure but PH has always been – and probably is still - in denial about.

From the 113 seats won by PH, Parti Keadilan Rakyat had the biggest share with 48 seats. The Democratic Action Party was next with 42, followed by Bersatu with 12 and Amanah with 11.

This outcome created a situation never seen before in Malaysian politics. Since the country’s Independence in 1957, UMNO, as the party representing ethnic Malays, has always had the biggest share of seats in government, symbolising the control exerted by the Malays in the governance of the Malaysian polity.

But following GE14, the Malay domination of government was lost when multiracial Keadilan and non-Malay DAP exercised a commanding lead with a combined 90 seats, or 80 per cent, of PH government seats in parliament. This created a perception that the Malays had been booted out from political power.

It is therefore not surprising that a Merdeka Centre poll conducted a year after GE14 found that the government’s popularity had plummeted and Malay insecurity had heightened.

In the poll, only 24 per cent of Malay voters felt the country was headed in the right direction. They were particularly worried about Malay rights and the protection of the Malay agenda under PH.

Despite widespread anxiety among the majority population, PH did not make any real attempt to rectify this situation. Top PH leaders were dismissive of the need to tackle Malay fears and insecurity.

Worse, some DAP leaders continued to be more vocal, repeatedly issuing statements that roused Malay sensitivities, provoking the Malay nationalist party Bersatu into reacting.

The continuous spat created a picture of a coalition in disarray, with Malay parties having to fend off much bigger non-Malay parties.


The third problem was PH’s missteps in the prioritisation and sequencing of reforms. PH spent a lot of their energy on institutional reforms.

For example, to strengthen the judiciary, PH announced that the appointment of top judges will need to go through parliamentary vetting. To give more teeth to parliament, PH said more parliamentary select committees will be formed so that MPs can scrutinise the executive more effectively.

Under normal circumstances, commitment to institutional reform would be praised. But in reality only the urban elites were calling for the quick introduction of these reforms. The majority of the population, especially rural Malays, were hoping for immediate and more economic assistance to help them with the rising cost of living.

Malaysia skyline
The Petronas Towers are pictured amid skyscrapers in Kuala Lumpur. (File photo: AFP)

This added to PH’s problems because by focusing on institutional reform, PH was seen as serving mainly the desires of the urban elites and those living in the “Bangsar bubble”, while ignoring a large proportion of society who were more concerned about their livelihoods and economic needs.

Anwar Ibrahim highlighted this disconnect in April 2019 when he commented:

The urban elite sets a list of priorities which are a disconnect from the real problems of the poor, and at times, the elite seems to ignore these real problems. I have not heard them talking about poverty, inequality.

In another speech, Anwar warned the PH administration: “There is still a feeling among the majority of Malays that government policies do not benefit them. It is unsustainable for the government to ignore the voices of the majority.”

While institutional reform is undeniably needed, most analysts had rated economic hardship, stagnant wages and declining purchasing power as the most urgent issues that required addressing.

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This added to public dissatisfaction with the PH administration. Voters were disappointed the economic benefits they desired in voting for PH in GE14 did not materialise.

It was clear from the episode that any political party or coalition that governs Malaysia cannot afford to ignore widely held sentiments among key segments of the population.

Outside of the “Bangsar bubble”, Malaysian Malays were hoping for assistance to tackle economic challenges, but were served with institutional reforms which they did not see as priority.

The public, especially Malay voters, expressed their disapproval by punishing PH in various opinion polls. Yet PH was either too arrogant or too ignorant about the situation and continued to overlook their grouses, perhaps assuming they had the benefit of time to tackle these issues later in their five-year term. This was a grave mistake.

PH had high ideals for the country, envisioning a reformed society with stronger institutions that could put Malaysia on a stronger footing for future progress. While these long-term objectives were praiseworthy, the failure to tackle more immediate demands and concerns proved fatal.

The saga proves that in politics, idealism must be tempered with a large dose of reality to ensure that government – and politicians generally – are never detached from realities on the ground.

Wan Saiful Wan Jan is Visiting Senior Fellow at the ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute. This commentary has been adapted from a research project under Trends in Southeast Asia titled Why did Bersatu leave Pakatan Harapan?” published by ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute.