Tuesday, October 13, 2009

In the Eye of the Beholder

The post-mortem of the Bagan Pinang by-election provides a fascinating glimpse into the spinning and speculating that has gone on as part of the effort to make some sense of what message or messages the voters in this now firmly held BN constituency were delivering.

We see a whole spectrum of scenarios being offered up, including one by yours truly. There is of course one school of thought that seems to suggest Umno won because the voters were fed-up with the bickering in Pakatan Rakyat and wanted to register their disapproval of such pettiness transparent in the coalition.

Another strain of thinking, not unrelated to the above, touts the lack accomplishments to speak of on the part of Pakatan since assuming control of some key states. Hence, the argument goes, voters wanted results and not just more griping and finger-pointing about the problems with Umno/BN. Salahuddin Ayub’s admission that voters – especially the Chinese and Indians – felt that the coalition had not done enough to redress the concerns of the latter and seemed to be tangled up with their own bickering clearly traverses both the aforementioned explanations. Incidentally, this argument begs the question: if this was the case, why did the voters not think BN’s loud and public bickering (the problems in MCA, MIC, and even Umno) were not worthy of rejection as well? Hence, why I think this explanation is just too shallow - and one obvious reason I don’t find it compelling.

Other more notable explanations include writing off Umno’s recapturing of this seat to its usual money politics. This perspective and set of voices repeat the same mantra about how Umno, as usual, doled out cash and gifts. And, voters in Bagan Pinang essentially were shallow enough to make their vote be about their narrow self-interest rather than embracing the new political culture of rejecting Umno’s corruption and cronyism. This may be true to some degree, but it also is highly overrated.

Simply put, while some of this kind of cronyism may be deeply entrenched, it is dismissive of the intelligence and integrity, not to mention apprehensions and real concerns, of the bulk of the voters. It implies, of course, that a voter only has integrity if he votes for PAS or the Opposition, and a BN supporter must by implication be a narrow-minded voter who sold his vote in exchange for gifts from Umno. Like the first explanation above, this too is shallow and simplistic.

Another interpretation – one which I offered, suggested that while not discounting the above scenarios, suggests that PAS failed miserably in Bagan Pinang because the party, despite its affiliation with more moderate partners like DAP, has yet to cultivate enough goodwill among voters to be a truly national party. For this to happen among voters in truly diverse constituencies such as Bagan Pinang, PAS has to strengthen its moderate credentials or it risks being permanently viewed as a party dominated by the extreme religious fringe. I suggested that the Bagan Pinang case demonstrates that voters might yet prefer to cosy-up with a corrupt entity such as Umno than gamble on the perceived religious zealots of PAS.

I don’t by any means discount the assessment of Salahuddin Ayub and others about the need for the Opposition to produce reforms and stop the bickering. But this can only happen it seems to me, if PAS can show that it is willing to sail along on the moderate path with its coalition partners. For this to happen, PAS must be more realistic than it has been to date.

Do I have a crystal ball that tells me what the voters in Bagan Pinang are conveying? No, and neither do the others. But will PAS benefit in the future – especially in diverse and more balanced constituencies such as Bagan Pinang - from being less belligerent and strong-headed? I obviously think so. As a matter of fact, I think it will improve PAS’s chances by assuaging enough Chinese and Indian voters that PAS can both ‘deliver the goods,’ and be trusted to be moderate and mainstream.

It is this latter message about the perception of PAS’s lack of ability to act as a moderate force that continues to shackle the party from widespread acceptance across the moderate political spectrum of Malaysian voters.

It is not enough to merely badger Umno. PAS will hopefully learn that it will need to earn its stripes as a viable and trustworthy alternative. Only time will tell if PAS can rise to that challenge.

But of course, you’re entitled to make what you like of the results in Bagan Pinang. In my eyes, the picture from Bagan Pinang is crisp and clear.

G Krishnan