KUALA LUMPUR, Sept 1 — The unprecedented joint statement from the prime minister and senior Opposition figures showed that Malaysia was taking its first steps to bipartisanship after decades of zero-sum politics, according to analysts.
However, they cautioned that the nascent movement ushered in by Prime Minister Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri Yaakob and the heads of Pakatan Harapan parties would not yet lead to lasting cooperation across the political aisle without serious efforts from the rival politicians.
According to Jayum Jawan, professor of politics and government at Universiti Putra Malaysia (UPM), the seeds of bipartisan politics were planted after the 14th general election, the “profound” results of which made it difficult for any ruling party to legislate unilaterally.
This was evident when the Pakatan Harapan government at the time had to convince Opposition lawmakers to support some of its key reform initiatives, such as lowering the voting age to18 by way of a constitutional amendment.
“Before this, a ruling party did not need bipartisan support as they always had a clear majority and at times, a two-third majority, which is needed to push through legislation,” he told Malay Mail.
“It is also good for a prime minister to be able to secure bipartisan support for national interest.”
Jayum explained that bipartisanship was an unavoidable characteristic of mature democracies, noting the necessity for even bitter rivals such as the US Democrats and Republicans to cross political lines to pass legislation, regardless of which was in power.
Politicians must learn and adapt to the nation's current predicament by working as partners for nation building and to put the country ahead of themselves, he added.
Bipartisanship also need not mean solidarity between the government and the Opposition, he said when noting that this could simply be a willingness to compromise on matters of national importance.
Malaysia already took its first steps last year when lawmakers agreed to pass the national budget at a time when then-prime minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin’s majority was already in doubt, Jayum noted.
“This is something our parliamentarians need to learn. They don't have to disagree all the time. The agreement to work together between the prime minister and PH leaders was meant to address immediate concerns, after all,” he said.
Despite the progress in this area, senior researcher at think tank O2 Malaysia Anis Anwar Suhaimi said Malaysian politicians must reach more milestones before it could be said that there was real bipartisanship in the country.
“Firstly, the key to bipartisanship success lies in establishing a common ground regarding the people’s and nation’s agenda. Secondly, any cooperation must stand based on honesty and sincerity.
“Next, there must be no such importance where political popularity overrides the national agenda, and finally, supporters from each political party must abandon their prejudices against their rival parties,” he explained.
While the Opposition’s criticism of Ismail Sabri’s Cabinet selection suggested there was still intractability in these areas, he said the Covid-19 pandemic has presented opportunities for political rivals to find common ground.
Among others, he noted that the pandemic has put Umno and PH on the same side on topics such as reviving the economy and improving Malaysians’ welfare, which gave the Malay nationalist party opportunities to reach out to its rivals.
“So, all that remains is the political will to realise this bipartisanship. Given that the prime minister agreed in principle with the guidance from Umno during the Umno Supreme Council meeting, the opportunity for a successful bipartisan venture could be manifested during the 2022 Budget at a later parliamentary session,” Anis added.
Even before that, political analyst and associate professor Kartini Aboo Talib @ Khalid said there would also be an early litmus test in the government’s proposal to include opposition lawmakers in its National Recovery Plan (NRP) task force committee.
“If the government forms the special task force committee to implement the National Recovery Plan, the members of the committees can consider having a formula of five partisan, two bipartisan and three non-partisan members to uphold the committee appropriately and allow members to make a decision and carry out their duties for the people with less struggle,” she said.
Kartini noted that an undertaking of such magnitude would require diverse input that would invariably include the elected representatives of each constituency, without which the country would remain mired in costly political instability.
After an atypical meeting among them, the prime minister and leaders of the country’s main Opposition parties released a combined statement announcing the common ground they have found on addressing the Covid-19 pandemic, protecting Malaysia lives and wellbeing, and alleviating the economic crisis.
Opposition Leader Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim, who was involved in the meeting, also indicated that the PH coalition would not complicate an expected confidence vote on Ismail Sabri if the PM would commit to policies that were pro-Malaysian and managed the pandemic well.
Ismail Sabri’s coalition has control of just 114 seats from the 222 in Parliament, or marginally above the minimum needed for a simple majority.