The “Sheraton Putsch” that ousted the Pakatan Harapan government from power, the replacement of Muhyiddin Yassin by Ismail Sabri Yakoob as Prime Minister, the dissolution of the state assemblies of Sabah, Melaka and now Johor have one thing in common. These events were all about who should rule. These were not fundamental disagreements over policy. They were tactical moves for power.
The Malaysian political arena is structured to encourage power games. Government and politics in Malaysia require various parties to simultaneously collaborate on mutual goals, while competing with each other at the same time. Political alliances are made and broken regularly on both sides of politics.
The Malaysian political environment is influenced by history, a resultant culture that resonates a disposition to fixation of power, behavior consistent with those beliefs, and corresponding outcomes based on power dynamics.
The Machiavellian framework is a good paradigm or window to see the antics and maneuvering within Malaysian politics. The window allows us to interpret rhetoric, actions, and results as acts designed to achieve, sustain, and push others out of power.
Publicity-oriented mass defections from political parties common before elections show the acting and drama involved in Malaysian politics. Tales of Ketuanan Melayu or Malay supremacy show the dark and narcissistic Machiavellian expression of Malaysia.
Niccolo Machiavelli was born in Florence, Italy in 1469. He entered the Florentine government as a secretary and rose dramatically until he was in charge of diplomatic missions.
Machiavelli was himself removed from office with a political change and began to write books on government, leadership and power. Machiavelli’s views completely lack sentimentality, were amoral, and took a pragmatic line about efficiency in achieving results. He considered political skills the most important talent a leader should have.
Machiavelli’s framework is a political paradigm that sees leadership and governance in a political arena, where overt and covert agendas, tactics, and betrayal take center stage.
These concepts and ideas were used by a former politician and deputy minister of UMNO, Afifuddin Omar, who wrote a novel about the intrigue of Malaysian politics. Paradoks.
Afifuddin through his novel revealed the hidden hypocrisy of upright Malay politicians who preached Islamic values, only to indulge in extramarital sex, corruption and abuse of power. In paradox, the ruling political party has become so powerful that it has become arrogant, with leaders believing themselves to be above the law. “We are the law” is a common slogan within UMNO. Leaders surrounded by a corrupt environment have no choice but to become morally corrupt themselves.
This is a theme that Shahnon Ahmad in his novel SHIT developed. The ruling class uses its entire political apparatus to govern at the expense of moral and religious values. In this light, the formation of JAKIM was not about Islam, but was an effort by Mahathir Mohamed to control the powers of the royal families.
Afifuddin maintained that it is the goal of every elected Malaysian parliamentarian to serve in the cabinet. As a result, the public persona of politicians is very different from their private aspirations. Politicians are masters at changing personalities at any time.
It is not difficult to find examples of this. Mahathir was a master at changing his stories to suit his audience. Anwar Ibrahim can speak as an Islamist and as a liberal democrat. Azmin Ali played several behind-the-scenes roles in the political arena and held a high-level ministerial portfolio in three administrations. Shahidan Kassim can be a prominent Salafist and a hidden playboy. Many ministers and chief ministers of state hold huge portfolios and corrupt businesses by proxy, while advocating Islam and government ethics. People cannot be sure who their politicians really are and what they stand for. Even MUDA’s bright young hopeful Syed Saddiq, advocating a fair and non-discriminatory society, once flirted with Zakir Naik, who has extreme views on the rights of non-Muslims in Malaysia.
Machiavellian politics can also be used at a macro level. The ruling elite has continually divided the Malaysian people over race and religion. The Malay elite pretended to be the guardians and defenders of the Malays and blindly robbed them through embezzlement and corruption of public funds. The elite created fictional enemies to create fear and keep them in power.
Malaysian leaders are masters at acting in the most pious, loyal to Islam, but behind the scenes they intentionally start rumors, spread disinformation to destroy the reputation of their political competitors. Malaysian politicians, by nature, rarely state their true intentions. These only become visible when it is the right time to do so.
Mahathir Mohamed allowed the illusion that he had changed and wanted to right his past wrongs to grow during the 2018 election campaign when he won under the Pakatan Harapan reform platform.
Malaysian politics is a power game. The selection of political candidates for public office is a prize that the Prime Minister must select. This leads to a terrible power struggle within UMNO today. Party chairman Zahid Hamidi has the right to select candidates over Prime Minister Ismail Sabri. This is the source of the struggle with a general election scheduled for next year.
The current political upheaval in UMNO has nothing to do with ideology, just power. UMNO is a party full of power brokers, warlords, division leaders and families who pledge their loyalty to whoever will provide them with the most benefits and favors. Cabinet posts, agency and GLC board memberships, and commercial contracts are the spoils of war. Winners usually play zero-sum games and everyone knows it.
Therefore, creating regulations, monopolistic concessions, and restrictive licenses for cronies is a necessary fact of the current political system. These trade loots also fill Election War Chests to ensure they win.
Malay heart voters see their politicians as the hero Robbin Hoods. They steal Rakyat and return tokens during election time. Power is a great investment. Spend RM300 during an election campaign and earn the power to get returns multiple times.
Bending and breaking the rules has no ethical consequences for Machiavellian politicians. This is part of their cultural programming. Corruption is partly only a means to an end.
The whole country has slipped into the Machiavellian paradigm. As audiences around the world watch Frank Underwood in House of Cards manipulate and cheat his way to the presidency, even committing murder, Malaysians chat all day in cafes and in Whatsapp groups about the latest scandal. Malaysian politicians are expected to provide entertainment, so behaving that way is not shocking. Scandals that break out are usually quickly forgotten and the politicians get away with it. These antics divert public attention from the nation’s real problems such as inflation, growing poverty, public health, lack of retirement provision and poor infrastructure in much of the country.
Malay Machiavellianism has deep historical and cultural roots.
The pre-colonial days of the Malay sultanates centered on loyalty to the monarch, rather than loyalty to a state which was very loosely defined geographically. Subjects had a Wa’adat or social contract with the ruler. The people accepted the sultan’s right to rule and the sultan would protect them. Disobedience to the ruler was considered an act of treason. Power was the concept of Malay sovereignty, not the territories created by colonial administrations during British rule.
The concept of Kerajaan or a Sultan’s government is culturally deeply accepted among the Malays. This installed a respectful servility in the population, publicly unquestionable. First Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman said that without protecting the influence of rulers, Malays would lose any semblance of belonging they might have in their country of birth.
Political leaders have partly hijacked this concept of authority, which has installed them as the effective power of the nation. Opportunistic Malay politicians nurtured the narrative of Ketuanan Melayu or Malay supremacy to legitimize power.
Machiavellianism in Malaysia is about preserving the current power structure within society. These Machiavellian leaders place no importance on the advancement of the community or what is good for the country. They focus on winning for themselves.
However, there is some hope for Malaysia. The Machiavellian has never been fully understood. He left some hope. Machiavelli was frank and honest in his appreciation of basic human nature, stripped of moral overtones. Machiavelli’s premise was that power is neutral and that good or evil is generated by how it is used. However, the problem lies here. When one acquires power, it is very likely that one will also become corrupt. This is Malaysia’s tragedy.
Murray Hunter’s blog can be accessed here