Sheraton Move one year on

Taken from malaysiakini.com

 

One year after the Sheraton Move, Malaysia is struggling to move forward. Arguably, the backroom deals made public from the Sheraton Hotel epitomise the problems of the country’s elite politics.

The ABCs – Ambition, Betrayal and Cunning – were on display in a self-absorbed show that was about the politicians rather than the people. That politicians look out for their own interests is neither new nor surprising, but for many watching the week-long political theatre, it was heartbreaking. For some, a year later, it still is.

Painful transition

Malaysia’s political trajectory since the major turning point of 1998-1999 – the reformasi movement – has witnessed repeated openings and contractions in Malaysia’s democratic space.

Abdullah Ahmad Badawi and Najib Abdul Razak both promised reforms and left offices with mass public disappointment, and in Najib’s case, anger.

Pakatan Harapan in its 22 months in office delivered some modest reforms but a year later almost all of these initiatives have been reversed, a reversal that has been engineered by many who were elected into office on a Harapan ticket.

For over two decades, the contestation over reform has vacillated between hope and despair. What has made the Sheraton Move so powerful is how much it has provoked the latter negative emotions, a sense of disempowerment and despondency.

The Sheraton Move was so powerful because of what it exposed. By bringing into the open the petty squabbling of leaders in Harapan and the paralysis this caused, many of the leaders fell off their pedestals. For those that shifted their rhetoric from being advocates for reform to defenders of the old order, there was “Jekyll to Hyde’ transformation.

The role that leaders from Umno and PAS played in bringing about the change has been downplayed – but all of those who worked to sow division and capitalise on it played a role in bringing in a year of unprecedented political instability.

Covid-19 obscures the impact of the Sheraton Move – the loss of investment, more inclusive politics to address a crisis, the widening social inequalities – but make no mistake, the shift toward a government with weaker legitimacy and a deepening of the divisions in Malaysian society has left a mark.

The Sheraton Move created conditions where a political polarisation would be so deep that it would be impossible for a society and elites to adequately come together to address the economic and health crises the country is facing.

When history will look back on this event decades in the future, the Sheraton Move will be remembered for undercutting Malaysia’s forward trajectory, for spiralling the country inward and undermining its capacity to move forward.

Locked in the past

A year later, the political elites have not moved on. Harapan is still focused on winning back what they believe was stolen from them rather than given away. Its leaders are still concentrating on “a numbers game,” not fully appreciating that attention to securing power has wasted the ability of the now opposition to address their own internal problems.

News about Harapan still revolves about proposed power-sharing arrangements between Dr Mahathir Mohamad and Anwar Ibrahim, with the latter in the form of a senior minister position for Mahathir.

The proposal highlights the perpetuation of the leadership problem for Harapan and the opposition as a whole. Over the last year, the opposition has not proposed a shadow cabinet, nor offered an alternative plan to get the country out of the crises it is facing. Instead, in many ways, they have become part of the crisis.

They are not alone. Umno has been at the core of Malaysia’s instability over the last year – arguably even longer.

Umno leaders were key players in the Sheraton Move, they similarly played a role in the drama around the two parliamentary votes Muhyiddin Yassin’s coalition won last year and ultimately were pivotal in creating the conditions for the declaration of the Emergency last month. The party remains divided between those that want to get rid of the old leadership and those beholden to it.

Splits inside Umno have grown, as Muhyiddin has shown himself as effective as Mahathir in using divide and rule to control the party. The party is arguably the most divided it has been in its history – and this is a history of considerable party division. New leaders within the party have not been allowed to rise.

Umno still holds onto their own sense of political entitlement, unwilling to accept anything but the first position at the political helm. It expected the penthouse after the Sheraton Move and instead is sharing a smaller room.

The party has been unable to let go of its own past – a past in which the party has refused to meaningfully reform and embrace alternative leadership and practices beyond patronage for its own.

Until Harapan or Umno address the problems that created the conditions for the Sheraton Move, neither is able to offer alternative leadership for Malaysia.

Muhyiddin benefitted from the divisions in Harapan a year ago. Thanks to the Emergency declaration, he is also seen as strengthening from the divisions in Umno.

What is personal gain is not advantageous for Malaysia, however. Many Malaysians hold onto visions of the past as well – some romanticising the rule of BN/Umno or others that of Harapan. The fact is the past created the problems of today. It will take new solutions and new leadership to move the country forward.

 

For further discussion on this issue, check out ‘Bicara Minggu Ini‘.

 

Sheraton Move one year on