Norshahril Saat, For The Straits Times

Dominant no more?

Over the last month, Umno and PAP leaders (pictured) told cadres to persevere or risk losses in the next elections, while Golkar's leaders acknowledge their crisis. -- ST PHOTO: CAROLINE CHIA
Over the last month, Umno and PAP leaders (pictured) told cadres to persevere or risk losses in the next elections, while Golkar's leaders acknowledge their crisis. -- ST PHOTO: CAROLINE CHIA

Twenty years ago, dominant single-parties were a recognisable feature of South-east Asian politics. Indonesia's Golkar, Malaysia's Umno and Singapore's People's Action Party were marching to the beat of their own drums, proving to be too formidable for opposition parties.

Today, however, the drumbeats are not as confident as in the 1990s: the rhythm has either slowed down - as in Malaysia and Singapore - or is in disarray, as in Indonesia.

Over the last month, all three parties have held their congresses. Umno and PAP leaders told cadres to persevere or risk losses in the next elections, while Golkar's leaders acknowledge their crisis.

Are dominant parties of the last century doomed to fail in the 21st?

For the first time in its 50-year history, Golkar has become an opposition party. During former president Suharto's New Order administration (1966-1998), Golkar's authority was unmatched by the opposition parties PDI and PPP. Even after Mr Suharto's resignation in 1998, Golkar was somehow able to stay in government through forming coalitions with the winning parties and appointing members to the Cabinet. After this year's legislative and presidential elections, Golkar chose Mr Prabowo Subianto's opposition Red-White coalition.

Its 2014 National Congress was marked by splits between incumbent Aburizal Bakrie's loyalists and Mr Agung Laksono's supporters. Long-term divisions between party veterans Akbar Tanjung and Jusuf Kalla still exist. Now, Mr Akbar and Mr Kalla differ on whether to join President Joko Widodo's government or to stay in opposition.

In contrast, Malaysia's Umno stayed united after the disastrous 2013 elections, though the possibility of splits looms large in the years to come. At this year's Umno General Assembly, Prime Minister Najib Razak, who is Umno president, warned party members to unite and to kick-start the party's renewal process. He urged senior members to give young members a chance to lead the party. The party's deputy president, Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin, also urged party members to work harder to regain grassroots support, saying: "...do or be dead!"

However, Datuk Seri Najib's decision to roll back promised reforms, including the retention of the Sedition Act, signalled his pandering to the party's conservatives and ignoring the progressives. One is reminded of Tun Mahathir Mohamad's decision to retain the draconian Act.

Similar alarm bells sounded during the PAP's 60th-anniversary rally. Party secretary-general Lee Hsien Loong warned cadres to treat the next election, due by early 2017, as a national contest. He also cautioned members about possible losses if they did not work hard. Calling the next election "a deadly serious fight", Mr Lee also spoke about the possibility of a freak election result that could see the party lose power. The party's desire for renewal was manifest when several members in their 30s - potential candidates for the next election - spoke during the rally.

So far, the PAP has done everything right to avoid Umno's and Golkar's mistakes. However, the party must not leave any room for complacency. First, PAP has given its young members more say in the party's decisions. It has not repeated Golkar's failures, of totally ignoring the renewal process, or Umno's, of leaving the renewal agenda till too late.

Important players during Mr Suharto's New Order administration continue to form Golkar's leadership strata, including Mr Akbar and Mr Bakrie.

Similarly, it remains doubtful whether Umno's "warlords" will heed Mr Muhyiddin's call for them to step aside gracefully in order to save the party. Political parties' renewal and regeneration require at least two elections, and not two years.

In Singapore, Mr Lee's decision to place young candidates in the 2011 election appears to have backfired at first glance. Netizens questioned the fielding of Ms Tin Pei Ling - then 27 years old - who was considered lacking in political experience. Still, the decision has allowed the young candidates to make their mark at the grassroots level.

Second, populism is necessary in politics, but does not guarantee election success. PAP politicians have been actively posting selfies on social media, telling the public of their outreach. However, as Umno members will tell them, repeated selfies, Facebook and Twitter updates and "I Love PM" campaigns do not automatically translate into votes. Thus, the PAP must not rely too much on such populist moves. Instead, it must be bold enough to take decisions which are necessary for the country and communicate them effectively.

Lastly, the PAP needs to be daring enough to break from its past, including its past ideology. Political ideologies have to be made relevant to the political realities of the day.

Umno's inability to reinvent itself and move away from racial and religious politics proved costly in the previous elections, and, judging from the recent Umno assembly, this does not look set to change.

The PAP has taken tentative steps to strike out on a new path. For the first time in 32 years, it has amended the party's Constitution, calling for a "compassionate meritocracy" and "democracy of deeds". The party has pledged more help for those in the lower-income group and the pioneer generation.

The party would be wise to continue to refresh its ideology, and to allow current leaders to state their disagreements with their predecessors in a respectful manner.

stopinion@sph.com.sg

The writer, a graduate of the National University of Singapore, is a PhD candidate at the Department of Political and Social Change, Australian National University. He researches South-east Asian politics.