Published in Malaysiakini 19th January 2016
‘Agreeing to disagree’ has got a bad press recently. Hazlan Zakaria described it as bunkum and blamed it for Pakatan Rakyat’s “inability to come up with clear decisions.” Rafizi says “Pakatan Harapan will no longer agree to disagree”
But consider. Religious tolerance is just an instance of ‘agreeing to disagree’ whose God is the one and only true God. Without ‘agreeing to disagree’ nations and political parties would split apart. It allows those who disagree with Noor Farida of G25 to threaten to rape and kill her. Of course the extreme example of not ‘agreeing to disagree’ is ISIS who behead all those who disagree with them.
UK political lessons
So from a political perspective, when is ‘agreeing to disagree’ good because it keeps political parties together and bad because it prevents clear decisions? Let us learn from an example from UK politics.
Following the Paris ISIS attacks which killed 130 people, David Cameron, the British Prime Minister, moved a motion (resolution) in Parliament to bomb Syria. There was wide support for this motion, including from opposition Labour Party MPs.
Jeremy Corbyn, the newly elected Leader of the Labour Party, is a lifelong pacifist who would not support any military action. As leader, he had the authority to order Labour MPs to oppose the motion but this would have split the party. Instead he allowed the Party to ‘agree to disagree’ by allowing a free vote so that Labour MPs could vote according to their own conscience.
In 4 years’ time at the next General Election campaign, the Labour Party will not be able to avoid a split by ‘agreeing to disagree’. It will have to decide whether its candidate for Prime Minister will or will not press the nuclear button to launch Britain’s atomic bombs to protect the nation when attacked. If the answer is yes, Jeremy Corbyn will be replaced by someone else who is willing to press the nuclear button. If the answer is no, some Labour MPs will leave the Party.
Thus for issues needing an immediate and unavoidable decision, the party with executive power cannot offer ‘agree to disagree’ as an excuse for inaction. But for less immediate issues which are to be decided by a Parliamentary vote, every party has the luxury of ‘agreeing to disagree’ and allow its MPs a free vote.
Snatching defeat from the jaws of victory
Let us apply these principles to the issue of hudud in Malaysia. Pakatan Rakyat (PR) does not have the executive power to stop or promote hudud. Pakatan Rakyat (PR) therefore has the luxury of ‘agreeing to disagree’. It could have allowed PAS and DAP to campaign against each other with the final decision to be taken by a free vote in Parliament.
Following that, DAP, PKR and PAS could have come together again to fight for the PR common policy framework. Instead, unwilling to ‘agree to disagree’, DAP was allowed to split PR down the middle.
The lesson to be learn from the failure of PR is not that ‘agreeing to disagree’ prevented clear decisions. The real lesson is that, because it had never happened in Malaysia before, PR did not realize that implementing its very clear political decision to ‘agree to disagree’, meant allowing its MPs a free vote. If that had been agreed on, PR would have remained united and in a strong position to win GE14. Instead it snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.
Will the policy of refusing to ‘agree to disagree’ mean the end of dissent in Pakatan Harapan (PH)? Will such action as that of the 5 PKR backbenchers, who abstained on the UMNO motion on land reclamation at the recent Penang State Assembly, no longer be acceptable?
The 5 backbenchers won rather than lost votes for PH as the public wants to see checks and balances within a political party or coalition as well as in national government. The public knows that scandals like 1MDB occur when political leaders become so powerful and feared that no party member or elected representative dares to question him.
In a coalition with roughly equal parties, such as PH, each party will have positions that the other parties do not agree with. If the parties see eye to eye in everything, why bother to have different parties? They may as well amalgamate to form one party. It is only in a political coalition dominated by one party to whom the others are subservient, such as UMNO/BN that there is no need to ‘agree to disagree’
UMNO is already attacking Amanah for being the lapdogs or lackeys of DAP. These attacks cannot be defended by rebuttals and press statements alone. They must be defended by action. Amanah must show that they are willing to stand up to and fight DAP publicly when they think DAP is wrong.
But if the policy of refusing to ‘agree to disagree’ prevents this, then Amanah will be destroyed, just as MCA, MIC and Gerakan have been destroyed in BN.
Below I discuss 2 current political issues, arguing that the first is best dealt with by ‘agreeing to disagree’ but not the second.
Amanah Malacca women’s wing wants the Miss Tourism World pageant in Malacca to be banned. Presumably PKR and DAP do not.
According to news reports, the Pakatan agreement does not prevent component parties from forming their own political positions but these decisions must not violate the common positions made by Pakatan’s presidential council
PH’s presidential council has made no ruling yet on beauty pageants and similar events. So for the moment, Amanah Malacca is safe. But beauty pageants and similar events are of sufficient interest to the electorate to force the presidential council to take a decision, which presumably be in favour of holding such events.
If Amanah complies with the expected presidential council decision, this will be against its Islamist beliefs and social norms. It will lose members and the support of the rural Muslim community. It will be attacked as a lackey of DAP. If it does not comply and leaves PH, both PH and itself are weakened.
On the other hand, under a policy of ‘agreeing to disagree’, PH can leave the final decision to be made democratically by the relevant Exco or State Assembly. Malaysians are thus taught to accept dissent, to respect different social and religious viewpoints, and to understand that the democratic process can overcome these differences to produce a clear decision.
The PAS, PKR, Pakatan Harapan triangle
Can PKR have friendly ties with PAS at the same time as being a member of PH? At times this seems to be possible. PAS Dewan ulama chief and Johore PAS commissioner, Mahfodz Mohamed, said PAS will fight DAP and Amanah, but not PKR in the next election.
But can such an arrangement hold if, in a seat which PAS is competing, PKR campaigns for DAP or Amanah as a member of PH? Even now, without the pressures of a general election, Kelantan PAS raised concerns over presence of PKR leaders at a recent Amanah event in Kelantan. PAS proclaims that it is unwilling to give up even one seat to component parties of an election pact, while DAP announces it will contest in winnable PAS seats.
This is an instance of a political issue which needs clear decisions and cannot be avoided by ‘agreeing to disagree’. If PKR cannot mediate a unified opposition, then it must have the courage to face reality and choose between remaining in PH or joining PAS.