People queuing up to vote during the Tanjung Piai by-election in Pontian on Saturday. The by-election shows the people’s patience and goodwill have a limit. BERNAMA PIC

THERE are two sides to the resounding Pakatan Harapan (PH) defeat in the Tanjung Piai by-election.

The first is a really hard slap in the face for the inadequacies and broken promises of the newly-ruling party for whom time is running out and novelty value crumbling.

Various reasons have been put forward for this heaviest of defeats since that fast-fading triumph of May 2018. The unfulfilled promise of bringing down the cost of living. Many other bread-and-butter issues. Abolition of toll roads. Abolition also of oppressive laws and detention without trial violated by action to the contrary.

Even if committed by what a PH leader called the “Deep State”. The people don’t care. They want PH to get on top of the problem.

Bringing in a New Malaysia substituted instead by a dalliance with the race card which looks like it is something more than a brief fling. Yes, all that Malay Dignity stuff and scary assertions against other races.

On the other hand, the Malay and religion under threat narrative was well captured by the Umno-Pas alliance able to give solace to the majority Malays in the Tanjung Piai constituency despite the Barisan Nasional (BN) candidate being from its Chinese party, the MCA, which benefited from the opposite concerns of Chinese education, interests and Malay assertion.

This, in fact, is the rub from the Tanjung Piai defeat of PH. The convergence of the fear of a New Malaysia and the desire for it. A Malay-Chinese KO of PH coming from the two extremes of a polarised Malaysia.

PH, therefore, is caught between a rock and a hard place. Corruption is no longer the common enemy. PH is yet to forge a common cause for the New Malaysia — its greatest failure emphasised by the Tanjung Piai defeat.

Umno people in Johor have been telling me Malay support has returned to them. Now Chinese support for PH is also lost. Grim. A hard slap in the face indeed.

The other side of this defeat of course is whether or not it would be replicated in a general election. PH would be doing itself a great disservice if it dismissed the reasons cited for the Tanjung Piai debacle as general factors being particularised by commentators distant from the battleground.

It should instead ask all its parties the hard question whether PH is functioning or is dysfunctional.

I am reminded of that brilliant advertising campaign by Saatchi and Saatchi which preceded Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative election victory in Britain in 1979. Just one line against a long dole queue of the unemployed in typically bleak winter: LABOUR IS NOT WORKING.

IS PAKATAN HARAPAN WORKING?

Add to this the internecine conflict within PH which is causing it to be falling apart even as it is not functioning properly as a government.

A leading Umno light highlighted this in a comment on the PH defeat in Tanjung Piai. Bersatu and DAP are at odds with each other. The PKR dragged its feet and was not displeased Bersatu were given a bloody face in the by-election.

The calls for the prime minister to step aside are being repeated after Tanjung Piai. The leader of the DAP is being pulled up for arrogance (again).

Not able to fulfil the 2018 election promises and not functioning properly in government. Not holding together in power as it did in opposition, PH is showing all the signs of being a one-term government.

This is bad news for Malaysia. PH, however, should not take comfort in the hope when push comes to shove, the people will pause before voting BN back in. Tanjung Piai shows the people’s patience and goodwill have a limit.

They will throw caution to the wind. Better something that works, warts and all, than beautiful promises that are just a lot of hot air.

It takes good leadership for PH to come out of the hole it is in. Are the leaders doing something about it which is not just politicking against one another?

If not, the PH alliance was and is just one single purpose pact which falls away once that objective is achieved (even that remains to be fully fulfilled), something called a SPV in business — a special-purpose vehicle.

In that instance, will the last person to leave the Malaysia they thought was on the horizon as promised by PH, please turn off the light.

The writer, a former NST group editor, returns to write on local and international political affairs. He is also member of the Economic Action Council chaired by the prime minister.