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Malaysia’s guessing game

May 2012

  • Sen Lam

Malaysia’s Prime Minister Najib Razak seems to be examining his options, as he keeps the people guessing about the date of the next general elections


In Malaysia, they’re known as ‘Merdeka Babies’, people born in the year of independence (merdeka) from British rule. And so it is, for the Barisan Nasional coalition government, and in particular, the dominant UMNO party. UMNO, which has ruled uninterrupted since independence in 1957, has been in crisis mode even before the 2008 general election; with party renewal and rejuvenation sorely needed after half a century in government.

John F. Kennedy was fond of pointing out that the Chinese word for ‘crisis’ is made up of two characters – one representing danger, the other, opportunity. Whether or not UMNO has the leadership and unity of purpose to seize the opportunity for change, is as yet unclear, even though Prime Minister Najib Razak has for the past twelve months been espousing reform and democratisation.

For example, the unpopular and once dreaded Internal Security Act or I-S-A has been abandoned in a few short months, and replaced with several other ‘security’ laws. And with suspicious haste, it would seem, according veteran lawyer Ambiga Sreenavasan, who’s also the public face of Bersih, the campaign for free and fair elections.

Bersih (translated as ‘clean’ in Malay) is a non-partisan organisation, but because it has the support of the Opposition Pakatan Rakyat coalition, Bersih and its co-chair Ambiga have been the target of much vitriol from less-tolerant elements within UMNO (particularly the youth wing) and the ultra-right Malay PERKASA organisation.

Whether or not the government is sincere in seeking genuine change, one place to begin may be the culture within UMNO. An ‘all or nothing’ mentality which brooks little tolerance for dissent or different points of view has trickled down to the government machinery.

One source speaks of Malaysian students abroad on government scholarships being given strong hints not to participate in democracy workshops or events, or risk being sent home. Stories of SB (special branch) men, hovering menacingly in the background at civil society meetings are commonplace in Malaysia.

I was a curious observer at the July 2011 Bersih2 rally in Melbourne’s Federation Square. There were some men perched on various vantage points taking pictures with giant cameras. Were they media, or were they ‘special branch’? Hard to say. But the Bersih organisers came prepared, and with that special brand of Malaysian humour, handed out paper face masks with the image of Bersih co-chair Datuk Ambiga. This was to allow those of a nervous constitution to stay for the event, to hear what the clean election advocates had to say.

Bersih3 (held on April 28) elicited more of the heavy-handed response by Malaysian police. In contrast to the rallies taking place in 75 world cities, including Melbourne’s Federation Square, where local authorities facilitated safe venues for the Malaysian diaspora, Malaysian police fired tear gas at demonstrators in Kuala Lumpur. The government says allegations of police brutality will be investigated.

Prime Minister Najib Razak has a natural disposition towards democratic values. But as the President of UMNO, he has to balance the courage of his convictions with the realpolitik of party survival. There are still many conservatives who want things done the ‘old way’, not unlike the struggle currently on display in China’s Communist Party, as demonstrated in the Bo Xilai saga.

The PM has to show leadership, without being seen as draconian. He has to concede without being seen as weak, if he’s not to suffer the fate of his amiable but ultimately unsuccessful predecessor, Abdullah Badawi.
On the home front, Prime Minister Najib has to contend with allegations of extravagance levelled against his wife, Datin Seri Rosmah. Mrs Najib is reportedly fond of expensive jewellery and trips abroad to order couture frocks from, of all places, Sydney.

In Malay culture, blatant exhibition of wealth is in poor taste. The stories in social media have taken on an increasingly gossipy and unflattering tone – not unlike those suffered by another avid shopper, the ill-fated Marie Antoinette, 220 years earlier.
The Malaysian electorate, apart from maturing in spirit, is also increasingly youthful. Many Malaysians in their 20s will be voting for the first time. This social-media savvy generation is also an impatient one. Driven by the immediacy of smart phones and inspired by civil society movements overseas, many want change, and they want it now.

That Prime Minister Najib and BN are trying to ‘democratise’ is heartening to the Malaysian diaspora like myself, who remember the years when, in the absence of the Internet, the only ideas and discourse were those driven by government-owned or controlled media. So credit where credit is due. Malaysia is a far freer place today, compared to the 1990s.

For a southern Johor boy like myself, long used to the dictates of UMNO (Johor being a stronghold) the nurturing of a healthy public forum for the free exchange of ideas can only bring good. As is transparency and the ongoing battle against corruption and crony capitalism.

In a sense, Malaysians (including Malays, the biggest ethnic group) have given the BN government a mandate to institute change.

Accountability and a healthy opposition are crucial if Malaysia is to achieve the developed nation status of Dr Mahathir’s Vision2020 which is, after all, only two elections away. The BN government, the Opposition and Malaysians have a choice. Whether to go for cosmetic options to stave off the inevitable, or to face the maturing process through the more holistic path of openness, tolerance and courage to embrace change.



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