Malaysia: the political tide runs out

Will Prime Minister designate Najib Razak bring about new politics to Malaysia?

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Last year was a watershed in Malaysian politics. After 50 years of comfortably winning elections, the twelfth general elections saw the Barisan Nasional (National Front/BN) caned by the normally docile Malaysian electorate. The BN, a coalition of 14 mostly racially-based parties, commandeered by the United Malay National Organisation (UMNO), still won comfortably but for the first time in its history, lost control of five state governments on the Peninsula and was denied the psychological two-thirds majority in Parliament required to change the constitution when Pakatan Rakyat (The Peoples Coalition), led by Anwar Ibrahim, won 82 out of the 222 parliamentary seats.

Malaysia is often paraded as a model developing economy. By most internationally accepted measures, Malaysia has done well. It is touted as a moderate Muslim majority nation that has successfully managed to address issues related to communist insurgency, Islamic fundamentalism and racial tensions in addition to conventional economic development challenges. This success, however, has come at the expense of democratic freedom. BN developed a narrative that a strong government was necessary to ensure continued peace and prosperity. But strong government under BN papered over the many problems that face Malaysians and abuse of power, corruption and mismanagement were rife. In the run-up to the general election, and since, there has been a sustained onslaught against the façade that the BN had created.

Significantly, the 12th General Election saw the near demise of BN’s major non–Malay parties. This was a clear indication that the non-Malay community in the Peninsula had rejected the BN. If it were not for East Malaysia (Sabah and Sarawak), and dubious electoral practices, the BN would now be in opposition at the federal level. The people of East Malaysia continued to support the ruling party, although socio-economically they are the poorest among all Malaysians. The catalyst for BN’s unravelling is difficult to pinpoint. But the increasing dominance of UMNO in the ruling coalition, the racial arrogance it displayed in public and BN’s contempt for the rule of law all played some part.

The event that galvanised the Malaysian public was the ‘Bersih (Clean) Rally’ on 10 November 2007. An estimated 30,000 Malaysians, the largest demonstration since the sacking of Anwar Ibrahim, gathered in front of the Royal Palace to demand free and fair elections. This was quickly followed by the HINDRAF (Hindu Rights Action Force) rally, which brought together another 30,000 from Malaysia’s Indian community to voice their grievances against the government. Malaysian Indians had always been loyal BN supporters. Years of continued marginalisation forced the community to use direct democratic action after pleading through the community’s political representatives in the coalition (Malaysian Indian Congress/MIC) failed to produce measures that addressed their worsening conditions. These demonstrations took place despite the threat of tough action and arrests from the police.

As Malaysians shed their fear of BN, loyalty to parties based on race became increasingly vulnerable. Civil servants, business people, politicians – many of whom had benefited from BN’s policies – turned against them for various reasons. This opened a can of worms as individuals with ‘privileged’ information, aided with technology, laid bare the extent of BN’s corrupt practices. From the fixing of judges, to determining outcomes of court cases, to how contracts are given out to cronies became open to public scrutiny. What had previously had been rumoured was now documented in black and white, in some cases even with audio-visual support. BN’s hegemony on information was broken through the internet.

Malaysia’s political leadership was under assault. Prime Minister, Ahmad Badawi, was urged by his party to step down in March 2009. The Prime Minister-in-waiting, Najib Tun Razak, is facing serious allegations of being complicit in the murder of a Mongolian national involved in defence deals while he was the Minister of Defence. He has ‘sworn’ his innocence in a mosque although there are two sworn statements (affidavits) claiming his involvement. The courts are yet to call on him or the individuals who made the affidavits in the ongoing murder trial. Mr. Najib also faces many allegations of cronyism and corruption. But overall, he remains the best UMNO has to offer.

In response to its dismal electoral failure, to its credit BN has introduced measures to win back the confidence of the citizens. High on its agenda is addressing the problem of corruption in Malaysia. In the year 2008, several bills were passed to address this problem. The landmark bills were the Judicial Appointment Commission and the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission. The government also made ex gratia payments to the five judges who had been dismissed in the Malaysian Judicial Crisis of 1988 – a face-saving measure to acknowledge the Malaysian government’s wrong-doing.

Malaysia’s economic performance has continued to be respectable, although nowhere in the league of China, India, Vietnam and Singapore, and is now on a steep downwards path. The Asian Development Bank forecasts that Malaysia would record a growth of 5.3 per cent in 2009. At the same time a prolonged global recession is likely impact more severely on Malaysia’s open economy than on most others. The current political fracas in Malaysia will not be helpful for policymaking or economic confidence. The oil price hike, the global financial crisis and the failure of the Doha Round are all negatives. Lack of a political coherence and therefore an effective policy response makes these matters worse.

The tide is running out on the old politics in Malaysia and revealing the outlines of a new political maturity. Najib will take over from Badawi in March 2009. Will he choose to move the country forward in a non-partisan way or will he return to the traditional and authoritarian way that has characterised governance in Malaysia in the past?

This article first appeared in East Asia Forum.

Author: Greg Lopez

I write about Malaysia, Singapore, Southeast Asia and Australia’s policy towards the ASEAN region. I am also lecturer with Murdoch University’s Executive Education Centre, fellow at its Asia Research Centre, and a a member of its Centre for Responsible Citizenship and Sustainability. I am also a visiting fellow at the Department of Political and Social Change, Australian National University. Trained as an economist at the University of Malaya and the Australian National University, I have worked and researched the region extensively focusing on its economic and political reforms.

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