posted by Din Merican
(with the kind permission of the author)
by Dr. Johan Saravanamuttu
June 19, 2008
Hundred days or more after the March 8, 2008 general election have not seen closure to the turbulent terrain of Malaysian politics. Malaysia may have escaped such earthly disasters as cyclones, earthquakes and floods but instead it has been immersed in a seemingly interminable political flux under the troubled leadership of Abdullah Badawi.
The joke making its rounds is that “badawi” may soon be accepted as a neologism by Oxford Dictionary to mean “to start something full of promise but end in disappointment, failure and/or disaster”. So, an example of its usage would be “France badawied their Euro 2008 campaign.”
This notwithstanding, it has been a time of great political opening or “perestroika” in Malaysia as I have opined before. So, let me put a slightly more positive spin to the ‘badawi’ epithet in an alternative submission to Oxford’s, namely, “to begin a process of change without knowing exactly or anticipating its final outcome”.
Politically, this period of Malaysian politics should be seen as the extension of the new idiom of politics created by the Reformasi Movement of 1998, which gave life to the activism of civil society forces in electoral politics. While the ensuing 1999 election results were a disappointment for the Reformasi forces, Malaysia saw the birth of an Alternative Front (Barisan Alternative, BA) and the birth of the multi-ethnic Malaysian Justice Party (PKR). But the BA soon fell to intra-party and inter-party bickering.
Abdullah Badawi’s stellar performance in the 2004 general election could be best explained first, by the BA’s self-destruction without the steadying hand of an Anwar Ibrahim, then languishing in Sungei Buloh prison, and second, by the debunking of Mahathir by his party, the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO). In my view, Mahathir resigned only because he was pressured by his party to do so.
With Anwar back in action in 2008, Malaysia saw him galvanise a newly minted alternative coalition for the 2008 election, and, along with a revitalised civil society, this proved too insurmountable for the leader of the UMNO-led Barisan Nasional ruling coalition. Abdullah failed to deliver the all-important two-thirds majority of seats in parliament and lost power in five states. A plethora of scandals, impending rising costs, the spectacular Mongolian murder and trial, and the constant barrage of criticisms from his predecessor augmented Abdullah’s problems.
The post election situation has been equally debilitating for Abdullah. He is still faced with internal criticisms and challenges from within his own party, and now faces the open challenge to his leadership from Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah and his own Minister of International Trade and Industry, Muhyiddin Yassin. Abdullah’s hand has been forced to agree to hold party elections by December this year, when these challenges will be formally mounted against him. An unenviable position, if any! In the meanwhile, the opposition coalition, the People’s Alliance (Pakatan Rakyat—PR), has declared through its putative leader Anwar Ibrahim that it will form the new government by Malaysia Day (September 16) from impending crossovers of ruling coalition MPs.
The announcement on June 18 by the Sabah Progressive Party (SAPP) that it will move or support a vote of no confidence against Abdullah Badawi in Parliament is unprecedented in Malaysia’s political history. It lends credence to the Anwar claim that defections from the BN could be imminent. However, there may be procedural difficulties here as a confidence vote has never been moved and the BN speaker may chose to disallow it on technical grounds. But if the motion were carried, then Abdullah is surely checkmated. With rumours now adrift that even the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) may crossover to the PR, or withdraw its support for Abdullah, a federal takeover by the PR is plausible by September 16, unless Abdullah calls a snap election.
Nor does the economic situation favour the embattled Abdullah. If it were a game of golf, he seemed to have bogeyed on all holes so far while a double bogey is awaiting him in the final hole. The hiking the oil price by 42% on June 4, held back during the election period, was a decision which has baffled analysts. His nemesis Anwar swore that were he prime minister, oil prices would be reduced not increased because of the state oil company, PETRONAS’ copious profits (up to RM100 billion per annum) and Malaysia’s status as a net-exporting oil state. Abdullah’s action has led to more street protests and a planned mammoth rally on July 5, to be held by the opposition parties.
Abdullah’s woes do not end here. The scandal of judicial impropriety (admittedly not of Abdullah’s doing but that of his predecessor, the authoritarian Tun Dr. Mahathir bin Mohamad) is more palpable after the V.K. Lingam expose and the Royal Commission recommendations of legal action against various protagonists. A Sabah judge’s revelation about a judicial “boot camp” has added grist to the mill.
The appointment of Zaid Ibrahim as de facto Law Minister to assuage the legal fraternity and to apparently reconstitute an independent judiciary may still be a tall order, and at best, a long way from fulfilment. The loss of Pulau Batu Puteh /Pedra Branca to Singapore makes another dent on Abdullah’s political image among Malays.
Malaysia’s political transition will clearly be stalled as long as the symbol of its impasse, Abdullah Badawi, remains at the helm. The more sanguine have argued that the badawied political process is salutary as it allows for many belated and necessary reforms to the Malaysian political system. In truth, Abdullah’s stymied political hand only allows for tinkering rather than an overhauling of all that is wrong. For example, an Abdullah government could hardly debunk the deeply embedded racial politics and Malay supremacy (Ketuanan Melayu) as a concept.
It is the unfortunate truism for the current prime minister that unless he relinquishes power, the movement to the next stage of Malaysian politics will not happen.
* Dr.Johan Saravanamuttu is Visiting Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS), Singapore and was the former Dean (Research) at the Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM), Penang, Malaysia. He is also a respected expert on Malaysian Foreign Policy.