What now, Malaysia?
|December 30, 2008|
How many shocks will it take for Barisan Nasional to realise that its days are numbered, unless it makes itself relevant to Malaysians?
Only true-blue supporters are waiting for the answer.
Others have already moved on to the ‘new dawn’ held out by Pakatan Rakyat in the five states that it has administered since the general election on March 8.
The year’s unresolved issues, therefore, revolve around the ‘what now’ of political transition on both sides of the divide. And whether the hitherto silent – from plebian to royalty – can keep politicians in line.
Here are 10 unsolved cases of 2008. This list is by no means complete. And don’t expect answers anytime soon.
Indian Malaysians any better off?
Riding high on its successful 30,000-strong people’s rally in Kuala Lumpur the previous November, the Hindu Rights Action Force (Hindraf) started the year on a high despite the absence of five detained leaders and its chairperson who went into self-imposed exile.
The awakening of the Indian Malaysians and their Makkal Sakthi strategy had a direct impact on the results of the general election – they abandoned BN in droves. However, Hindraf is now outlawed, leaving supporters to mainly target the release of its leaders.
MIC became almost irrelevant – veteran president S Samy Vellu lost his Sungai Siput seat which he had held since 1974 and, consequently, his place in the cabinet. He is trying to keep its grip on the community by rebranding the party as a people-centric one.
Malaysiakini reported in July that two senior officials in government subsidiary Pempena Sdn Bhd were involved in scams that allegedly diverted millions of ringgit in tourism-development funds into private pockets.
It did not faze Tourism Minister Azalina Othman, who responded that internal auditors would probe allegations of corrupt practice in the company.
She was forced to reveal in Parliament that “some investments in the company are questionable”. A report released two weeks later revealed that the company had been making dubious investments that will have to be written off.
The report, though, was of limited value, failing to mention the RM10 million e-tourism portal.
The government also announced the purchase of 12 units of Eurocopter’s Cougar EC-725 choppers to replace the ageing fleet of Nuris at a cost that eventually settled at RM1.6 billion.
Mentari Services Sdn Bhd chairperson Capt (rtd) Zahar Hashim, the former UMNO Petaling Jaya Selatan division chief, exposed ‘irregularities’ in the deal and existence of a cheaper alternative.
The Public Accounts Committee jumped in to probe the matter. While it ruled out irregularities, it said there had been no physical examination of the goods – opposition MPs naturally demanded the release of the full report.
So far, all the government has done is to buy time by delaying the purchase until the economic situation permits it. The main questions posed by Zahar remain unanswered.
Royals check in
Better known for discretion in matters of politics and governance, the palace took active interest over the post-election appointment of the menteri besar in three states – Perlis, Perak and Terengganu.
A similar exercise of constitutional power was seen on Nov 26, when rulers of Selangor, Perak and Negri Sembilan expressed disapproval that the National Fatwa Council had issued a decree against yoga without consulting them in their capacity as heads of Islam.
Meanwhile, young royals chose to speak up on issues that their constituents were robustly debating.
Tengku Mahkota Kelantan Tengku Muhammad Faris Petra caused a stir with a speech on Malay unity and rights at a forum in Kuala Lumpur on April 12, leading to MCA president Ong Ka Ting and DAP chairperson Karpal Singh lodging police reports.
Perak Regent Raja Dr Nazrin Shah addressed several conferences, including the annual Conference of Malaysian Judges on April 9. His views on good governance, Malaysian unity and judicial renaissance won him plaudits.
However, citizens have been less enamoured with a request for immunity from civil and criminal proceedings to be restored to the royalty. It had been withdrawn in 1993.
It is also becoming a norm for groups to petition the royalty to resolve their grievances. But there’s an old story about Pandora’s Box that they would do well to remember.
Controversies over Islamic matters made the headlines almost every month this year.
It started with another tussle over the body of an individual who was said to have died a Muslim. This time, his relatives were able to persuade the Federal Court of the invalidity of the claim.
Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi stated the need to ensure that such tussles do not recur, saying that non-Muslims should inform family members before converting to Islam.
The religion came into the picture again when about 100 Muslim groups called for Islamic teachings and practices to figure prominently in the election agenda of political parties.
Later in the year, it was disclosed that PAS had flirted with nemesis Umno over possible collaboration for Malay-Muslim unity, until PAS leaders reiterated their commitment to the policies espoused by the opposition coalition.
It did not help Pakatan when leading PKR member, Kulim-Bandar Baru MP Zulkifli Noordin, figured prominently in protests against a forum on religious conversions organised in August by the Bar Council.
The controversies mounted, as Muslim students described the school uniform worn by girls as being too sexy and the National Fatwa Council banned the practice of yoga among Muslims.
There is nothing to suggest that religion will not continue to be used to divide and rule.
Battle to end ‘Malay supremacy’
The once-incontestable notion of ketuanan Melayu (Malay supremacy) came under siege after voters sent out a clearest demand yet for a ‘new Malaysia’.
On April 15, PKR de facto leader Anwar Ibrahim alleged that Malay supremacy is only advocated by Umno leaders to enrich the elite and that ketuanan Rakyat (People’s supremacy) is the way to go.
Many ordinary Malays accepted his point of view, which has become a rallying call for increasingly resentful non-Malays.
Former de facto law minister Zaid Ibrahim agreed that the Malay supremacy concept has failed, and that an egalitarian form of democracy must be practised.
Kelantan Mentri Besar Nik Aziz Nik Abdul Mat pointed out that Islam is neutral and that Muslims who place nationalism and race ahead of religion are “disillusioned followers”.
Gerakan president Koh Tsu Koon noted that the right term for the special position of the Malays is kedudukan istimewa as stipulated in Article 153 of the federal constitution.
Information Minister Ahmad Shabery Cheek insisted that ketuanan Melayu did not imply a master-slave relationship, but refers to the institution of the Malay monarchy.
When MCA deputy president Dr Chua Soi Lek said the concept is no longer relevant, he was investigated under the Sedition Act 1948.
The debate is far from over.
For all his pledges of reform since November 2003, the premier delivered nothing at all to clean up the police force, return independence to the judiciary and add bite to the Anti-Corruption Agency.
This fed into the general election and unprecedented loss of faith in the premier, who will step down next March. Umno wanted him out earlier, but he wangled time to set key ‘reforms’ in place.
His two ‘reform’ Bills placed before Parliament were disappointing. The Malaysian Commission on Anti-Corruption Bill and Judicial Appointments Commission Bill revealed that the status quo will not change, but these were rushed through Parliament anyway.
In tandem with the Bills, proposals were tabled for a code of ethics for judges and for protection of witnesses.
Abdullah is due to re-table the watered-down Special Complaints Commission Bill in February but this is unlikely to be much more than another lame duck.
Premier-in-waiting Najib Abdul Razak will have a firm hand over the country’s most important institutions for accountability. What he will do with this is anybody’s guess.
No one expected the opposition parties to win big in the general election, least of all its own candidates. But it happened and parties in the ruling BN have been forced to see that they have to move with the times.
BN component parties realised quickly that UMNO had dragged them down, so they decided that they could no longer play second fiddle to the dominant party.
Gerakan president Koh Tsu Koon and MCA deputy president Dr Chua Soi Lek have told UMNO to discard its ketuanan Melayu mindset, if it hopes to regain non-Malay support.
Even MIC, seen as the most docile in the coalition, has been critical of UMNO and urged it to change its stance, especially in regard to the predicament of Indian Malaysians.
There was a hurricane in the east – Sabah’s Sapp declared that it no longer had confidence in the BN and threatened to pull out of the coalition if the federal government did not heed its complaints – and withdraw it eventually did.
PPP then threatened to leave BN if the loathed Internal Security Act is not amended substantially by the next election. The response was, in effect, ‘expect no change, do as you like’.
MCA, at its annual assembly, demanded a second deputy premier’s post for its president to assist in expediting reform and to allow its representatives to head cabinet committees.
BN chairperson and premier Abdullah Ahmad Badawi has hinted at a scheme to allow supporters to become direct members of the coalition, without going through component parties. This is to respond to restlessness against race-based politics among those who see themselves as Malaysian first and last.
Whether BN can really walk its talk remains uncertain, as does the outcome of its special meeting in February since decisions will depend on consensus being reached.
Doomsday scenario for the economy
The year started optimistically enough. In January, the Sabah development corridor was launched to add to the regional projects under the Ninth Malaysia Plan.
There was confidence that the economy would maintain its momentum, with some predicting that the second half of the year would “outshine” the first half, due to the high prices of palm oil and mineral oil.
Financial troubles, however, were brewing in Europe, Japan and the US. At the end of the first quarter, government-linked research group MIER forecast lower growth of 5.4 percent compared to 6 percent earlier.
By July, Bursa Malaysia’s composite index had registered the worst performance in the Asia-Pacific region. The government cut back on fuel subsidies and tabled a ‘stimulus package’ to the disgust of opposition parties, which came up with their notions of how the economy should be managed.
Bad news has kept coming in from all corners of the world, with no end in sight. It will take joint action to work out solutions.
But BN leaders have taken their eyes off administration since March, to secure their political future.
The momentary relief brought on by dropping world crude oil prices has yet to filter through to the sale of goods and services. As anxiety levels go up over bread-and-butter issues – and possibly high oil prices again, something will have to give…
PKR de facto leader Anwar Ibrahim must regret having marked Sept 16 as the date for opposition Pakatan Rakyat to take over Parliament and Putrajaya and making extravagant promises.
The day came and went without the promised change of federal government, amidst high anticipation among his supporters and panic in the BN ranks.
It all began a month after Pakatan’s powerful showing in the general election. Anwar capitalised on discontent among MPs in BN, especially those from Sabah and Sarawak who felt their loyalty had not been adequately rewarded.
With 82 federal seats in opposition hands, Anwar put about the claim that he had the support of at least 31 defectors to topple the government. BN retorted that Anwar was bluffing and resorting to sneaky tactics to destabillise the administration.
The mind-games and spin-doctoring continued into September 16. When the day passed, Anwar blamed various factors for the failure to make good his claims and has since repeatedly said he is in “no hurry” to take over.
To date, the only ‘defections’ have been two Sabah Progressive Party MPs who became Independents when their party left BN after a vote of no-confidence.
Worse still, Pakatan is expected to lose one of its MPs after a disgruntled S Manikavasagam, its representative for Kapar, vowed to quit the party and join the growing number of Independents by December 31.
With 2009 stretching before him, Anwar can have his pick of dates on the new calendar if he does not want to wait for the next polls due by 2013. There’s also that secret “list of defectors” to reveal, if it exists.
Testing times for UMNO and Najib
Ahead of the 12th general election, spray-painted messages in public places urged voters to choose ‘anyone but UMNO’. It was prompted by fury over the arrogance of the Malay-based party, with even its BN partners.
UMNO paid dearly for this in the polls, triggering an instant demand for accountability that led to the door of party president and premier Abdullah Ahmad Badawi. He was told to go, despite his plan to hand over power to deputy Najib Abdul Razak in mid-2010.
The beleaguered Abdullah then brought forward his departure and also said he will not defend his post during the UMNO polls in March. Najib then won the presidency uncontested and, by convention, will become prime minister.
But the public finger-pointing by leaders and members has revealed serious fissures that have left the party’s future open to question. Both long-serving and younger leaders are impatient to step into slots being vacated – or which they feel should be vacated sooner rather than later.
A divided and unrepentant UMNO will see support being further eroded within and without BN.
All eyes are now on Najib and whether he will be able to pull off the party’s great escape – that is, if his lieutenants don’t turn against him.
Reports prepared by the Malaysiakini team.