Groundbreaking change does not happen overnight, at least not in Malaysia where it takes a special blend of circumstances to rouse people to fury.
That process started late last year and spilled over into this year. From then, it was only a matter of time until pent-up frustration burst. And it did.
History was made, but it did not stop there. It has been an exhilarating and inspiring year – it will be a long time before anyone climbs down from the emotional high.
Counting down, we take you through the best and the worst of 2008.
Breaking down barriers
It started off as a lonely crusade by residents against a highway concessionaire, but ended up in a power tussle at the very top that has ended relatively happily-ever-after.
Flashback to 2005 when determined residents of Bandar Mahkota Cheras began their stand-off against an unwavering Grand Saga Sdn Bhd.
The company built a concrete barrier across an access road to a new highway. Residents were forced to take a longer route out of their housing estate and through traffic jams – incidentally via the toll booths – to get to the highway.
Forming an action committee, they filed a suit against the company. To get their point across, no fewer than 18 protests were held at the site of the barricade, drawing the police to ‘dispersal duty’ including arrests.
The ding-dong situation came to a head after the March 8 general election. The change of government in Selangor to one under Pakatan Rakyat was the ray of light the residents needed.
Documents showed that the barricade was on state land, so officials ordered that it be dismantled. Residents tore it down with alacrity on April 21, only for Grand Saga to rebuild it two weeks later, under the supervision of some 200 police personnel.
Clashes ensued, the worst of which occurred on May 27 when more than 10 people were seriously injured. Technician Chang Jiun Haur alleged he was repeatedly beaten by police personnel.
Police countered that Chang had run over an officer while leaving the scene in his car, and investigated him for attempted murder. However, he was then charged with reckless driving.
The Selangor government’s intervention produced a U-turn in the federal government’s position, which had been widely seen as supportive of the highway concessionaire up to then.
Visiting the scene after the fracas, Works Minister Mohd Zin Mohamed announced that the access road would stay open until the court disposes of the residents’ legal suit.
The Human Rights Commission (Suhakam) has held an inquiry into the allegation of “excessive force” used against Chang. Its report is still pending.
WHAT’S NEXT: It will be an anxious wait for residents in general and Chang in particular, as the saga winds down.
Altantuya still haunts us all
Who was involved in the killing of Mongolian national Altantuya Shaariibuu? Not political analyst Abdul Razak Baginda, according to the Shah Alam High Court which acquitted him of abetment on Oct 31 without calling for his defence.
The prosecution decided not to appeal, a first in such cases. But lawyer Karpal Singh, who is holding a watching brief for Altantuya’s family, has filed for review of the judgment.
In the meantime, two ‘elite squad’ police personnel – Chief Inspector Azilah Hadri and Corporal Sirul Azhar Umar – will have to make their defence against the primary charge of murder.
Two years after Altantuya’s death in 2006, the case still threw up surprises. Opposition MPs even took the matter to Parliament, seeking unsuccessfully to file a special motion to debate it in view of the allegations that have surfaced.
Private investigator P Balasubramaniam caused a sensation with details of his statutory declaration (SD), which alleged that deputy premier Najib Abdul Razak had links with Altantuya and that she had demanded RM500,000 in commission for closing a deal on the purchase of submarines.
The next day, though, Balasubramaniam retracted the document in a second SD. Najib duly denied any relationship with Altantuya or that pressure had been exerted on Balasubramaniam to withdraw his allegations.
As police began a probe into the conflicting SDs, Balasubramaniam and his family went ‘missing’ but were later confirmed to be living in a neighbouring country.
Blogger Raja Petra Kamarudin added to the mix with a purported expose claiming that Najib’s wife Rosmah Mansor had been at the scene of the crime with two army personnel. Rosmah denied this and the army officers are suing Raja Petra for defamation.
The irrepressible blogger then revealed that senior lawyer Muhammad Shafee Abdullah had exchanged text-messages with Najib, in seeking Razak’s release while under remand.
Following his acquittal, Razak rose to the defence of Najib and Rosmah, saying they were not involved in the case – and that the issue had nothing to do with the Scorpene submarine purchase.
WHAT’S NEXT: Hope is ebbing that the ‘real’ story behind the gruesome incident will ever come out. But there is still the rest of the murder trial to go, alongside the police probe and defamation suit.
Chua rises from the ashes
In January, then MCA vice-president Dr Chua Soi Lek saw his political career end abruptly as he owned up to his part in a sex scandal that had been secretly video-taped and circulated earlier.
Admitting “I am the man in the tape”, he initially said he would allow the prime minister and MCA president Ong Ka Ting to decide his fate, hinting that he was a victim of a political conspiracy within the party.
But in less than 24 hours, he announced his immediate resignation from all party and government posts.
There was no writing him off. In the party election 10 months later, he made an incredible comeback as he was elected deputy president.
He faced off main rivals secretary-general Ong Ka Chuan and vice-president Donald Lim on Oct 18, winning with a mere 114 votes.
Chua had the general election results to thank for this, with the rank-and-file screaming for accountability over MCA’s abject performance as well as for reforms.
WHAT’S NEXT: The immediate question is how MCA will handle this hot potato, for he seeks to return to the cabinet. However, his ‘tainted’ past and rivalry with new party president Ong Tee Keat stand in the way.
Hits and misses for judiciary
Try as they might, politicians were unable to get it right about the judiciary. For every apparent step forward, there has been a hidden step backwards – from the appointment of a new chief justice to the Judicial Appointments Commission (JAC) Bill.
Zaki Azmi replaced Abdul Hamid Mohamad as chief justice in October, but has been dogged by senior lawyer and Bukit Gelugor parliamentarian Karpal Singh who is most unhappy over the appointment.
This follows Zaki’s alleged admission of ‘bribery’ as a practising lawyer, although he has clarified that he was misquoted in a news report.
Also drawing criticism was the government’s ex-gratia payment of more than RM10 million to six senior judges – including former Lord President Salleh Abas – who were sacked in 1998. It appeared that offering them an apology would have been better appreciated.
In December, Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi tabled the JAC Bill, dubbed by Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Mohd Nazri Abdul Aziz as the “first step to judicial reform”.
Others were less certain, but their reservations did not stop the Dewan Rakyat from rushing it through.
During the year, too, Sarawak High Court judge Ian Chin made the astounding revelation that then premier Dr Mahathir Mohamad had subjected some judges to “boot camp treatment” and had intimidated judges into making pro-government decisions.
This led to a public exchange between the two, ending with the former opting for early retirement in view of the stress suffered.
WHAT’S NEXT: Now that the JAC enactment has killed off the dream of independence, will the judiciary have sufficient pride to redeem itself without ‘external’ help?
Police ‘protection’ for the vocal
THE ISSUE: To say that the police took enforcement of the Internal Security Act (ISA) to ridiculous extremes this year would be an under-statement.
Even by its standards, the force did not cover itself in glory when it hastily detained Sin Chew Daily journalist Tan Hoon Cheng after her report on an incendiary speech by Bukit Bendera Umno division head Ahmad Said in Penang.
Home Minister Syed Hamid Albar, at one point, said this was for “her own protection” as death threats had been received. But, giving in to instant pressure from many quarters – including Barisan Nasional component parties – the police released Tan within 18 hours.
DAP’s Seputeh parliamentarian Teresa Kok and Malaysia Today editor Raja Petra Kamarudin, were held for longer periods after their arrest on Sept 12. Raja Petra won freedom through a rare victory in court.
The arrests triggered a series of protests and candlelight vigils by civil society groups, while BN component party PPP threatened to leave the ruling coalition if there are no substantive amendments to the ISA by the next general election.
Worse for the BN, de facto law minister and prominent UMNO member Zaid Ibrahim resigned to protest the arrests. His subsequent presence at opposition-led events resulted in him being sacked from the party.
WHAT NEXT: The BN has ‘no intention’ of amending the ISA, let alone repealing it. The ball is back in the court of those who want to see the last of it.
Fuel price highs and lows
The government raised the petrol price to RM2.70 in June – a jump of 40.6 percent that left consumers severely traumatised as the direct and indirect impacts were felt.
The decision was made in order to cut spiraling expenditure on subsidies, said to amount to RM56 billion this year, and was the latest in a series of price hikes that began last year.
Bewildered analysts and economists wondered why Malaysia, a net producer of crude oil, was withdrawing subsidies at a time when national oil and gas company Petronas was making record profits.
Opposition parties got into stride, organising protests, even as Pakatan Rakyat claimed that it would do better as the new federal government on Sept 16.
Just two months later, the government began reducing fuel prices through a monitoring scheme based on drop in the world price. Since August, there have been seven reductions.
WHAT’S NEXT: Absolutely no cheer, as prices of essential goods are not coming down and job losses as well as falling incomes take away any relief felt by motorists.
Deja vu in sodomy charge
The ‘Sodomy 2.0′ version unfolded on June 28 when PKR de facto leader Anwar Ibrahim’s 23-year-old former aide Mohd Saiful Bukhari Azlan lodged a police report. He claimed to have been sodomised by Anwar in a condominium in Damansara.
To many, it was unreal. Ten years ago, Anwar had faced a similar charge which saw him being jailed until the conviction and sentence were overturned on appeal in 2004.
In the latest episode, he was arrested on July 16 by balaclava-clad police – a scene reminiscent of that in 1998 – but freed a day later after being questioned and made to undergo a medical examination.
His supporters claimed that the government would detain him pending trial, ostensibly to prevent his campaigning for the Permatang Pauh by-election. But when Anwar claimed trial on Aug 7, he was freed on a RM20,000 personal bond.
Much else has happened outside the courtroom, including the allegation that Deputy Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak had a ‘hidden hand’ in the matter since he had met with Saiful prior to the complaint. Najib has denied this.
Saiful’s complaint was challenged when a medical examination – done on the same day he lodged the police report – allegedly found no signs of sodomy.
He then swore on a Quran in a mosque to back his claim, but the shadow of political interference fell over this as well. The imam who witnessed the oath-taking said he was instructed to do so.
WHAT’S NEXT: The sodomy trial has not made much headway since August, as technical arguments have prevailed. The court is expected to hear the substantial arguments in the coming year.
Clash of the titans
Wouldn’t something be amiss in Malaysian politics if the nation’s top two leaders aren’t pitted against one another? The year did not disappoint in this respect.
BN’s disastrous showing in the March general election brought out a metaphorical keris in Umno – this time the business end of it was pointed at party president and premier Abdullah Ahmad Badawi.
Initially, it was unclear who was holding the dagger, given the groundswell of discontent over the coalition’s ‘gift’ to the opposition – four state governments, failure to re-take Kelantan and voters’ rejection of many veteran leaders.
Although ‘undur Pak Lah’ messages appeared on banners in public, Abdullah’s decimated team backed his leadership. Former party head Dr Mahathir Mohamad merely intensified the noisy bombardment from the sidelines.
Abdullah came undone when the economy came under pressure due mainly to the spike in global crude oil price and the US credit crunch. There was no hiding the resentment now.
Adding to the panic, PKR’s Anwar Ibrahim drummed up his claim of being able to take over the federal government by Sept 16. With Umno due to hold elections in December, the tussle at the top fed into the bickering at the bottom.
Abdullah finally reacted, swapping his finance portfolio for Najib’s defence portfolio and holding out the lure of direct transition to his deputy. It might have worked except that Umno vice-president and senior minister Muhyiddin Yassin took exception to the cosy arrangement.
On Sept 21, at the Umno supreme council meeting, Abdullah was confronted by the very leaders who had supported him. They pushed him to state by Oct 9 if he planned to contest the polls, before the nomination process began.
In what appears to be a face-saving move, although Abdullah claimed that it was done to prevent the rift from widening, a compromise was struck with Najib.
Polls were moved to March and Abdullah agreed to relinquish the presidency – by convention, also the premiership – to Najib if the latter had enough support in the party. Najib took the post uncontested, with 98 percent of the nominations.
WHAT’S NEXT: There is trepidation about a return to the dark days of ‘Mahathirism’ under Najib’s tenure, alongside talk that the out-manoeuvred Anwar is only biding his time to let the latter’s skeletons out of the closet. Muhyiddin’s moves merit a close watch as well.
Anwar completes his comeback
The Aug 26 Permatang Pauh by-election was called after incumbent Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail of PKR vacated the parliamentary seat, so that her husband Anwar Ibrahim could return to active politics.
Dubbed as the ‘mother of all by-elections’, it was held at a time of intense speculation about a takeover of the federal government by Pakatan Rakyat through defections from ruling lawmakers.
The contest was hyped by PKR as Anwar’s ‘road to Putrajaya’, possibly as a morale booster for more BN parliamentarians to cross over to the opposition alliance.
Anwar had held the seat from 1982 but was unable to contest the 1999, 2004 and 2008 general elections due to his conviction for corrupt practice and subsequent five-year ban on participation in active politics. The prohibition was lifted in April this year.
During the 10-day campaign, BN played up the sodomy allegation against Anwar but PKR pulled out its trump card at the eleventh hour when an imam admitted that he was instructed to witness an oath-taking ceremony by accuser Mohd Saiful Bukhari Azlan.
The campaign saw money pouring into the constituency from both BN and PKR.
Anwar made a triumphant return with a bigger majority of 15,671 over his rivals – BN’s Arif Shah Omar Shah and Akim president Hanafi Hamat – and was sworn in as Opposition Leader in Parliament.
WHAT’S NEXT: Watch the Jan 17 Kuala Terengganu by-election, the second since the general election in March. Will the BN make an impact or will it see the loss of another seat?
Public whipping for BN
When Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi announced the dissolution of the Parliament on Feb 13, many BN politicians thought that the 12th general election would see the ruling coalition retaining its two-thirds majority in Parliament.
However, Malaysians decided otherwise on March 8 after a 13-day campaign, and deprived BN of its majority in the House. The opposition won 82 out of 222 parliamentary seats, with an all-time high of 31 seats for PKR, 28 for DAP and 22 for PAS.
Equally devastating for them was that opposition coalition Pakatan Rakyat won four states and retained Kelantan – all of it contributing to BN’s worst results in electoral history.
BN partners MCA, Gerakan, MIC and PPP all suffered heavy defeats, with casualties including their national leaders. Umno, which had claimed that it could win enough seats to form the federal government on its own, only won 79 seats, falling way below its projection.
Voters dealt the telling blow because of issues such as inflation, shortage of goods, fuel subsidies, rising crime, mismanagement, corruption, tainted elections and racial inequality.
Simmering anger among Indian Malaysians – long regarded as BN loyalists – resulted in a swing towards the opposition.
WHAT’S NEXT: PM-to-be Najib Abdul Razak can expect a torrid time when he takes over in March, as he faces not just political turmoil but economic uncertainty – not to mention a waiting Anwar Ibrahim.
Tomorrow: X-Files of 2008
December 31: Malaysiakini reveals Newsmaker of 2008
Reports prepared by the Malaysiakini team.