November 28, 2009
Whither “people first, performance now”?
by Maran Perianen* (November 27, 2009)
As Malaysia lumbered under the weight of a crisis in confidence, sparked off by corruption, abuse of power, mismanagement of the economy and racial issues, Merdeka Centre for Opinion Research released its survey findings. While 29 percent felt that the country was heading in the right direction, a whopping 60 percent however indicated that it was heading south.
As the ruling party struggled to regain lost ground after having governed the nation since independence, many raised the question as to how long it can withstand the pressure exerted by three major forces – civil society, the not-so-formidable opposition alliance and the voting public.
Barisan Nasional, an UMNO-led coalition of 13 parties with diverse backgrounds, had weathered major scandals ranging from racial riots to financial quagmires for more than half century. They had rode to victory through a record 11 general elections, forming the government with a comfortable majority.
On March 8, 2008, that formidable fortress crumbled. In the aftermath of the shocking election, BN leaders found it hard to digest the fact that they had lost five states and their traditional two-third parliamentary majority.
The general election had been the watershed for BN, and served as a painful reminder that they had overlooked numerous important issues, which in turn had turn to votes for the opposition.
According to the data collected by Merdeka Centre, the issues that the public were upset about were unfavourable economic conditions, public safety, crime and political instability.
The approval rating on the government nosedived from 71 percent in February 2008 to as low as 28 percent in July 2008 and was hovering over 30 percent until April 2009.
‘Knight in shining armour‘
The incoming premier knew that he had to make a grand entrance, to play the ‘knight in shinning armour’ who would save all Malaysians.
True enough, in his first public appearance as prime minister on April 3, 2009, Najib Abdul Razak told the people that the government would be a performance-based government and his priority was the people and their welfare.
“We must reach out to all parts of Malaysia, to all our diverse communities. In our national discourse and in pursuing our national agenda, we must never leave anyone behind,” he said.
Critics however dismissed it as an attempt to play to the gallery, and that the speech did little more than to invoke a sense of ‘deja vu’ with regards to the promises of his predecessors.
Being the eldest son of the second prime minister, Abdul Razak, who crafted government policies having the welfare of the people in mind, Najib knew that the odds were stacked against him. It was a gargantuan task to re-energise, re-capture and re-engage the Malaysian public.
Taking note of the polling pattern in the last elections, Najib knew that he was facing a more matured society with access to a wealth of information, thanks to the advent of the new media.
At the same time, he also inherited a Parliament with an overwhelming number of opposition members. “We would take new approaches for new times,” he summed up in his maiden speech. But Malaysians are a weary bunch, who have grown sick and tired of lip service and rhetoric. So how would Najib’s ‘people first, performance now’ slogan fare?
The emphasis on bringing every race together has been said over and over again, but it appears that racial polarisation has only gotten worse, especially at the grassroots level.
Just another slogan
“1Malaysia is just another slogan aimed at uniting the people. This actually indicates that our nation is still grappling with the issue of unity 52 years after independence,” remarked a young journalist.
Dismissing it as nothing more than sloganeering to fish for votes, the journalist said if there is underlying honesty, there would be no need for slogans at all.
These quotes stem from frustration, no doubt. Even though Najib has an “impressive track record” (?) of having been a cabinet member for more than two decades, the amount of cynicism directed towards his concept is testimony to the failure of his predecessors in achieving anything concrete in creating a Malaysian identity.
The Bangsa Malaysia concept was first mooted by Dr Mahathir Mohamad as part of his Vision 2020. He pushed forward the agenda to achieve greater integration among the races. It received a mixed reaction from the upper echelons of BN with Johor Chief Minister Abdul Ghani Othman, calling it a ‘nebulous concept’.
The effort to weave the Malaysian fabric into one homogenous cloth did not augur well with UMNO leaders, and thus, the concept had its wings clipped and failed to take flight.
The inability of the Bangsa Malaysia concept to win the hearts and minds of Malaysians, is what is threatening the current ‘people first, performance now’ concept. A senior producer with a prominent media organisation felt that the new concept is too superficial. “How can a concept, which is superficial, unite us?
“We are divided since our early years, namely during primary school… perhaps the most important years of our lives when we should be studying and playing with children of all races,” he said. The executors of the new concept must first find out how deep rooted the racial divide is in this country.
As Joe R Feagin noted in his book ‘Systemic Racism: A Theory of Oppression’, racial oppression is not just a surface-level feature of this society, but rather pervades, permeates, and interconnects all major social groups, networks, and institutions across the society
In order for the concept to be successful, it has to build itself from the ground up, where the very nucleus of the society exists. Once the race idea has been spooked out of every Malaysian mindset then any concept promoting integration can prevail.
The racial divide in Malaysia is deep-rooted and if you plan to cut down the tree of racism, then you must also pull out the roots, pointed out another observer. He also stressed that the problem is related to the ‘not so liberal’ education system.
All is not lost
But all is not lost for Najib. Since taking over the reins, the approval rating has been on the rise and this is a promising scenario for the premier, who appears determined to make all the right moves. “After a tiring four years under the previous prime minister, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, Malaysians needed a new direction and new captain to steer,” said the observer.
However, he pointed out that time was a crucial factor and the new premier must get cracking, not with just promises but results. The premier must also tread carefully in order not to step on the toes of UMNO’s warlords, who might feel threatened by the ‘all encompassing’ concept, he added.
Only time would tell if the sown seeds of the ‘people first, performance now’ concept would bear fruits in the future or whither like the grand promises of many a prime minister before.