Chris Hedges: America 2016


May 23, 2016

Chris Hedges:  America 2016

Erudite “ChrisHedges  is an American journalist, activist, author, and Presbyterian minister. Hedges is also known as the best-selling author of several books including War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning (2002)—a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for NonfictionEmpire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle (2009), Death of the Liberal Class (2010), the New York Times best seller, written with cartoonist Joe Sacco, Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt (2012), and his most recent Wages of Rebellion: The Moral Imperative of Revolt (2015). http://www.wikipedia.org.

I like his views about government-big business– big bank partnerships.  His comments also seem to resonate well, especially among young American voters since The Bern (Bernie Sanders) has been making headlines in the US  primaries by giving Hillary Clinton a run for her money. So I thought I should share them with you on my Double 7 Day. And of course, I expect responses from all of you.–Din Merican

 

 

 

Mayor Sadiq Khan: A Londoner First


May 23, 2016

Mayor Sadiq Khan:  A Londoner First

by Farouk A. Peru

http://www.malaymailonline. com

Last week, Malaysia sank to an even lower level of political discourse than usual with two Penang Barisan Nasional reps vying for the top prize of most unintelligent comment.

One is the Penang Opposition leader herself, Jahara Hamid, who got jittery when she realised there was a Taoist shrine in a park. According to her, this shrine will confuse the Muslims. They would probably see this shrine, then inexplicably fall prostrate before it.

Another candidate for most unintelligent comment is Bertam assemblyman Shariful Azhar Othman. He needs eateries to have either “halal” or “non-halal” signs. Signs like “pork free” would confuse him ostensibly because he thinks pork would be freely distributed, perhaps?

While Malaysia languishes at the bottom of the political pit, history has been made. London has just elected her first Muslim mayor, Sadiq Khan.

Not many Malaysians have heard of him before this but his is a success story. The son of humble Pakistani immigrants, one of eight children, his story is a climb to the heady heights of fame and fortune. He was already a financial success before involving himself in politics.

He was part of Gordon Brown’s exiting Labour Cabinet holding two ministerial posts before and now finds himself the mayor of London. You can read his entire life story all over the Internet.

Despite the worldwide positive reaction, Sadiq Khan’s victory is not so easily formulated. Muslims, especially among all other groups, were obviously quick to laud Khan’s victory as a new era for Islam. Personally I think they are being overly optimistic. It is not as simple as: “The world has now changed. Look, a Muslim is now the mayor of London.” This is what it looks like from the outside but the truth is far more complex.

For a start, let’s take note of the fact that Khan did not win by a landslide. He achieved 44 per cent of the vote while his nearest competitor, the Conservative candidate Zac Goldsmith, achieved 35 per cent. This is a not big margin at all.

It shows that Goldsmith had more than a third of voter support. Considering Goldsmith’s previous performance, this is a record when compared to Khan’s and the only reason Goldsmith would even get that many votes is that Khan belongs to a minority group.

What is perhaps even worse is that Goldsmith achieved this by using underhanded tactics in his campaign. He was actually chided by senior Conservatives for his tactics. One of his more blatantly racist claims actually suggested that allowing Khan victory would be surrendering London to terrorists!

London has not come a long way at all. It has made progress but not by far.That brings us to another important point which Malaysian Islamo fascists realised a few days after Khan’s victory. Sadiq Khan is a Pakistani Muslim but he is far from the conservative version of an Islamist.

He did not win the elections in order to turn London into a Muslim city! Rather, he is very friendly to all faiths. There is even a picture of him dressed in Hindu garb which, to my amusement, was circulated with much regret around the Malay-Muslim social media.

What took the biscuit, however, was the revelation that Khan supported same sex marriages some years back. This information completely removed him from being any semblance of a Muslim media darling!

We should really ask ourselves, why were we so elated in the first place when a Muslim was elected as the mayor of London? Would it make any difference who gets elected as long as the person was capable of doing his job?

 

Beneath Malaysia’s façade, lies a dangerous, widespread, and fundamental rot (photo from malaysia-chronicle.com). Read: http://www.christopherteh.com/blog/2015/03/closing-of-the-malaysian-mind/

Malay-Muslims should also ask themselves, would they find it acceptable if a member of the rakyat who was not a Malay was appointed the mayor of KL? It would not even be a Chinese or Indian if we were to look for a Sadiq Khan equivalent. Rather it would be a specific type of a minority. Perhaps a Sikh. Would it be acceptable if a Sikh was appointed the mayor of KL? If not, then we have no business applauding Khan’s victory

We should also ask ourselves why there was little news last year when another Muslim mayor albeit of only a borough, Tower Hamlets, Lutfur Rahman was sacked from office. Rahman was mayor for five years until it was found that he was guilty of election fraud in 2015. That did not make the headlines of Muslim news, I’m sure.

In order to make a better world, we need to beyond tribal kinship and focus on performance. Only then can the right people be chosen for the job and benefit us all.

We Bicker: TIME to think as Malaysians and live to together in unity and harmony?


May 17, 2016

We Bicker: TIME to think as Malaysians and live to together in unity and harmony.

Message to Nazri Aziz, Azalina Othman Said, Hadi Awang,  Harussani Zakaria, Ridhuan Tee Abdullah, and Keruak et.el

Shaun Liew

http://www.malaymailonline.com

West and East Malaysians have been bickering through social media, face-to-face conversations, and so on. But if they want the same thing, why are they fighting with each other?

Some needs and desires are universal: no matter who we are, there are things we all need. Food, when we’re hungry. Accountability, when promises are broken. Rest, when we are overworked. Honour, when we work. Love, when we are not loved. And fairness, when there is none.

West and East Malaysians want the same thing. Equity, when there is discrimination. Malays, to tolerate non-Malays, and vice versa. Sarawakians and Sabahans, to live as well as Peninsulars, and vice versa. Non-Bumiputeras, to be recognised as equals like the Bumiputeras, by the federal government. And for East Malaysians, to be recognised by the federal government, as deserving of development and the good life, like West Malaysians. Why then are we in each other’s way?

Sarawakians have given power to those which the West have tried to rid of. Peninsulars think this ridiculous: why give power to the same government, when to them, nothing has been done?

Because Sarawakians have seen change, enough change, to vote for the same government. Peninsulars do not understand what these changes mean to Sarawakians; they ridicule them instead. Sarawakians understandably feel unjustified; but they too do not understand what their actions mean for Peninsulars.

Peninsulars want a fair and accountable government, just like Sarawakians. But they have not seen once since independence. They want Barisan Nasional out, while Sarawakians are keeping them in.

 

The West vs East bickering is simplistic, and should go past the way we label each other. This is inherent even in casual jokes.

“You live on trees right? Or are there buildings there? I’m sorry you must have never heard of the word ‘buildings’.”

“It’s all your fault lah, the West Malaysians!”

If the East continues to blame the West for underdevelopment, if the West continues to blame the East for being foolish enough to vote Barisan Nasional, then there is no room for productive debate or mutual understanding.

If we continue to discriminate, all debates will halt at the labels we have ― that he knows Maths well because he’s Chinese, or she received a scholarship offer because she’s Malay. We would fail to understand anything correctly ― that he’s good in Math because he worked hard after his parents emphasised how mathematical ability is easily transferred. Or that she received a scholarship offer because the government would like to uplift Malays by rationing scholarship offers based on race, in addition to her undeniably determined attitude.

This, we cannot understand if we are simplistic because our problems are not. Like underdevelopment and poverty, a problem for both Peninsular and East Malaysia. It’s mostly a problem in the rural areas, but even in the urban areas there are urban squatters, foreign workers, and those just hovering above the poverty line ― all of them labelled by the majority of society as unproductive, lazy and undetermined. It’s also mostly a Malay and indigenous problem, with pockets of Chinese and Indians.

Both West and East Malaysians are guilty of simplifying the truth ― and we need to look deeper. If Sabah and Sarawak voted for the opposition, does that mean BN’s reign is over? No. Because in Peninsula itself there are still many poor states, Malay-dominated with pockets of poor Chinese and Indians, who would vote for UMNO. And they vote for Muslim parties too, because Islam is part of many Malays’ identity.

Apply this to our society’s main problems: economic status associated with race. If Malays are poor and the Chinese are rich, I should give advantages to Malays, right? Then how far can a race-based policy that favours Bumiputera groups go? Would rich Malays benefit more than the majority of Malays? Would politicians grant certain groups special rights in order to trade benefits with each other, but not give them to the greater good?

This is why the solutions we need are even more complicated ― and they require debate beyond labels. This is also why involvement in policymaking is so important: we need to help each other, sure! But we need to do it in a way that’s best for everyone, and not just a few insiders.

The anger of West and East Malaysians after the Sarawak state elections ― in the form of cheap insults and deliberate stereotyping ― is sorely misdirected. We need to delve into the specifics and ask questions that we don’t usually tolerate ― and tolerate them with grace.

If basic infrastructure is what the East are lacking, ask why the West has so much of it. If racial and religious tolerance is what Peninsulars are lacking compared to Sarawakians, ask who is stoking intolerance, fear, and supremacism. If Chinese students feel they need to work much harder than Malays to get into local universities, ask who decides this allocation and why. If Sarawakians want Sarawak for themselves, ask who took their rights and natural resources away in the first place.

No matter how many questions there are, and no matter how specific they get, we all still want the same thing. Fairness, democracy, accountability, transparency, a fulfilling life. But we can’t understand this unless we go past labels to explore the deepest, most serious problems of our time. Beyond labels, we can see that we are all the same, that we desire to be equal, that we wish to be respected, as the complicated, diverse individuals we are, shaped by the complicated, diverse questions we wish to answer.

The cheap insults and simplified excuses must end now. We must delve into the specifics, the complicated, the uneasy. Then we can go forward. We all want the same thing anyway.

* This article was written by an Associate Editor from CEKU, the editorial arm of the United Kingdom and Eire Council of Malaysian Students (UKEC).

 

Toward a Dystopian Malaysia:All Politics


May 17, 2016

Toward a Dystopian  Malaysia:All Politics

by Steven Sim

http://www.freemalaysiatoday.com

My  friend treated me to a stand-up comedy performance last Friday which was my birthday. The show featured four highly acclaimed comedians and everyone in the audience had a good laugh. What were we laughing at? Mostly jokes about sex, and very oddly, ourselves, about our silliness and stupidity.

One of the acts even had a female member of the audience come up the stage to spell “Laughs” with her derriere. She was a big woman, quite clumsy I must say but very sporting. The comedian kept making fun of the poor lady. And as can be expected, her antics elicited laughter from the audience.

The liberal, tolerant society

We cannot talk about race. The N-word must never be uttered. Here in Malaysia, the M-word cannot be spoken. It is sensitive. And then we are told we also cannot talk about religion. We may offend followers of a particular religion and they may turn violent towards us. It is sensitive.

Calling on Inspector Singh to help–Jaga Najib Depan Belakang, Kiri dan Kanan

So, instead of having laws to stop criminals like we used to, now we have laws to stop us from provoking would-be criminals. We’ve got laws that prevent us from commenting about race and religion. It is almost the same as legislating how women should dress so as not to “invite” rape.

Then it came to a point where we were not allowed to call one another “stupid”. We cannot ridicule or question someone else’s politics, for example. Look at all the “righteous” social media posts telling, even scolding us, not to call anyone stupid after the Sarawak election.

Because it is sensitive. As if our brain now is a big phallus ever-reacting to the slightest of stimulations. Perhaps one day not too far away, we will all not be allowed to call each other ugly or fat. These are sensitive remarks too.

We are not allowed to make each other angry anymore. Come to think of it, we actually have an Act of Parliament against making people angry. Section 3(1)(e) of the Sedition Act defines “seditious tendency” as promoting “feelings of ill will, hostility and hatred between different races or classes of the population of Malaysia”, and with the 2015 amendment, Section 3(1)(e) was created to include the promotion of “feelings of ill will, hostility and hatred between persons or groups of persons on the grounds of religion…”

What have we become? A nation legislated against making each other angry? Whatever happened to equanimity, forbearance, moderation, restraint, reticence, self-control, and sobriety?

It is easy to imagine the logical conclusion to this; I cannot comment on who you are, what you do, how you think, and vice versa, finally I, we, cannot say anything at all.

Because we are told, we need to respect the other person. The liberals’ idea of “multicultural tolerance”, my favourite living philosopher, Slavoj Žižek, used to say. As if respect now means, “shut up.”

There are two kinds of “respect” by the way:

The first kind is like when the white men came (sorry, did I make anyone angry with that label?) and they said to each other: “Let us respect the natives…even though they are stupid. Even though they bury their daughters alive. Even though they burn their widows along with the deceased husbands. Even though they bind-up a woman’s feet so small she can barely walk.” And then there is the other kind of respect, one where I assume you are more or less the same level as me and are expected to possess a certain degree of similarity in strength and wit. When you fall short, I call you stupid. Maybe I’m rude – but which one is respect, which one is patronising?

Comedians come to politics

Now, let’s go back to that stand-up comedy performance. Oddly enough, someone told me, now the only way you can make jokes about people and their stupidity and not get yourself into trouble is: quit politics and be a comedian.

I find the thought quite enlightening to be honest. We watch stand-up comedians quite a bit, and boy, how they “hentam” our stupidity as individuals and as a society. And we all laugh and laugh, gladly paying good money for being denigrated by them.

But what’s scarier.One day, just one fine day. Imagine if one of these comedians decided to run for office. He will tell us bluntly, “the truth”. He will say it to our faces, “this or that fellow is stupid, we should block them”. He will tell us he is here to protect us from stupidity. He will tell us he has a great plan to build a huge wall, to segregate between us and the stupids. (For the uninitiated, google: “Trump AND wall”.)

We are going bongkers-from Football to Doa

We, who are used to being “rational” – or are we? – we will then be shocked that many people are impressed by that comedian and want to hand over power to him.

The bar to be a hero suddenly becomes so low: one just needs to be brave to call another person stupid in his face. Because earlier no one was allowed to call anyone stupid or to say anything at all due to everything being “sensitive”. Everyone had to shut up on the pretext of being tolerant. The guy who finally said, “hey, stupid” is now the courageous leader who dared say the truth. Alas, the pent-up emotions of a society, who was stopped from making one another angry, finally rebels, resulting in the rise of fascism.

We need intolerance, not tolerance

The unfortunate thing is, we have substituted being political with being politically correct. The political problem of inequality now becomes the cultural problem of intolerance.

Because of the general disregard of politics, the problem of economic and political inequality inevitably becomes the problem of race and culture. One is rich or poor or powerful or weak not because of some systemic injustice but because of one’s race, or religion. The solution then, we are told, is to understand and tolerate one another: the other race is lazier, smarter, more scheming, less materialistic or more savvy, but let’s try to live with one another peacefully. The classic example here is once again national slogans encouraging us to see ourselves as one country, one nation, one people – 1Malaysia.

These are  UMNO Political Jokers

We are then misled to think that solving the world’s problems is not through political action, not through the institutionalisation of good governance and justice, but rather through respect and tolerance for those who are different from us. Hence, the oft quoted reminder to “jaga sensitiviti.”

How then should we move forward?

The first step is to realise that our problem is not mainly intolerance but rather injustice. Do not fall for this tolerance nonsense. It is about politics not political correctness. We need to move from subjective multicultural tolerance to the objective universal intolerance against human sufferings and oppression.

Recall the big woman who had to spell “Laughs” with her derriere. It was so painful, and yet hilarious watching her. The audience was enthusiastically cheering at her clumsy act and she eventually won the prize for her comedy: a large screen TV. And then she did the unexpected, grabbing the emcee’s microphone, she said: “I’m gonna give this to an orphanage in Kulim.” The hall erupted into huge applause, this time without laughter but with no less happiness. There was no mistake there, no one was confused or did not understand what was happening: we were united by our antagonism against human sufferings. It was a universal thing.

And we have seen this at work many times, even at a larger scale. Žižek provided an anecdotal example of this sort of solidarity; speaking of the 2011 protest at Tahrir Square, Egypt, he observed: “Here we have direct proof that freedom is universal and proof against that cynical idea that somehow Muslim crowds prefer some kind of religious fundamentalist dictatorship….The moment we fight tyranny, we are solidary. No clash of civilisations. We all know what we mean. No miscommunication here.”

We share the same antagonism towards human sufferings and oppression and the same anger against the stupidity which supports them. There is no mistake about it, there is no two ways about it – there’s nothing subjective about it. There is nothing to respect when people continue to support corruption and tyranny whether under duress or not.

Think about it. Here is Malaysia, think about the Bersih demonstrations. Malaysians of all races and religions, male and female, of all ages, went to the streets. And for those who could not attend in the national capital, especially from Sabah and Sarawak, they organised their own local Bersih gatherings. Once again, there was no miscommunication. There was solidarity among Malaysians, and even across the South China Sea, to demand for a free and fair election. We shared the same antagonism, we were united not by subjective tolerance of each other but by our objective intolerance against corruption and injustice.This is what we really need again.

Please do not make our society into one where no one is allowed by law to make another person angry because of some tolerance nonsense we mistake for real respect. The consequences of such a move is scary to say the least – it is the kind of material for novels about some dystopian society somewhere. There is no such human rights as the right not be angered. You reserve the right to call me stupid, and I, too, the same right. Because at times, being humans, we do stupid things and must be chastised.

Steven Sim is the Member of Parliament for Bukit Mertajam.

 

 

Zakir Naik and UMNO Desperadoes


May 11, 2016

Zakir Naik and UMNO Desperadoes

by Zainah Anwar

http://www.thestar.com.my

“The question to be asked of the authorities and the Menteri Besar of Terengganu who sponsored Zakir Naik’s Malaysian visit is whether this is truly the “moderate” Islam that authorities believe in? I shudder at what deeper damage Zakir Naik’s ilk will cause with the opening up of his ideological factory in Tasek Kenyir.”–Zainah Anwar

HOW is it that Zakir Naik, a televangelist considered divisive and banned by a number of countries and frequently censured for preaching hate, instigating communal tensions and radicalising the Muslim community, can be embraced by national leaders here?

razif,zakir

UMNO Menteri Besar Ahmad Rafiz Abdul Rahman gifted three islands in Tasik Kenyir to  Zakir Naik

And be sponsored on his tour by the Terengganu state government and rewarded with islands in Tasek Kenyir for him to train “mini Zakir Naiks” to preach his divisive and supremacist version of Islam in a multi-religious country?

And he has even grander plans for Malaysia: to spread his “Peace TV” satellite channel to Malaysia, broadcasting in Bahasa Malaysia in a joint venture with a local TV station and a training programme already underway to produce six Malaysian protégés to be part of his evangelical network.

Why have these leaders embraced the kind of Islam that Zakir Naik is propagating? Even in his home country of India, the dominant and conservative Deobandi Darul Uloom has issued several fatwas against him over the years, accusing him of “spreading mischievous things and misguiding simple Muslims to the wrong path”, that he is “religiously deviated”, and a “ghair muqallidin”, someone who does not follow the teachings of the Ahlus Sunnah wal Jamaah (the followers of the four accepted schools of Sunni Islam), a position upheld by Malaysia’s Islamic religious authorities.

 Just as there is a multi-million dollar industry promoting the English-speaking and suit-wearing Zakir Naik as a global Muslim evangelist of peace and an expert on comparative religion, there is a dedicated online industry out to prove him as a charlatan. These challengers scrutinise his speeches and pronouncements and counter them with referenced facts and evidence to question his breathtaking and blithe misrepresentation of science, history, names, dates and data.

 

A Google search on “Zakir Naik, controversies” spew out a laundry list of his views that have caused him to be banned in some countries and generated concerted attempts to get his audience to think more critically about what he claims is truth and evidence.

There is a widely viewed YouTube video where one of his dogged challengers identified 25 false statements within five minutes Zakir Naik made in a strident discussion on evolution, misrepresenting scientific and historic facts, and quoting one unknown person after another who have no record of existence, to make his points.

There’s another video where he justified his support for polygamy by stating that if every woman got married to only one man, there would be over 30 million women in the United States, four million in Britain, five million in Germany and nine million in Russia who would not find a husband!

Any rational person will instantly conclude that these countries must be practising male infanticide to have such a disproportionate ratio of females to males. It was not difficult for his challengers to use the population data to show how wrong this man is. In fact in all the countries, there are slightly more men than women. And if indeed one man marries more than one woman, he is in fact depriving other men the ability to find wives!

And yet Zakir Naik speaks to thousands who applaud and cheer him on. How could someone who unashamedly disgorges such fictional data to make his points attract a following numbering millions on social media and attract tens of thousands to his public talks? I leave it to the psychologists to analyse the state of mind of preacher and followers.

But for me, more disturbing are his inflammatory statements on a whole range of issues that should be of real concern to the Malaysian authorities if they are serious about battling extremism here. The evidence is widespread and readily available, and yet one Deputy Minister proclaimed that Zakir Naik was a “voice of moderation” who could counter extremist voices and was capable of convincing non-Muslims that Islam was a “religion of moderation”! I wonder what his sources of information were. Certainly not from his allies within Barisan Nasional. Both MIC and MCA had protested Zakir Naik’s presence here to preach his divisive message.

A quick check of his speeches in Malaysia showed a YouTube video of a speech in Terengganu where he repeatedly forbade Malaysian Muslims from wishing Merry Christmas to Christians. Because to do so, he said, is to endorse the belief that Jesus is the son of God. Does anyone know of any Muslim who believes Jesus is the son of God and whose faith is undermined whenever he or she wishes Merry Christmas to Christian friends? To say this to Malaysia that celebrates all major holidays together? Heck, the Government even sells this message of “Malaysia, Truly Asia” to the rest of the world and earn billions from tourist dollars.

The question to be asked of the authorities and the Menteri Besar of Terengganu who sponsored Zakir Naik’s Malaysian visit is whether this is truly the “moderate” Islam that authorities believe in? I shudder at what deeper damage Zakir Naik’s ilk will cause with the opening up of his ideological factory in Tasek Kenyir.

Zakir Naik’s most infamous statement that probably led to his ban from entering Britain and Canada was his much-quoted position on Osama bin Laden and terrorism in a widely viewed YouTube video of 2007: “If he (Osama bin Laden) is fighting the enemies of Islam, I am for him … If he is terrorising America the terrorist, the biggest terrorist, I am with him. Every Muslim should be a terrorist.”

Given the far-reaching consequences of that statement, he later, of course, claimed he was misquoted: “I have said Muslims should become terrorists in the sense that they should strike terror in the hearts of criminals and anti-socials.”

He believes 9/11 was “an inside job”, and that “every fool will know” it was orchestrated by George W. Bush. He supports the ban on the construction of houses of worship for those of other religions in Muslim countries. He lauds the Taliban destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas. He urges Muslims in India to support the hudud punishments for all Indians. Needless to say, he believes in the death penalty for homosexuals and for apostasy.

There is a reported list of suicide bombers and those arrested and charged with extremist violence who quoted him as their source of inspiration. One of them was found with several cassette tapes of Zakir Naik’s speeches.

Thousands flocked to his speeches in Terengganu, Malacca and Kuala Lumpur. Zakir Naik’s Salafi-Wahabi brand of Islam has seeped deep into the Malaysian Malay psyche after decades of propagation by Islamist groups, and sanctioned by the religious authorities.

But of concern to Malaysians who care about the future of this multi-religious and multi-ethnic country is the fact that such a deeply controversial and divisive figure is embraced and endorsed by the leadership. He was awarded the Tokoh Maal Hijrah award in 2013 (and the King Faisal International Prize for service to Islam in 2015) and met with the Prime Minister, Deputy Prime Minister, PAS President and a list of other VIPs on this visit.

The Ponorogo Man and His Guru

He even ventured into Malaysian politics, making headlines in Utusan Malaysia by calling on UMNO and PAS to work together to prevent the “enemies of Islam” (a favourite phrase of his) from gaining influence. “If Muslims don’t unite and gain support, we will lose in politics,” he said.

The next day were more headlines in the Utusan with rejoinders by other religious leaders, not least the Mufti of Perak, supporting Zakir Naik’s call.Was this the reward that UMNO had hoped to gain – endorsement by a charismatic evangelist to push a reluctant PAS worried about its grassroots sentiment into the arms of its once die-hard enemy?

Really? Desperate times call for desperate tactics.

 

MALAYSIA: ‘Same Old’in Sarawak Election Campaign (Part 1 of 5)


May 4,2016

MALAYSIA: ‘Same Old’in Sarawak Election Campaign (Part 1 of 5)

by Dr. Bridget Welsh

Bridget_welsh_PUBLICFORUM_190414_TMIAFIF_002

Billed as one of the most important elections in the Malaysian state’s history, Sarawak heads to the polls on 7 May. But the campaign has sent confusing messages and failed to inspire voters, reports Bridget Welsh.

As the lackluster 11th Sarawak 2016 election campaign comes to a close on Friday, consistency rather than change has predominated.Most Sarawakians on both sides of the political divide had made up their minds on how they will vote before the campaign began. So far, the campaign has done little to change their orientations, and even less to inspire Sarawakians to vote at all. Political parties have mainly relied on old strategies, offering little new in their engagement with the electorate.

Strongman versus pressure politics

The main substantive campaign issue is autonomy, the mantra of ‘Sarawak for Sarawakians’. The prominence of this call is different than earlier campaigns but not new to Malaysian electoral politics as Sabahans will understand.

 Concerns about autonomy in East Malaysia have been long-standing and extend for decades to when the two Borneo states joined the Federation. Not surprising, all of the parties in the Sarawak polls are calling for greater control of decision-making at the state level in areas involving language, immigration, education, religion and resources (oil royalty). Where they differ slightly is in their priority in areas of governance, with those aligned with the BN tapping into immigration and those in the opposition pushing harder on issues of religion and resources.

The parties also differ in how they will implement autonomy. Current Chief Minister Adenan Satem has personified autonomy around himself, portraying the image that voting for him will assure the protection of state rights. He follows this pattern set by his brother-in-law, current Governor and former Chief Minister Abdul Taib Mahmud.

Adenan has projected the view that his working relationship with the federal government will assure protection, and that he is ‘his own man’. This argument runs that a strong mandate for Adenan will strengthen his hand with the federal government. The choice by ruling coalition Barisan Nasional (BN) to focus on autonomy aims to neutralise traditional opposition demands for fairer representation for citizens in the state. It echoes electoral strategies adopted in the recent past, where the new incumbent co-opts ‘reform’ to win support.

The opposition on its part has repeated its call for checks and balances, arguing that a strong opposition is necessary to assure that the substantive issues related to autonomy are implemented. They are calling for pressure politics. Given that these issues have been traditional ones for the opposition, and they have been their strongest advocates by putting them into the public arena and introducing measures in the legislature, they are hoping that the electorate does not forget their commitment — even as these issues have been effectively co-opted by the incumbent government.

At stake for Sarawakians are two different visions of state representation, one based on repeating the independent strongman politics of Taib that Adenan is portraying versus the long-standing call for alternative voices in government.

Shadow of Pak Lah

Closely connected to calls for greater representation is the personification of political power in Sarawak. This is also not new. Personal politics and personality have been at the core of East Malaysian politics. They help us understand the fragmentation of the candidate slates and account for the long tenures of many of the incumbents. The campaign around Adenan and the use of his coattails for his team is not new. We saw this in the 2004 General Election, where former premier Abdullah Badawi, or Pak Lah, was showcased as ‘his own man’ and different than his predecessor.

Like Adenan, Abdullah was chosen by a predecessor who had become a political target for criticism. Although in Adenan’s case, he is part of the Taib family and has consistently been a part of the previous leadership, never challenging Taib or openly criticising his policies during his tenure. This is opposed to Abdullah, who was relegated to the political wilderness for a few years as ‘Team B’ and more openly campaigned against his predecessor to win support. Adenan has used the time since he was appointed in 2014 to try to distinguish rather than distance himself, featuring similar “nice guy,” “reformer” and “clean” traits that were part of comparable electoral efforts in Malaysia’s past. As with Pak Lah, the Adenan campaign has promised a new leadership.

Sarawakians are facing the difficult decision of whether Adenan can be trusted. Faith in Malaysian politicians is low, and the national politics of taking politicians down has become engrained in the fabric. Sarawakians are more trustworthy than their counterparts on the peninsula. They are also following the national trend and becoming more cynical.

Many Sarawakians recognise that the multitude of promises Adenan is making echoes unrealistic goals of the past. Adenan is building up expectations, with the repeated potential for disappointment.  Voters question whether he will have the power and political will to implement the promises after the election, especially given that Adenan will be a lame duck after he has won office as he has stated that he only wants one term.

Undermining leadership

Questions about Adenan’s leadership are understandable, given the prominence of his persona in the campaign. Two areas are prominent.

The first involves the perceived abuse of political power for electoral gains by Adenan, namely the use of Sarawak’s immigration authority to prevent opposition politicians and activists from entering the state. Scores of people have been denied entry, to prevent the opposition crowds from building and weakening the opposition machinery. On their part, peninsula-based BN politicians and government department and activists have been given access.

Deemed ‘extremists’ and ‘troublemakers’ many of those denied entry have used Skype to engage voters, but the dampening impact on ceramah crowds has been evident. This is in spite of more Sarawakians following the campaign online. This ‘strongman’ denial of entry and subsequent calls for politicians to write letters as pleas for entry as occurred for the female leader of the opposition, Anwar’s wife Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, feed the portrayal of a man in control. They simultaneously reveal a politician with weakness, as these measures suggest fear, and have raised questions about fairness in Adenan’s leadership. The denials of entries have backfired among many voters, who no longer see the chief minister as ‘Mr Nice Guy’.

Another factor undermining Adenan is Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak. The relationship between the two men is challenging to navigate as they are mutually dependent, as Adenan needs funds from the federal government to support his campaign. Najib on his part needs a decisive victory in the Sarawak polls to sustain his power, given the seriousness of the corruption, embezzlement, and abuse of power allegations being made in multiple investigations in the 1MDB scandal.

Striking a balance where Adenan is in charge, but Najib gains credit is difficult. In the 2011 polls, the relationship between Taib and the Najib campaign was problematic, as the latter tried to control the campaign. A similar pattern has occurred in 2016, with Najib’s pictures of ‘Saya Sayang Sarawak’ and with Adenam himself featured all over rural areas, and coverage of his promises overshadowing Adenan’s.  It is not clear whether this is a Najib or Adenan campaign. Clearly, it is both.  Rural folk often highlight the similarity in the appearance of both men.  Najib’s significant presence is a liability for Adenan, as the premier is deeply unpopular and he undercuts the chief minister’s claim of independence. It appears as if Najib has hijacked Adenan’s thunder to serve himself.

Disconnecting messages

Amidst the personas, voters are navigating the messages of the various campaigns. The campaign messages showcase disconnection between their slogans and delivery. The Sarawak United Peoples Party’s (SUPP) slogan ‘United We Can’ is perhaps the most ironic, as the party remains dangerously divided. The splits in the party have the potential to lead to further downfalls of its leaders, as SUPP has yet to meaningfully justify why Sarawakians should vote for their party. They are effectively no longer their own players, as has occurred to other non-Malay parties in the BN.

The opposition parties are also delivering disengaging messages. The Democratic Action Party’s (DAP) ‘4Real Change’ raises questions about delivery, especially since they are not working with other parties in their campaign. One feature of the 2016 campaign is that for the opposition it is a step back to the past of 2001, even 1999 when parties worked against each other rather than together. While in urban areas there is little open vitriol against each other (with the BN the main target), the fact that they are competing with each other undercuts messages of ‘change’.

Voters are not clear what is meant by ‘real change’ as this theme has been so overused that is has lost meaning. Indeed, the fact that even the BN is using the word, in its call to remove the DAP from Kuching (notably the Kota Sentosa seat where DAP Chairman Chong Chieng Jen is contesting), shows how unclear the word has become. On its part, the People’s Justice Party’s (PKR) focus has been on autonomy, but the word ‘trust’ has featured in much of its campaign posters, with questions arising from its use given the distrust in the opposition evident in the split among the various parties. The opposition’s lack of collaboration in the campaign has undermined their momentum and undercut their connection with voters, especially younger and swing voters. They have damaged themselves.

Playing cards and scandals

As the campaign draws to a close, political parties are fighting hard. To date, what distinguishes Sarawak’s campaign has been the lack of prominence of the racial card. Religion, however, has been mobilised by the BN, which has used funds to woo Christians, estimated to comprise 40 per cent of the electorate.

The use of religion has been contradicted by broad trends to undercut freedom of religion in Sarawak and the slating of candidates by the BN that have conservative views that are not in line with more tolerant calls of moderation. Whether the BN can win back Christian support lies with the priorities of the churches themselves, whether they buy into the wooing effort, how they perceive Adenan’s sincerity and the choice of moral example they will set.

The opposition is relying on the 1MDB scandal to swing the electorate. This issue is difficult for many Sarawakians to connect to, especially in rural areas. Many do not believe it at all and do not see how the issue affects them directly. Others are outraged, and this undercurrent is strong among those who hold political leaders to standards. These issues about rights and scandals have become even more serious for Malaysia’s future, but it is not clear whether national concerns will displace local interests.

Sarawakians, like many Malaysians, are tired. The campaign has not yet inspired, and as such voter engagement has been markedly lower. There is a palpable lack of enthusiasm for either side, with a focus on livelihoods and ordinary routines. This is in part because the 2016 campaign has been in fact quite routine itself, offering little new and relying on the old strategies and tactics. The question ahead will be whether the same old campaign approaches will yield the same old results.

Bridget Welsh is Professor of Political Science at Ipek University, Senior Research Associate at the Center for East Asian Democratic Studies of National Taiwan University, Senior Associate Fellow of The Habibie Center, and University Fellow of Charles Darwin University.

http://asiapacific.anu.edu.au/newmandala/2016/05/03/same-old-in-sarawak-campaign/

This article is part of a five-part series on the Sarawak 2016 state election. The next article will focus on voting trends and constituencies. Bridget Welsh thanks Sarawakians for sharing their views and kind hospitality.