Tuesday, 25 March 2008

Michael Backman on Malaysia

Malaysian voters open the door for Anwar Ibrahim
by Michael Backman
The Age. March 12, 2008

MALAYSIA Boleh! (Malaysia Can!) is Malaysia's national slogan but after last Saturday's elections, the real slogan should be Malaysians Boleh! for ordinary Malaysians are to be congratulated. The humiliation they handed their government at the federal and state elections demonstrates how politically sophisticated and mature they have become in the face of a high-handed and patronising government.

Five state governments were won by the opposition and federally, the Government had its worst showing ever. But it was the clinical precision in which voters went about their business that was most impressive.

Zainuddin Maidin, the information minister, lost his seat. A measure of how complacent the Government had become was its appointment of the inept Zainuddin to the role in the first place. His appalling performance on Al Jazeera television late last year was a very public international humiliation for all Malaysians. Voters did what Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi did not have the guts to do: they removed him from office.

Malaysia's media has become so discredited that local bloggers are now hugely popular. Zainuddin had patronisingly warned Malaysians about false information spread by bloggers. They responded by voting one of the most popular bloggers — Jeff Ooi — into parliament.

The birthday of Samy Vellu, the long-serving public works minister and head of the party that represents Malaysia's Indian community, coincided with election day but it was Malaysians who got the birthday present. Samy lost his seat.

No one is more to blame than he for driving Malaysia's Indians into their pitiful state as second-class citizens. His deputy also lost his seat, as did the head of the party's youth wing, its vice-president, and the head of its women's wing. The party barely exists now.

Meanwhile, a lawyer who championed the rights of Indians and who has been detained without charge since December because of it, won a seat in a state parliament — a seat in which the majority of voters are actually Chinese. It seems that ordinary Malaysians have a greater sense of fair play than their Government.

The Government lost power in the state of Penang. Lim Guan Eng, the much-respected new chief minister, was arrested and jailed in 1994 after he distributed a brochure complaining about the handling of claims that the (then) chief minister of Malacca, Rahim Thamby Chik, had sexual relations with an under-age girl who happened to be one of Lim's constituents.

Unbelievably Thamby Chik was not charged for what amounted to statutory rape but Lim was, for having distributed the pamphlet. How embarrassing for Abdullah that he must now deal with a chief minister that his Government so unfairly jailed.

Only the state government of Sarawak was spared voters' ire but only because it had its elections last year. But nature will bring change there too. Its long-serving, outstandingly greedy, cancer-stricken chief minister is soon to learn that a shroud has no pockets.

More broadly, the very legitimacy of Abdullah's Government is open to question. At the federal level, the opposition received 47.8% of the vote; a remarkable result given voting fraud, a frightened media that gives the opposition almost no positive coverage, and severely rigged electoral boundaries. As it was, about a third of eligible voters did not vote, meaning that Abdullah's Government was returned by only four out of 10 eligible voters.

Late last year, I met with former finance minister and senior ruling party lawmaker Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah at his residence in Kuala Lumpur. He told me how appalled he was by the direction Malaysia had taken. He said that Malaysia needed a free media and a truly independent judiciary. He decried the corruption and nepotism that had beset the leadership of his own party. "But why don't you stand up in parliament and say these things?" I asked.

"Because the media would be instructed not to report it," he said.

If the opposition parties and their leaders can put their egos aside and think strategically, they have a chance of giving Malaysia what it sorely needs, a stable two-party system.

Opposition figure Anwar Ibrahim will become eligible for election next month with the expiry of the ban following his criminal conviction.

The nightmare scenario for Abdullah is that Anwar's wife, who was again elected on Saturday, will resign in the coming months, forcing a by-election at which Anwar will be elected. He might then help to coalesce the opposition parties into a more unified and effective voice. If he were to lure the Chinese-based MCA and perhaps the Sarawak-based United Traditional Bumiputera Party away from the ruling coalition, then the opposition would have precisely half the members of parliament. And if just one more government member were to walk — Tengku Razaleigh perhaps — then the Government will fall after 50 years in office. The current 13-party ruling coalition would be replaced by a five-party coalition. Whether or not this happens, there will be constant tension from the fact that it might.

Abdullah has emerged as probably Malaysia's most pointless prime minister. The election results are an unmitigated disaster for him and his Government. If the opposition is sufficiently disciplined and the ruling coalition starts to crack, then his nightmare has only just begun. Could Abdullah negotiate such a minefield? So far his political talents don't seem to have stretched beyond using chemical-laden water cannons against his own people. It would seem his days are numbered.


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