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Fork in the road of Malaysian story

 | May 3, 2013

The biggest mistake that can be made by the average voter is clinging to the mentality that graft and inequality will be voted away at the ballot box overnight.

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Political passions and campaign fervour abound as the clock continues ticking down the seconds until Malaysians take part in polls that may ultimately empower a new generation of political leaders, for better or for worse.

The explosion of social media users, up 45% from 2008, will be a critical factor in this general election. Although it often rails against perceived media “unfreedom”, the opposition has dominated the new media and has made its voice heard through various campaigns that have swayed a large portion of young voters.

Taken by the fiery rhetoric of Malaysia’s opposition leaders, many have perhaps overlooked the reality that these orators are politicians too, with their own interests, agendas, and careers at stake.

The nation – especially the online-savvy middle class – is extremely polarised and many feel disillusioned with the main issues which have been raised ad nauseum: elite corruption, citizen equality, freedom of expression, the rising cost of living, among other concerns.

Among the poor and in the Malay kampungs that have traditionally been Barisan Nasional-strongholds, there is a fear of unknown political terrain that may adversely affect low-income communities, who are most vulnerable to feeling the burn if the economy is mismanaged following a political transition.

Of course, the question of safeguarding one’s cultural and racial identity is a key factor to personal political decisions made by the majority of individuals, irrespective of whatever egalitarian rhetoric masks these sentiments.

Malaysians generally tend to agree on what the major shortcomings are, and that these issues have to be addressed more meaningfully, with more action than words.

One segment of society feels it’s time to challenge the infallibility of the BN by empowering a coalition of ideologically divided parties to finally wash the country free of corruption, while the other has placed their confidence in the promise of BN’s transformation agenda, which has began steering the country in a more equitable, representative, and democratic direction.

Pakatan prevails?

Social media commentators resent when mainstream media places the spotlight on the opposition’s flaws, but the truth needs to be told: this coalition is unable to agree on key positions and has not yet settled upon who would even take the role of prime minister at this critical hour. Because of this, if the opposition overcomes and secures a comfortable victory, expect immediate squabbles and internal feuding. In this scenario, either PAS president Abdul Hadi Awang or PKR’s leader Anwar Ibrahim will vie for the prime minister’s position.

In the short term, analysts have predicted market instability and have noted that foreign investors would be increasingly cautious in the months following, especially if the victory is followed by political instability in the form of street action.

Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak has called for a smooth transition of power in any result, and it’s difficult to say how the BN would respond to a sharp defeat. Either result has the potential to spur political violence by grassroots supporters.

Malaysia’s youth and first-time voters are looking for immediate results, spurred on by Anwar’s promises of taking action like lowering the price of oil upon coming to office (a farcical claim, as the price of oil is determined internationally and Malaysia already boasts some of the world’s lowest inflation and oil prices).

Don’t expect swift action as Pakatan Rakyat settles into Putrajaya – the biggest mistake that can be made by the average voter is clinging to the mentality that graft and inequality will be voted away at the ballot box overnight.

Managing a federal government is a lot more complicated than managing state governments, and Pakatan will be fumbling with the mechanics of political consolidation in the first several months.

There will be enormous pressure for Pakatan to perform, and if it passes unpopular policies or fails to meet the high expectations placed on it, those who gave Pakatan their votes will fast be resentful and disillusioned. The question of hudud looms over the electorate.

Some are convinced that a hudud-oriented Islamic state is the solution to Malaysia’s current problems, the passing of which would undoubtedly deepen religious and racial divisions.

New media commentators lashed out against the MCA’s anti-PAS adverts, calling them “Islamophobic” – but those in the electorate should honestly ask themselves if a party advocating a reactionary and narrow interpretation of Islam, as practised in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere, is really worthy of accepting (let alone endorsing).

DAP and PKR activists give the impression that the special position of the Malays, as enshrined in the Malaysian Federal Constitution, is discriminatory and therefore, action will be taken to dismantle this policy.

As analysts have pointed out, Pakatan would not have the jurisdiction to make these changes. A federal government headed by Pakatan would be under close scrutiny of the BN and the electorate, and its first months in power will be spent trying to keep campaign promises and clamp down on infighting.

BN retakes Putrajaya?

BN is expected to win this election by a narrow margin, according to numerous international and diplomatic assessments.

A narrow victory would create discord in Umno, and Najib’s position may be challenged by factions inside the party, putting him in a position similar to that of his predecessor. More notably, a narrow victory for the BN would prompt members of the opposition to cry “fraud” to the international news media.

The recent election in Venezuela, which saw the Washington-friendly opposition candidate call for street protests after denouncing the election results (without sufficient proof), serve as a tangible parallel to what could happen in Malaysia.

If Pakatan loses by a hair, its cries will be given ample coverage in the international media, which has long slanted in Anwar’s favour.

Once the dust settles, Najib must use his mandate to act; otherwise he will face louder and angrier voices. Although the government is widely perceived to be out of touch, it is obviously very familiar with popular grievances.

It should be acknowledged that Najib inherited his position, and if he is allowed to form his own administration with a popular mandate, he has the advantage of stability to continue the issuance of popular reforms in a timely fashion, provided he has the political will to do so.

Najib will have to make meaningful reforms in the four main areas mentioned above: elite corruption, citizen equality, freedom of expression, the rising cost of living. Failure to do so would put him on unstable political ground.

Many have argued that the BR1M scheme equates to vote buying; the real test of Najib’s populist policies will be whether these handouts continue and how they are implemented more productively with respect to expanding programmes of social uplift.

These policies should mature into programmes that impart skills to low-wage earners and programmes that offer greater welfare and educational opportunities to the poor.

“Najib’s era” will only be recognised as noteworthy in the pages of history if he is brave enough to pass zero-tolerance anti-corruption legislation, grant dissident voices greater space in mainstream media, and boldly facilitate more effective platforms for expression and national integration.

We all want change

Malaysia has achieved so much since 1957. For one of the most ethnically complex societies in the world, Malaysia’s leadership has ensured more equality, social freedom, and stability than the opposition would like to concede.

Although the Muslim Malays are the majority, the nation’s minority groups are very well-represented in the middle and upper income-earning brackets. They are not obstructed from practising their culture and religion, from being educated in their mother-tongue, and from pursuing their own education or economic livelihoods.

Greater equality should be the goal of whoever takes Putrajaya, and it should be acknowledged that safeguarding race relations is itself a difficult balancing act.

Pakatan-led states (perhaps with the exception of Penang in some areas) have no major victories under their belts, and PAS’s 22-year rule over Kelantan has yielded nothing worth boasting about.

Malaysia not only needs a government that will response meaningfully to popular grievances, but one that is moderate, committed to economic development, the expansion of infrastructure, and making higher quality education available to all.

Nile Bowie is a Malaysia-based political analyst and a columnist with Russia Today. He also contributes to PressTV, Global Research, and CounterPunch. He is unaffiliated with any political party and can be reached at nilebowie@gmail.com.


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