Saturday, October 4, 2008

Malaysia: The Present Political Situation By Dr Chandra


Recent political developments in Malaysia suggest that the reverberations from the March 8 electoral earthquake are still strong.

The Clamour within UMNO

The decision of UMNO President, Dato Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, to expedite the transfer of power to his Deputy, Dato Seri Najib Abdul Razak, is perhaps one of the more significant of those reverberations. UMNO and its coalition partners in the Barisan Nasional had suffered an unprecedented setback in the 12th General Election. The BN not only lost its two-third majority in the federal parliament for the first time in history but was also ousted as the ruling party in four states ---Kedah, Penang, Perak and Selangor--- besides failing yet again to regain control of Kelantan.

After such a colossal debacle, it was not surprising that many people expected Abdullah to assume full responsibility for the ignominious performance and to quit gracefully as president of UMNO, the leader of the BN and the Prime Minister. Of course, a variety of reasons explain the BN’s electoral losses but accountability demands that the captain of the team takes the rap and bows out. When I was asked by RTM (television) to give a brief comment on the election results in the wee hours of the 9th of March, I stated quite candidly that it was a vote against the BN leadership. The next day at a post-mortem on the election organized by a leading think tank, I expressed the view that as a person who values ethics in politics, Abdullah should act in a principled manner and take responsibility for the BN’s performance. Otherwise, there would be rapid erosion of confidence in the leadership and this would have an adverse impact upon the nation’s politics.

When Dato Seri Anwar Ibrahim won the Permatang Pauh by-election with a bigger majority than what his wife had secured in the March 8 polls, a lot of UMNO leaders realised the truth about Abdullah’s standing: popular confidence in him was at a nadir even in his own home state, Penang, in a constituency that was adjacent to his own. There is no doubt that the hefty increase in the price of petrol at the beginning of June and the consequent escalation in the cost of living had also undermined Abdullah’s credibility severely. The quiet clamour from within UMNO to persuade him to step down reached a crescendo by September.

Abdullah is now expected to make an announcement about his future in politics that will take into account the feelings of UMNO members and the public at large. If he quits --- as he is expected to--- Najib, it is speculated, will obtain nominations from the majority of party divisions to enable him to contest the party presidency. An incumbent president paving the way for his deputy to take over through some sort of succession plan has now become an established practice in UMNO. It started with the first Prime Minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman, also in the wake of an electoral debacle, handing over the presidency to Tun Abdul Razak, over a period of time stretching from May 1969 to September 1970.

As Abdullah relinquishes the party presidency, one hopes that he will act decisively in a couple of areas that are important for UMNO’s future. One, he should get the UMNO Supreme Council to abolish the quota regulation for nominations to the Council. It curbs the right of choice of the members. As someone who has attempted to expand democratic space within Malaysian society, Abdullah should eliminate this undemocratic hurdle within the party. Two, he should also ensure that intra-party corruption, euphemistically called ‘money politics’, which allegedly is still serious is fought vigorously. Corruption within UMNO distorts the will of the membership.

There is a third, more immediate task that awaits him. He should rescind the recent UMNO Supreme Council decision to postpone the party general assembly to March 2009 and instead stick to the December 2008 schedule. Postponement will mean that once nominations to Supreme Council positions close in early November 2008, contestants will be able to campaign for four months before the general assembly votes in March next year. It will certainly give rise to intense politicking over a much longer period of time. Since a number of the contestants are bound to be Ministers and Deputy Ministers, they will be distracted from their ministerial duties. This is something that the nation can ill afford especially when we are confronted by a massive global financial crisis whose full impact upon our people has yet to manifest itself. The people want Ministers and their deputies to concentrate upon this and other related challenges and not be preoccupied with their own political careers!

Crossover Politics

Indeed, a prolonged campaign with all its adverse consequences may even encourage Anwar to intensify his manoeuvres to lure UMNO and other BN members of parliament to cross over to his Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR). In other words, the uncertainty within UMNO exacerbated by a prolonged campaign could help revive Anwar’s crossover politics which has been in the doldrums since his much trumpeted September 16 deadline for the formation of a new government through defections turned out to be a total farce.

If he succeeds in reviving his game, the atmosphere of uncertainty that has characterized Malaysian politics since March 8 will deteriorate further. For a lot of people, this uncertainty is unsettling. As I had pointed in an earlier article written on August 4 2008 unethical and undemocratic politics of this type also affects the morale of the public service and impacts negatively upon both local and foreign investors.

This is why in order to check crossover politics, UMNO as the biggest party in parliament and as the backbone of the government will have to demonstrate as quickly and as effectively as possible that its leadership is decisive, and has a clear sense of direction. It must also prove through deeds that it has a sincere commitment to fundamental reforms in all spheres of society--- reforms which many of us have been advocating for decades. Unfortunately, UMNO as it is does not seem to be helmed by a strong, dynamic reform oriented leadership.

However, neither leadership nor reforms will stop Anwar from continuing to entice parliamentarians to cross over since his real goal is to become Prime Minister of Malaysia in the shortest possible time. Incidentally, in a couple of state assemblies BN leaders have also been trying to induce PKR and other Pakatan Rakyat members to join them in order to topple the PR government in the state. It underscores the urgent need to introduce a law at both federal and state level that will prohibit defections in our legislatures. Again, this is something that has been proposed some 15 years ago. Since it will require constitutional amendments, both the government and the opposition in the federal parliament and in the state assemblies will have to cooperate on the proposed anti defection legislation.

The Ethnic Situation

If crossover politics and the clamour for change within UMNO are connected to March 8, so is the ethnic uneasiness that has become more pronounced in recent months. While issues such as the BN’s corruption, its abuse of power, its failure to curb the spiraling cost of living, its inability to tackle the escalating crime rate, and its sheer incompetence, provided fodder to the mass protest against the ruling coalition in the recent General Election, there was also undeniably an ethnic dimension to both the Malay and non-Malay vote for the opposition parties. A segment of the Malay community was unhappy with the UMNO leadership because it was perceived as allowing non-Malays and non-Muslims to challenge the Malay position and Islam. More specifically, non-Malay articulation of certain concerns pertaining to freedom of religion and non-Malay rights for instance were interpreted as an affront to the Malay community. For a lot of non-Malays, on the other hand, their major grievances against the state have always revolved around what they regard as Malay dominance through UMNO and alleged discrimination against them especially in education and in the economy. They were thrilled therefore when for the first time, a major Malay leader --- Anwar Ibrahim--- was prepared to champion their cause by promising to abolish the New Economic Policy (NEP) and to promote equality for all.

Since the General Election, both these sentiments have found expression in the political postures of certain individuals and entities. Immediately after becoming Chief Minister of Penang, Democratic Action Party (DAP) leader Lim Guan Eng for instance pledged to set aside the NEP in the state’s socio-economic programmes. Some of his party officials also put up multilingual road signs in parts of the state’s capital, Georgetown, in defiance of the established policy of having road signs in only the official language, Bahasa Malaysia. In Selangor one of the first projects announced by the PR state government was a centralised pig farm. In another PR state, Perak, a huge tract of land was gifted to independent Chinese language secondary schools so that it could become a source of revenue for them.

These and other similar issues have been exploited by UMNO politicians in order to instill fear among the Malays that their political position is in jeopardy and that power is slipping away from their hands. A couple of Malay newspapers appear to be working hand in glove with these politicians. It is because of this fear that a middle level UMNO politician who uttered some malicious communal remarks against the Chinese and refused to apologise became an instant hero among a segment of the Malay community.

The spread of communal sentiments in the post March 8 scenario has to be checked immediately. There should be a more concerted effort by both state and society to make all Malaysians aware of the history of the country, the contemporary situation, the sensitivities of the various communities, their hopes and their fears. Accurate information about issues that impinge upon ethnic relations should also be made available to everyone. Most of all, as I have emphasised so often in the past, it is only when every Malaysian is convinced that he can expect justice from the system regardless of his religious or cultural background that the communal cancer can be eliminated once and for all.


Laws alone, whether punitive or preventive, cannot combat communalism. This is a pertinent point to make in view of the recent detention under the ISA of three individuals who were connected in one way or another with situations and circumstances which had communal overtones. From past examples we know that individuals who have been detained under the ISA for “causing ethnic and religious tensions” have seldom changed their positions or attitudes on ethnic issues after their release. Similarly, the law has not been able to prevent the outbreak of ethnic riots such as ‘May 13th’ or the Kampong Medan incident in 2001.

If we have succeeded in maintaining a certain degree of inter-ethnic peace over the years it is not because of the ISA per se. Political power sharing, some scope for dissent, economic growth with equity, a workable public delivery system, and acceptance of religious and cultural diversity have been far more important factors. Rather than apply the ISA, it is the underlying causes of ethnic unhappiness that we should address.

In any case, the ISA, whatever its purported goals, is an unjust law. Since I entered public life in the early seventies, I have consistently advocated its abolition. It denies a human being a fundamental human right: the right to a fair trial. It bestows unfettered powers upon the Executive. It is a law which in its application has been abused right from the outset. If the ISA was meant to fight communist terrorists when it was re-enacted in 1960, how does one explain the detention of the late Burhannuddin al-Helmi or the late Abdul Aziz Ishak during the Tunku’s administration?

It is encouraging to see that more and more people are now coming out against the ISA. When Anwar was arrested under the ISA in 1998, many ordinary Malays for the first time began to oppose the ISA. After Hindraf leaders were incarcerated under the ISA, a significant segment of the Indian community has started to criticize the law. The brief detention of a Chinese journalist who had merely reported a communal speech by a Malay politician that had hurt the Chinese has now triggered widespread condemnation of the ISA within the community. These episodes show how powerful the ethnic emotion is in our country and how intimately linked it is to human rights issues.

It is important to sustain the present momentum against the ISA. We should continue to campaign not only for the release of all those who are now in detention in Kamunting but also for the abolition of the law before it attains its fiftieth birthday!


If the state should not use the ISA to deal with ethnic problems, neither should it underestimate the gravity of yet another trend that has become more marked in the post March 8 environment. This is the increase in acts of violence which appear to have political connotations. The latest was the dastardly petrol bomb attack upon the family home of DAP member of parliament, Teresa Kok. Before this, improvised explosive devices were left at the doorstep of the Bar Council premises; Molotov cocktails were tossed into the compound of the previous residence of the present Bar Council president; and reporters covering political ceramahs and events were physically assaulted by what appear to be political functionaries. Even prior to March 8, the home of the chairman of the Election Commission was paint bombed and there were reports of violence in pre-election activities in Trengganu.

There is no need to emphasise that each and every one of these incidents should be thoroughly investigated. Prompt and effective action should be taken against the culprits. The influential stratum of society --- this includes business, professional, religious, cultural, academic and NGO leaders, apart from politicians --- should condemn acts of violence in unambiguous, uncompromising language. Politicians in particular should be as vocal and as vehement in denouncing violence committed by their own party or their own supporters as they are in savaging alleged perpetrators on the other side of the divide.

Adopting a principled approach to the question of political violence is critical since it is one of the most effective ways of curbing the phenomenon. That political violence in Malaysia is minimal is, as I never cease to argue, one of the great achievements of our nation.


Our reflections on five major, inter-related concerns reveal that government and opposition, Malays and non-Malays, are both part of the problem and the solution in the current political situation. This is why in analyzing the situation and in articulating solutions we should avoid the temptation of castigating one group as the villain while eulogizing another individual as the saviour. If we use certain criteria to judge a particular group or individual we should be prepared to employ the same criteria to evaluate another group or individual in a similar circumstance. We cannot close an eye to the wrongdoings of those we endorse while condemning the same ills in our adversaries. Neither the abuse of power nor communalism is the monopoly of a particular group or community.

Civil society actors and the media in particular should be honest and truthful in their analysis. It is their honesty and integrity that will serve as our compass as we navigate our journey into the future in these difficult times.

Chandra Muzaffar
October 3, 2008
Professor Chandra Muzaffar is a political scientist who has authored a number of books on Malaysian politics and society.

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