Malaysian politic developments will have impact on region

Suddenly, Malaysia has become the most exciting place in Southeast Asia – not for its Manhattan-like skyscrapers or even its “Truly Asia” self-indulgent slogan.

Published on March 31, 2008

Stop by a kopi-tiem for teh-tarik in any neighbourhood in the capital these days, one can hear a lively exchange of street wisdom on the future of Malay politics. Will Pak Lah resign? Is Anwar coming back? Is UMNO collapsing? The list goes on.

Nataraja Naidu, 58, a former government official, says proudly that he voted for the opposition for the first time. “I realised that a change in Malaysian politics must come from me first. I support the opposition,” he said. “I want to see every anak bangsa Malaysian being treated equally.”

Yang Lee-jing, 72, a taxi driver, who has seen it all, is more cautious in his appraisal. “I have seen riots on the streets before. Although now things are different, but it is still bumiputra,” he says, referring to the Malay race. Yang was more resigned about the current political scene, saying Malaysian politics will continue to be based on race. The country’s population comprises 65 per cent Malays, 25 per cent Chinese, 6 per cent Indian and the rest are other nationalities.

Naidu and Yang are not alone in having such juxtaposed sentiments. They know, as minorities, it is a tall order to have everybody enjoy the same rights. But for them to be able to speak aloud on this issue without fear is already a huge accomplishment. Malaysia is more open than ever before. While the mainstream media are still timid, online media and bloggers have filled in the gap and are thriving. The Internet has now become one of the most important communication tools in Malaysian politics. Even Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi confessed that his party’s defeat was due to its failure to acknowledge the power of the Internet.

Prem Chandra, chief of the Internet portal Malaysiakini, was succinct, saying that the voices of opposition candidates could be read and heard online. “Quite often, mainstream media have to catch up with the online information, which is freer and faster,” he said. Ironically, former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad also lamented the lack of media freedom and sought media space online.

Increasingly, ordinary Malaysians have come to grips with the political reality that they have been brought up in since the country gained independence in 1957. Since then, the politics here has been dominated by the United Malay National Organisation (UMNO), along with other smaller community-based parties known as the Barisan Nasional. The Malay voters used to think that without UMNO, their interests would not be protected.

But in the past few two years, the Malaysians, especially the Chinese and Indians, have begun to think differently in responding to religious and social discrimination. Instead of asking the ruling political party for changes, they have chosen instead to look for an alternative group, which can give them a better deal. Then came the formation of an opposition coalition with a more holistic approach to economic and social development. Now they think change is possible. As in the US primaries, the call for change is getting louder by the day in the world’s most modern Islamic nation.

The political tsunami started with the outcome of the March 8 general elections. The opposition seized 82 out of 222-seats in parliament, just 30 seats short of forming a government. The opposition group comprises the Islamist party known as PAS, the Chinese-based and secular Democratic Action Party (DAP) and the multiracial People’s Justice Party (PKR). Both PAS and DAP are more pragmatic and more reconciliatory towards each other.

For the first time, Malaysians feel that a new dawn is approaching for their country. Of course, mindful of racial history, there is also some anxiety. But intellectuals and the middle class are discussing the possibility of a multi-party system or even an end to race-based politics, which has dominated the country in the past five decades.

“Malaysians believe that there could be changes without bloodshed as in 1969. We have learned lessons from the past,” said Tian Chua, a former activist, who got elected in Batu constituency. Chua was optimistic that sooner than later there would be an alternative government rather than the current National Front led by UMNO.

“First of all, we have to show that the opposition has the capacity to provide better policies and reduce corruption,” he said. Only a few days in his job, he told me in a kopi tiem in Ambang Utama that several wasteful projects were reviewed and slashed and money was saved. At the moment, he said the opposition could make a difference in Selangor, Penang, Perak, Kedah, the country’s four richest states, who contribute 60 per cent of its gross domestic product.

Chua is confident that if the opposition parties are resilient and end discrimination and can still maintain stability and prosperity, then they would get a chance to form the government. “We must make things better and understand the feelings of the people. It is the reformasi spirit.”

After all, one can also sense that the reformasi movement started by former deputy prime minister Ibrahim Anwar is still very much alive. Ordinary people want social justice and better governance. Politics is too elitist, focusing on a few groups of people, they said.

If Malaysia can achieve all these, it would impact on political developments in the region and beyond. Singapore has already dispatched teams of political scientists to Malaysia to gain understanding and insights into the latest phenomenon. Currently, the region’s existing democracies such as Thailand and the Philippines are in disarray, plagued with political instability, corruption and lack of governance. Further consolidation in Malaysia’s democracy will resonate well in Indonesia’s current political dynamic.

Kavi Chongkittavorn

The Nation



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