Sunday, 27 January 2013

Asia Times: No easy choice for Malaysia

KUALA LUMPUR - Animosity between Malaysia's two leading political coalitions - the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) and opposition Pakatan Rakyat - has run high following the opposition-led Himpunan Kebangkitan Rakyat mass rally held earlier this month in the capital's iconic Merdeka Stadium.

Many argue that the political climate has never been so polarized ahead of the country's 13th general elections, democratic polls that have the potential to bring enormous political, economic and social change.

BN, led by the United Malays Nasional Organization (UMNO), has held power consecutively since Malaysia achieved independence from colonial Britain in 1957. Pakatan Rakyat - a coalition of the People's Justice Party (PKR), Democratic Action Party (DAP) and Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) - looks to build on the historic gains it made at the 2008 polls, where it initially won control of five out of 13 state assemblies.

Since then, few have acknowledged the emphasis that Prime Minister Najib Razak has put on deconstructing draconian legislation that once allowed for indefinite detention without trial and scoop arrests of government critics. Clearly, there is a vocal and undeterred segment of the population which values civil liberties, freedom of expression, and free assembly to whom he is bidding to appeal.

The fact that this month's political rally occurred without incident is a sign that his administration is more comfortable with liberalization than previous UMNO-led administrations. While Najib has eased rules regarding the publication of books and newspapers, the next administration would gain enormous public support by relaxing controls on grass roots political expression, including allowances for greater citizen participation in checking and balancing alternative media.

At the same time, many of the states under Paktan Rakyat's control have experienced administrative mismanagement, including cases of water shortages that have left people without basic utilities. Despite claims that it would reduce water tariffs, the PAS-led administration in Kedah State has instead increased them.

In Selangor, reserve levels of treated water neared zero because of prolonged spells of hot and dry weather. Nonetheless, budget restructuring and tight conditions introduced under the watch of the Selangor government have halted the construction of needed water treatment plants, despite the current plants running at near maximum operating and distribution capacity.

Institutions such as the Malaysian Water Association (MWA) and Syabas (the water concessionaire in Selangor State) have criticized the Paktan Rakyat-controlled Selangor government for mismanaging the state's water resources, stating, "either they don't understand water management or they just refuse to understand. They are just politicizing it".

The fact that these untested state governments have mismanaged state resources to the point where people lose access to necessities like water will not be forgotten among many Malaysian voters. BN is not a perfect coalition, but its component parties have over the years demonstrated their capacity to agree on political programs.

The opposition, on the other hand, is marred not only by disagreements between their component parties but also with inner party disputes. Though ideologically incompatible, Pakatan Rakyat's component parties have allied through political necessity to further their own individual programs and agendas.

Tensions are emerging, however. PAS members, such as Shahnon Ahmad, have cast doubt on the party for no longer adhering to the needs of Islam by working together with the DAP. In response, PAS spiritual leader and veteran politician Nik Aziz referenced how the Prophet Muhammad cooperated with Jews and non-Muslims in ancient Mecca by signing the Treaty of Hudaibiya, which was negatively perceived by the Prophet's followers as a concession to non-Muslim enemies. Aziz was quoted saying, "however, the Muslims managed to capture the city after that".

To some, Aziz's comments insinuated that PAS is only cooperating with Paktan Rakyat's component parties to further its own program of founding an Islamic state governed under hudud law. PAS has advocated gender segregation, dress code requirements, a crackdown on high heels and lipstick, banning movie cinemas, and a ban on Valentine's Day, all of which the party views as immoral.

Such a political program only appeals to a limited demographic of the Malaysian population, and imposing the will of Islamists onto non-Muslims would undermine religious freedoms and civil liberties. The introduction of such laws in a country like Malaysia would thus represent a dictatorship of a theocratic minority over the multi-faith majority.

The focus of the next administration should arguably instead be centered on safeguarding the religious and cultural freedoms that binds together Malaysian society. Yet there are questions emerging about Pakatan Rakyat leader Anwar Ibrahim's liberal credentials, including on issues of dissent and political expression.

The recent lawsuit filed by Anwar against political scientist Chandra Muzaffar provides one such insight. Anwar pressed charges against Chandra for saying that his hypothetical tenure as prime minister after the upcoming polls would be "an unmitigated disaster for Malaysia".

As deputy prime minister and finance minister under former authoritarian leader Mahathir Mohamad, Anwar's economic policies were aligned with international financial institutions such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank. Both have historically dictated structural adjustment policies that cut social services and dismantle social safety nets in favor of central bankers and private lending institutions.

Some analysts believe that if elected Anwar would again align his policies with the IMF, which has called for the dismantling of Malaysia's subsidy regime. If those policies are pursued in haste, some believe the nation could face the type of fuel riots that have rocked Nigeria and Indonesia in recent times, and the vicious anti-austerity protests that have become commonplace in the European Union members states such as Greece, Spain, and Portugal.

For all the opposition criticism, BN has delivered a laudable measure of economic growth and stability. The ruling coalition's legitimacy is based largely on its ability to deliver economic development with some of the lowest inflation rates in the world, unemployment at a meager 2.9%, and steady economic growth of around 5%. Under Najib's watch, Malaysia has enjoyed a relatively healthy economy in a time of great global economic uncertainty.

The next administration will need to find innovative ways to reduce increasing public debt levels, bolster programs aimed at increasing incomes, and strengthen populist policies and the social safety net. It will also need to steadfastly maintain the capital controls imposed under Mahathir that have allowed the nation to navigate through global economic and financial uncertainty.

The next government will also need to respond to outside calls for subsidy reform by balancing its budget wisely while retaining beneficial protectionist measures as it embarks on sweeping infrastructural projects throughout the country. The bottom line is that many Malaysians do not feel like the government is listening to their voices, and that it is more interested in appeasing foreign investors than grassroots communities.

Amendments such as 114A, which has been widely perceived to obstruct Internet freedoms, remain highly unpopular, as does recent news of Malaysia signing onto the controversial United States-led Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade agreement.

The election, which must be held by June, is expected to be a tight race, the results of which may drastically alter the direction of the nation. If Najib is re-elected, his BN-led administration would capture enormous public confidence if it continued liberalizing political expression, squashed capital punishment penalties, and oversaw genuine reform of the police by addressing their spotty custodial death figures.

To uproot and prevent corruption, the next government will need to mandate that all contracts be awarded through open tenders. In that direction, politicians, ministers, and civil society members should be required to declare their assets, disclose their sources of political donations, and declare any foreign assistance and bank accounts.

There is a popular call for the next administration to take a progressive line on past unpopular policies, whichever coalition is next elected at the ballot box.

This article originally appeared in the Asia Times Online

Nile Bowie is an independent political commentator and photographer based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. He can be reached at nilebowie@gmail.com