Wednesday, 16 January 2013

The Race to Putrajaya: Malaysia’s 13th General Elections (Op-Ed)

Distrust and animosity between Malaysia’s two leading political coalitions has run high following the Himpunan Kebangkitan Rakyat (HKR) rally held in the iconic Stadium Merdeka. As the authorities concerned argue with each other over which attendance figures are more accurate, it cannot be denied that Pakatan Rakyat, especially PAS, has the ability to mobilize. Leaders of the opposition coalition addressed the crowd with fiery rhetoric, with PAS president Abdul Hadi Awang calling on the people to “declare a second independence.” Anwar Ibrahim took the stage and demanding that the government stop stealing from its citizens. The HKR rally follows November’s UMNO General Assembly – both key events in the buildup to elections – where Prime Minister Najib Razak apologized for the government’s shortcomings and called on Malaysians to be wary of experimenting with changes in leadership, emphasizing the economic stability brought in under the ruling party. Many would argue that Malaysia’s political climate has never been so polarized. Indeed, the outcome of the 13th general election has the capacity to bring enormous changes to the country.

Hardliners accuse of Najib reforming too much, while others feel he hasn’t reformed enough. Can one imagine the opposition holding a rally in Stadium Merdeka 10 years ago? In stark contrast to former leaders, few acknowledge the emphasis that Najib has put on deconstructing draconian legislation that once allowed for indefinite detention and scoop arrests. Clearly, there is a vocal and undeterred segment of the population which values civil liberties, freedom of expression, and free assembly, rightfully so. The fact that HKR went on without incident is a sign that the administration is getting more comfortable liberalizing. Another issue is the mainstream media, which many feel fails to present balanced stories that reflect both the ruling party and the opposition, and one cannot ignore the open mudslinging so evident in the political mouthpieces of both parties, which often times leave readers in search of media with more substance. While Najib has liberalized rules regarding the publication of books and newspapers, the next administration would gain enormous public support by relaxing controls on political expression and encouraging citizen participation in alternative media.

Protestors climb for high angle view inside the historical Stadium Merdeka (Independence Stadium) as they take part in an opposition rally ahead of looming elections in Kuala Lumpur.(AFP Photo / Mohd Rasfan)
Protestors climb for high angle view inside the historical Stadium Merdeka (Independence Stadium) as they take part in an opposition rally ahead of looming elections in Kuala Lumpur.(AFP Photo / Mohd Rasfan)


Members of the opposition and civil society are also to blame, as they have disproportionately cast doubt on the government’s legitimacy and ability to lead. Take the issue of electoral discrepancies, which have been misrepresented and sloganized ad nauseam by the Bersih Coalition. It was claimed by civil society groups that the electoral roll had major incongruities which prevented the Election Commission from ensuring clean elections, due to around “400,000” doubtful voters on the electoral roll. EC Chairman Abdul Aziz Mohd Yusof challenged Bersih to legitimize their claims by offering substantial proof of electoral fraud, which they have not made available. The EC published a little-noticed report that refuted allegations of vote rigging; the commission did confirm that 42,051 voter names with no valid and verifiable information were indeed on the role. Because removing registered voters from the electoral roll is unconstitutional without the EC first getting approval from the National Registration Department, the EC displayed the names of the doubtful voters for a three month period, allowing those voters to either come forward or be removed from the roll after a death certificate was presented by the person’s family members.

The EC provided logical and consistent refutations to the allegations made against the electoral system, though it was open to taking the demands of civil society on board. Despite this, Anwar Ibrahim appealed to the Australian government to interfere in Malaysia’s electoral process in an attempt to ensure their legitimate conduct. Australian Foreign Minister Bob Carr has said that Australia cannot and will not influence how Malaysia’s elections are run, inciting harsh criticism of Anwar, who was thought to be falsely equating Malaysia’s electoral standards with that of Afghanistan, Iraq, or the Congo. Many cast doubt over the electoral system for its past blemishes; the Project IC in Sabah sparked much controversy, promoting allegations of the state’s electoral demography being manipulated in favor of the ruling party. In 2012, the parliamentary select committee agreed upon implementing recommended electoral reforms addressed by civil society groups, prompting statements from the United Nations confirming that Malaysia was completely in-line with international norms and electoral standards.

Civil society groups and members of the opposition are not wrong in bringing discrepancies to the forefront, but they have disproportionately pushed allegations of “election-rigging” as their main talking point, without any definitive evidence that an election had been stolen, all while the opposition itself democratically took power in key states following the 2008 elections. Bersih coalition leader Ambiga Sreenavasan is already dubbing GE13 as “the dirtiest elections ever seen” – this isn’t really fair statement, considering that the new legislature in place would mandate Malaysia to hold what would be its most regulated election yet. Since Pakatan Rakyat took power of four state governments, those states have experienced administrative mismanagement, resulting in water shortage issues that have left people without basic necessities. Despite claims that it would reduce water tariffs, the PAS administration in Kedah increased them with the expectation that the DAP-led Penang government would fork over RM20 million for water being channeled to the state, which naturally created tensions between the two parties.

Institutions such as the Malaysian Water Association (MWA) and Syabas (the water concessionaire in Selangor) have criticized the 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.” Pakatan Rakyat Selangor has pointed fingers at Syabas and Barisan Nasional for contributing to the crisis, claiming that “[Syabas] does not manage the water well… we have enough raw water supplies that can last beyond year 2015.” MWA President Ahmad Zahdi Jamil struck back stating, “Selangor may have enough raw water but it is either polluted, scattered all over or not enough to cater for future demand. Even it is enough now but it is depleting. But remember those are raw water not treated.” Budget restructuring and tight conditions introduced under the watch of the PR Selangor government have halted the construction of needed water treatment plants, despite the current plants running at near maximum operating and distribution capacity.

A protestor waves flag during a grand gathering at the historical Medeka Stadium (Independence Stadium) during a rally for electorial reforms in Kuala Lumpur.(AFP Photo / Saeed Khan)
A protestor waves flag during a grand gathering at the historical Medeka Stadium (Independence Stadium) during a rally for electorial reforms in Kuala Lumpur.(AFP Photo / Saeed Khan)


The fact that these untested state governments have mismanaged state resources to the point where people lose access to necessities like water should not be forgotten by the Malaysian voter. Barisan Nasional is not a perfect coalition, but its component parties have at least demonstrated their capacity to agree on political programs; the opposition is not only marred by disagreements between their component parties, but also with inner party disputes. Penang Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng has taken much heat from members of his coalition. Penang’s Deputy Chief Minister Mansor Othman is on record ridiculing Guan Eng, while DAP assemblyman Teh Yee Cheu has called out the state government for overriding local authorities in favor of ‘mafia property developers.' On the other hand, PAS has been accused by many of dividing Malay Muslim communities by labeling UMNO and their supporters as “infidels” for cooperating with non-Muslim parties.

By means of necessity, PR’s component parties – though ideologically incompatible – have allied to further their own individual programs. 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. A closer examination of rebuttal comments presented by Spiritual Leader Nik Aziz offers something telling; Aziz cites how the Prophet Muhammad cooperated with the Jews in Medinah and the non-Muslims in Mecca to strengthen the ancient city’s defenses, adding, “however, the Muslims managed to capture the city after that." Can one then derive the notion that PAS is only cooperating with PR’s component parties to further it’s own program of founding an Islamic state governed under hudud law? Splits in PAS’s leadership over the word “Allah” being using by non-Muslims illustrates not only disunity, but also an overly disproportionate emphasis given to an issue that does nothing to improve the livelihoods or well being of the individuals they seek to govern.

In assessing what PAS would bring to the table, Malaysians should examine the Egyptian scenario, where non-Muslims find themselves in an increasingly marginalized position under the incumbent Muslim Brotherhood administration, which has attempted to introduce Sharia Law in the Egyptian draft constitution. 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 (which is viewed as immoral). Such a political program only appeals to a limited demographic of the Malaysian population, and imposing the will of Islamists unto the non-Muslim population obstructs religious freedom and civil liberties. The introduction of such laws in a country like Malaysia would be nothing less than a dictatorship of a theocratic minority over the multi-faith majority. The focus of the next administration should be centered on safeguarding the religious and cultural freedom that binds together the vibrant fabric of Malaysian society – be it those who individually choose to live by hudud law, those who choose not to pursue religion, and everything in between.

Malaysia opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim (C) shouts alogans during a grand gathering at the historical Medeka Stadium during a rally for electorial reforms in Kuala Lumpur.(AFP Photo / Saeed Khan)
Malaysia opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim (C) shouts alogans during a grand gathering at the historical Medeka Stadium during a rally for electorial reforms in Kuala Lumpur.(AFP Photo / Saeed Khan)


And where would Malaysia be with Anwar at the helm? The recent lawsuit filed by Ibrahim against Political Scientist Dr. Chandra Muzaffar provides telling insight. Anwar pressed charges against Chandra for simply saying that his hypothetical tenure as Prime Minister would be “an unmitigated disaster for Malaysia.” This case should be nothing short of alarming to those who value dissent and political expression – what would the status of such things be under an Anwar-led administration? As Deputy PM under Mahathir, Anwar’s economic policies have always been aligned with international financial institutions such as the IMF and World Bank, which have historically dictated structural adjustment policies that cut social services and dismantle social safety nets in favor of gluttonous central bankers and lending institutions. One can surmise Anwar bending over backwards to please IMF head Christine Lagarde, who has called for the dismantling of Malaysia’s subsidy regime. If those policies are pursued in haste, the nation could one day find itself marred with fuel-riots that have rocked Nigeria and Indonesia in recent times, and vicious anti-austerity protests that have become commonplace in the EU members states, such as Greece, Spain, and Portugal.

And how would Malaysia’s foreign policy be shaped under an Anwar administration? Members of civil society and the opposition have openly received funding and leadership training from institutions such as the National Democratic Institute (NDI) and the International Republic Institute (IRI), both component organizations of the National Endowment for Democracy (NED). In addition to senior US officials such as Colin Powell, John McCain, and Madeline Albright lining key positions in both the IRI and NDI, the NED receives its funding directly from the US government. PR’s policies would likely align Malaysia’s economic and defense priorities much closer to the United States, one could foresee a PR-government investing in American armaments, and potentially even approving a larger American military role in line with Obama’s pivot to East Asia policy. The American taxpayer in the end foots the bill for the NED’s overseas political meddling, at the expense of needed social, medical, and infrastructural needs of American people – Malaysian civil society groups have knowingly or unknowingly taken funding from NED-component organizations in bad faith.

Barisan Nasional, for all the negative things said about it, has delivered a laudable measure of economic development and stability. According to studies, 21.6 percent of Malaysian households live below the poverty line*, a far slimmer demographic than the equivalent seen in neighboring countries in the region. BN’s legitimacy is most garnered from its ability to deliver economic growth, and with some of the lowest inflation rates in the world, unemployment at a meager 2.9 percent, and steady economic growth figures at around 5 percent, Malaysia enjoys a relatively healthy economy in a time of global economic uncertainty. The next administration must find innovative ways to reduce the increasing public debt levels, bolster its program to increase incomes, strengthen populist policies and the social safety net, all while steadfastly maintaining capital controls that have allowed the nation to navigate through economic uncertainty. Malaysia must respond to 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 in Malaysia do not feel like the government is listening, and that it is more interested in appeasing foreign investors. Amendments such as 114A, which is perceived to obstruct Internet freedom, remains highly unpopular, as does news of Malaysia signing onto the controversial Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade agreement. The looming GE13 will be a tight race, the results of which may drastically alter the direction of the nation. If Najib finds himself back in power, his administration would capture enormous public confidence if it continued liberalizing political expression, in addition to squashing capital punishment and overseeing reform of the Royal Police Commission by putting the spotlight on their spotty custodial death figures. More regulations must be put into place to prevent corruption, mandating that contracts be awarded through open tenders. Politicians, ministers, and civil society members should declare their assets, disclose sources of political donations, and declare any foreign assistance. There is now a new precedent for the next administration to take a progressive line on unpopular policies, whoever makes it to Putrajaya must not waste that opportunity.


* Note: According to official statistics, the poverty rate in Malaysia is 3.8%, based on “absolute poverty measurements” that differ from region to region. According to Saya Anak Bangsa Malaysia (SABM) representative A Jayanath, the absolute poverty line measurement system uses the bare minimum World Bank standard of US$2 per capita per day, and does not address several factors, such as the differences in cost of living in urban and rural areas, and the annual increase in the consumer price index. Jayanath argues that if poverty levels are measured using a “relative” poverty measurement system that uses 50% of monthly household median income as a benchmark to measure poverty (which would be around RM1500 per household), it would show that about 21.6% of total households in Malaysia are currently below the poverty threshold.


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