Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Door Opens For Opposition And Hope In Malaysia

It is an unfamiliar feeling. Malaysian politics is no longer a monolith of government. The weekend's reversal of fortunes has stunned the ruling coalition, which has grown content and complacent after 50 years in power. But it has also stunned the electorate, and to a certain extent the opposition.

There has not been a viable opposition in nearly 40 years, and the Government has not been denied a two-thirds majority in Parliament since 1969, when opposition gains were met with riots and a violent crackdown. An entire generation of Malaysians has grown up in the shadow of Dr Mahathir Mohamad and his Barisan Nasional, or BN, coalition cronies. For too long veterans such as Lim Kit Siang and comrade Karpal Singh, of the secular Chinese-based Democratic Action Party, or DAP, have been fighting a lonely, often symbolic resistance to the ruling coalition. They have been torn by internal squabbles, battle-scarred from spells in jail at Government hands, and all too often abandoned at the polls by the timidity of Malaysian voters willing to endure authoritarian rule in exchange for economic growth. After years in the wilderness, wielding significant political power not to mention the reins of state government will be surreal, especially for the new generation of leaders they have groomed, and for Lim's son, Lim Guan Eng, who is now Chief Minister of the key industrial state of Penang.

Using oil wealth dating from the 1970s and huge foreign investments, the BN has created a deeply interwoven web of political and commercial interests, turning Malaysia into what some consider a corporatist state with a veneer of parliamentary democracy. With cronyism and patronage running almost unchecked, many of Malaysia's institutions the civil service, the police and the judiciary among them have become deeply compromised.

The elections also mark the gradual coming of age of the new Malaysian middle-class.

Powered by the very economic growth the BN used to stay in government, a new generation of educated white-collar Malaysians has finally been able to flex its political muscle. Until the opposition parties put together their new moderate working alliance, the choices before this middle-class were stark: either to vote for an avowedly Islamic Malay-based party, or for an avowedly secular Chinese-based one. For many this was no alternative. A young generation has also come to the fore. They have grown up ripe for change, cynical of the country's illusion of harmony and equality.

They are also educated and skilled, and are thus unafraid to take the chance on the opposition.

The largely urban minority communities have been long felt marginalised by the Government's long-running affirmative action program. The system guarantees ethnic Malays jobs, free education, cheap housing, tax breaks and economic favours all at the expense of ethnic Chinese, Indian and indigenous people who make up 40 per cent of the population. The system was designed to help the Malays catch up with the rest of the country after independence from Britain, but it has turned into a state-sponsored web of cronyism and favouritism, paralysing the country along a racial divide. It has also built a deep resentment among the ethnic minorities, who are left to fend for themselves.

A central player in this long-running drama has been Anwar Ibrahim. Since his release from jail, he has become the main figure around whom the Malay-based Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party, known as PAS, the DAP, and other centrist opposition forces have managed to coalesce. As an ethnic Malay and former deputy prime minister, he exerts a powerful pull over the liberal Malay bourgeois and the working classes, and has won over large swathes of the non-Malay communities. He has Islamic credentials which give him leverage with PAS (the party offered to make him their deputy leader when he was deposed from the coalition). His espousal of egalitarian principles allows him to work with the leftist DAP on equal terms, bringing them and his People's Justice Party, known as PKR, together in a coalition which covers many of the bases of Malaysian opposition.

Although Anwar is still barred from holding political office until April, he is expected to take up a seat in Parliament as soon as this condition expires, when his wife stands aside for him in his old seat, allowing him to become parliamentary opposition leader.

Anwar is now one of the most powerful men in Malaysia but he must make good on his promises to eradicate the racially based affirmative action system, and press for reforms. Malaysia's ethnic Chinese and Indian communities as well as other minorities and indigenous tribes have seen a steady erosion of their political, religious, economic and social freedoms and rights. At the same time, many Malays have seen the wealth of Malaysia's booming economy, rapid industrialisation, and booming stockmarkets flowing only towards the select few.

A significant test of Anwar's leadership will also be the way he deals with PAS, which now holds two state governments. PAS has moderated its hard-core Islamist agenda to highlight its respect for other religions but there is no guarantee this will continue to sit easily with the liberal reformist platforms of the DAP and the PKR.

The BN still forms the Government, and it is by no means down and out. The parties which form the BN will seek to destabilise, demonise and destroy the new challenge to their power.

The rise of the opposition comes against a backdrop of deep divisions within the United Malays National Organisation, or UMNO, which dominates the ruling coalition. On the sidelines, Mahathir is furious. The election results only adds fuel to his long campaign to unseat Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi in favour of Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister Najib Tun Razak who has been implicated in questionable arms deals.

Nevertheless, for only the second time in Malaysia's history, there is a real chance for achieving political change, and the possibility of a two-party system with a viable non-racial alternative to BN's unchecked dominance.

The challenge for the opposition is to drive the change that Malaysians have voted for. The country's future as a multi-racial liberal economy stands before Anwar and his colleagues. Whether it moves forward into a new era of honest endeavour or falls in racial tension and fear politics is yet to be decided.

But the door is finally open. (By Natasha Rudra, The Canberra Times)

** Natasha Rudra is a staff journalist. She was born in Malaysia.

***** The greatest stumbling block to genuine national unity at the moment is Umno and its lackeys. Apart from this perennial danger which the opposition will have to face, it is incumbent upon Anwar to be ever vigilant of goings on in his coalition and remain a bulwark against religious extremism and potential, resurgent Chinese chauvinism which may yet shatter the peace it currently enjoys. Needless to say give-and-take will be the order of the day. Any recalcitrance, unwillingness to compromise or attempting to play the race card will only benefit the nation's real enemy, Umno.
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Blogger kittykat46 said...

The racist card has always been UMNO's reliable crutch.
For once in this election, the race card didn't work.

In my electorate, the Chinese voted in droves for a Malay PKR candidate, helping to topple MCA from a Parliamentary seat it has held for 20 years. Even my 90-year old grandmother understood what was at stake in this election.

There is a new hope for a non-race-based Malaysia. Lets help preserve it from those who would want to extinguish it.

1:28 PM GMT+8  

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