Monday, March 17, 2008

Malaysia’s Democratic Opening

By Bridget Welsh

The historic defeat of Malaysia's ruling coalition represents a break with the closed, racialised politics that have dominated the country's politics since independence in 1957, says Bridget Welsh.

As the results of Malaysia's general election poured in on the evening of 8 March 2008, it became clear that the country's voters had delivered an unprecedented blow to the ruling Barisan Nasional (National Front / BN) led by prime minister Abdullah Badawi. The severe losses of the incumbent coalition - five (out of Malaysia's thirteen) state governments, eighty-two seats in the 222-seat national parliament, and a major swing against the non-Malay component parties within the multi-ethnic coalition - mean that the election marks a new political chapter in Malaysian history.

After fifty years of rule by the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) - the dominant party in the BN coalition - the signs of a shift are unmistakable: towards a new system of checks and balances, away from the racial politics that have characterised the country's history since independence in 1957, and wider democracy.

The government's hubris

The reasons for the Barisan Nasional's setback have more to do with the coalition's lacklustre performance under Abdullah Badawi than the strength of the opposition. In his four years in office, Abdullah has managed to maintain the economic growth that characterised the tenure of his predecessor Mahathir Mohamad (who governed for twenty-two years, 1981-2003); but he was ineffective in channelling the benefits to ordinary citizens. The record levels of inflation, comparatively lower wages, increased lack of confidence in Abdullah's management and persistent corruption translated into massive disgruntlement among Malaysians of all races. Malaysians were squeezed, as economic gains were seen to be disproportionately directed toward an increasingly arrogant political elite, notably leaders of UMNO.

This declining economic legitimacy was compounded by a shocking record of managing ethnic relations, particularly of the concerns of the non-Malays. Chinese, Indian and East Malaysian voices were ignored and often insultingly dismissed as rising Malay chauvinism went unchecked within Abdullah's party. In fact, he harnessed racial identity to buttress his position within the party, rejuvenating the racially implemented affirmative action policy of the "new economic policy" (NEP) and lost the confidence of the non-Malay community in the handling of the sensitive expansion of Islamic governance. (Europe News, Denmark)
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Anonymous Anonymous said...

To speak fairly, Abdullah has been hamstrung by Mahathir's misdoings. Furthermore, Mahathir conies are still around to sabotage his efforts to bring about a cleaner, fairer and more transparent government. This uphill task takes time to achieve. Mahathir governed the country with an iron hand for 22 long years. Abdullah's method of rule with soft touch can not function well in the land that had been under dictatorship for so long. With Lingam tape hearing, feeing of Anwar form wrong accusations, the royalties' increasing roles in politics etc, we have in fact see the dawn of more freedom in our country.

12:58 PM GMT+8  
Blogger Mikeywm said...

Agreed that there is a major legacy from the Mahathir era to be dealt with, but many of the decisions made over the past 4 years were for AAB to make and he chickened-out on most of them. Taking a "soft touch" approach is not what the country needs now. It needs a strong, but transparent and fair hand on the tiller. The initial stand being taken by the PKR-DAP-PAS coalition state governments seems to be the right approach, but they should not waiver or fall into the trap of becoming too splintered or BN will exploit every opening. I wish all the success to the fledgling opposition and hope that they can bring the necessary checks and balances to the new parliament.

9:28 PM GMT+8  

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