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The fat lady hasn’t sung

A primer on the possibility of a game-changing Pakatan Rakyat government in Malaysia.

Sonia Randhawa

TOC is happy to welcome Sonia onto the TOC team. She is TOC’s first Malaysian writer. She is also the former Executive Director for Malaysia's Centre for Independent Journalism.

Fear has shaped the politics of Malaysia for a long time, at least since, and possibly before, 1969. Fear has been a carefully-crafted constant. What there is to be feared has been dynamic, ranging from our economically-powerful, overly-Chinese southern neighbours, to the Americans, the Indonesians, the Jews, the Communists and, most consistently, each other. This is what ended in Malaysia on 8 March.

Not everyone in Malaysia realises that. The Crown Prince of Kelantan made a call for “Malay unity” just last week. Sorry, but that is just sooo 2007.

It's important, however, not to see these elections as an incident in isolation. The 2008 results were not purely a rejection of Badawi and his administration, though they were undoubtedly that. They were a continuation of the rejection of Mahathir, something he hasn't really come to terms with. These results were in part the ongoing aftermath of 1998 and 1999, of which the 1999 election was just one of the most painful.

In 1999, there was mass Malay disillusionment with the Barisan Nasional (BN). The humiliating farce presented as trial demeaned the judiciary, the ruling coalition, the police force and all Malaysians. It went so far against the traditional Malay adat (customs and traditions) that it still amazes me that those involved were not summarily stripped of 'Bumiputra' status.

It was the Malays, in particular, who abandoned BN in droves in 1999. They came back into the fold in 2004, attracted by promises of transparency and openness, promises that appealed not just to the Malays but to all Malaysians. It made 2004 a very different election from any that I can remember previously. BN was voted in on a platform, they were not voted in simply because they were BN. There were tangible election promises, there were tangible results expected. It was in 2004 that voting culture began that seismic shift that allowed for the 2008 election results.

The rumblings were apparent. The foreign media are still concentrating on the Hindu Rights Action Force (Hindraf) rallies, apparently forgetting (aided by opinion polls which belied what the streets showed) that the Hindraf rally was dwarfed by the Bersih rally earlier in November. The Bersih rally was not a rally about the Opposition, now Pakatan Rakyat (PR), parties. It was not about Anwar. It was about people being fed up with price increases, broken promises and a lack of economic and social security – rising crime and protesters in hospital shot by police. Not good. It presaged that this election was going to be different, because the Bersih rally was a largely-Malay rally. There were people of all races present, but the bulk of the people on the streets were Malay.

And then there was the Hindraf rally. And both the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) and Gerakan knew that the Chinese were uneasy, exasperated with the continued humiliation of their elected representatives, their inability to stand up to overt and covert bullying by the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) politicians, and the issues that brought this about (religion, kerises and the economy). Both parties have been attempting to reform, attempting to show their Malay counterparts that they were in serious danger of becoming irrelevant to their constituents. They were ignored, and UMNO continued to treat their partners with contempt.

And so March 8 came round, and throughout the campaign, UMNO and the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC) wandered about in their daze of hubris. Not that the other parties foresaw the scale of what was to come. But look at the excitement in the week ahead. Look at the figures attending Democratic Action Party (DAP), Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) and Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS) rallies. Read the blogs, and the results all make sense.

Look to the East

The results of the election are not cast in stone. As Sabah discovered in 1994, electing a Government isn't a surety that you will be governed by the parties you voted for.

PR supporters, elite and grassroots, are claiming that there are 30 MPs ready to jump, they just want to wait till the figure hits either 40 or 50 before they announce it. It may well be true, but it would be a bad beginning for a new Government, and it would be bad for Malaysia.

Malaysian democracy has undergone a severe battering in the last 50 years. Forming a new government with MPs that have jumped ship may be the only way of breaking the BN stronghold, but it's also an assault on the principles that underlie party-based democracy. The only way out of the morass is if PR comes to power, undertakes massive electoral and institutional reform, and then call for new elections, asking for a fresh new democratic mandate.

For the next few months, then, it's hard to see where Malaysia is headed. If BN retains power, it will have done so through major concessions, in particular to parties (or individuals) in East Malaysia. In Sabah, one of the minimal concessions will be greater control over immigration policy. Politicians and communities alike have been concerned about the number of illegal immigrants, some of whom are speedily granted citizenship, in Sabah. The issue is particularly thorny, with some East Malaysians (not just Sabahans) musing that this migration would be one way of breaking the political independence of the State, and very much in the interest of the Peninsula-based parties. In both states, there are goodies up for grabs, dams and development to be handed out.

Would PR be able to offer the same scope for personal and political gain that BN can offer? Not if they keep their election promises about openness and transparency. It's possible that politicians in Sabah and Sarawak are as fed up with the race-based formula of BN as the electorate appears to be, especially as this formula has been redefining the political patterns within both states. But again, if goodies are needed to persuade BN politicians to change sides, this is not a healthy start for renewed democracy in Malaysia.

Once the music dies down

Malaysia's political landscape has been redefined, regardless of what the die-hards want or hope. The question in the long-term is whether PR can live up to the renewed hopes of the rakyat (“people”), either at Federal or State level. In the mid-term, it doesn't really matter whether BN renews itself or decays it has to do one or the other. If it decays, fine, if it renews itself, it will have to speak the new rhetoric of rights and responsibilities, co-opting much of the PR discourse.

The most worrying scenario is if PR fails to fulfil the expectations of the people to even a modest degree. Disillusionment with the parties could easily turn into disillusionment with democracy, spurred on by the perceived and real failures of nominally democratic states across the globe – particularly in terms of realising the rhetoric of human rights, free trade and development. This would be a disaster for Malaysia, and a disaster for the region. It would mean a slide into racialised (and religious) chaos.

Fortunately, this is an unlikely scenario – but one that all parties should bear in mind if they are tempted to dabble in the promise-breaking, power-hungry politics that have characterised the last four years.

What is more likely is that reform will proceed more slowly than progressives hope, but more quickly than politicians and bureaucrats would like. It is going to be hard for both BN and PR to not give in to demands for greater freedom, particularly in areas such as media freedom and freedom of information. BN is showing signs of resisting this wave, for example, in the forced closure of Tamil newspaper Makkal Osai. It is a move that can only strengthen PR, particularly among the non-Malay community.

Malaysia may follow a road to reform that is smoother than that travelled by Thailand, the Philippines or Indonesia. It doesn't have the same depth of problems that these countries face, it has a reasonably well-educated population (though not as well-educated as statistics on the number of degree holders might lead one to expect), and the challenging economic environment, complemented by the challenges of climate change, may work both for or against those in power. But the work of reform and rejuvenation will still be challenging enough in itself.

New relations down south

There may be some changes to patterns of development that could affect some Singaporean investments, but increased transparency and less corruption (promised by all parties) can only help economic growth. This was evident in the stock market tumble after the elections – the nosedive was driven by companies that have relied on close political relationships to secure contracts. Companies, such as Air Asia, that are seen to have a solid, non-political footing held their own.

This could be the start of a beautiful new relationship with our Singaporean neighbours. One of the problems that has dogged cross-border fraternity (or sorority) has been the absence of democracy. Without a strong democracy, with an exclusive- rather than rights-based system of democracy and citizenship, Malaysia has sought external conflict. Potentially small matters escalate, as politicians deflect internal troubles with external bravado. With a more rights-based citizenship, with leaders more responsive and responsible to the people, it is possible that the grandstanding may be ameliorated.

Of course, relationships such as ours are not one-sided. How the Singapore Government reacts to a new Malaysia will also determine the nature of the relationship. This may well depend on how increasing democracy in Malaysia affects demands for change in Singapore, and how the Singapore Government reacts to these demands.

Sonia has written for The Sun, The Edge, Agenda Malaysia and was the producer of Radiq Radio. She now writes freelance.

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