Sunday, March 09, 2008

Malaysia's coming of age

I've been away for the last couple of days and have only just got back, and am very, very tired so pardon the incoherent ramblings below. I just needed to write this while it was still fresh.

Anyway, wow. I knew I was only going to hear election news a day late, so it was with some anticipation when I logged onto the Net. And I'll be honest - I was not expecting this. BN denied 2/3 majority, not one, not two, but 5 states fallen to the Opposition. Wow. Succint recap here. (For my non-Malaysian readers, I realise this might all be rather remote for you, but it's a big deal for us :))

Let me tell you what I expected. That BN were going to lose some seats was a given. While the rumblings of discontent has been there for a while now, it was really the emergence of Hindraf that made me see just how bad it was. For the very first time, the Indians were not going to be a reliable voting bloc for the BN. Still, I was very cautious with my projections, having heard premature cries of triumph before. I expected MCA and Gerakan to do pretty badly, so seats in places like KL and Ipoh and Penang would be hit. I expected PAS to retain Kelantan. I thought that if the opposition won an additional state, it would be a bonus - maybe Terengganu. I thought BN would lose 2/3 majorities in Penang and possibly Kedah and Selangor. And I expected one or two bigwigs to go, such as M. Kavyeas (OK, I was 100% certain Kavyeas would lose) and Datuk Seri Samy Vellu. For MCA and Gerakan to be completely wiped out in Penang, for PKR to actually win Selangor, that was all totally beyond my imagination. In my defence, MalaysiaKini's editor Steven Gan had sounded a similarly cautious note, and hey, even the DAP leaders were stunned by the margin of their victory!

Stepping back for a moment, let me just tell you two stories. The first was a few years ago, when I was interning at a local paper. Shadowing a journalist, I had gone to attend a closed-door meeting where a speech was being given by the BN's top guy in Sarawak. To my astonishment, what followed was a smug, self-satisfied speech which included inflammatory racialised comments and a palpable sense of "I'm the one in power, I'm the one who gets to call the shots". That he could make such a speech in full hearing of journalists only served to magnify how much control he held. The journalists at the paper I worked knew that it was pointless filing a report that contained all the details of the speech because the senior editors would just kill it. The second story is during my Oxford days, when Anwar Ibrahim was invited by the Asia Pacific Society to deliver a talk. In the days leading up to the event, government scholars were sent emails warning them to stay away or face the consequences. I am not a government scholar - they probably don't even know that I exist! - so I had complete freedom to go and listen to Anwar personally. Even more shocking, however, was when Anwar came to give a talk in London. In a clear act of intimidation, officials of the Malaysian Student Department actually came to the venue and began to silently take photos.

Add to this little anecdotes the macro stories of electoral ink shenangans, tales of corruption and so on, and I am willing to say that I'm very happy with the outcome of this election, to say the least.

Other thoughts. Firstly, this election result is historic because psychological barriers have been broken. The conventional wisdom has always been that BN is just too powerful to be denied a 2/3 majority. Instead, an entire generation has seen it done for the first time, and so are given fresh impetus to believe that they can make a difference. Just as important is that it means that the BN hoodoo of May 13 is now dispelled. Some BN leaders like to hold May 13 over our heads and warn of a repeat should they lose. Thankfully, it appears that Malaysia is starting to show signs of finally moving beyond that.

Secondly, a Chinese swing was predictable. The Indian swing was expected. But actually, the massive number of losses sustained by BN showed that Malays were voting for the opposition too. In other words, it appears that Malaysians, as a whole, were fed up with the government, and not just minorities. This is a good sign, not because Malays are voting for the opposition, but rather, it shows that communitarian politics had taken a backseat to issues which Malaysians had legitimate gripes about.

BN was too complacent, and Abdullah Badawi misjudged the ill-feeling on the ground. This is amazing considering that 4 years ago, he was seen as a welcome relief to the bullish Dr. M. Here was a kinder, gentler man, known as Mr. Clean and seen as a consensus-building politician. Today, he is the man whom voters find easiest to project their anger on. What happened?

BN often likes to dismiss bloggers and such by pointing to the "silent majority", whom they see as backing them. For the first time ever, this election shows that the "silent majority" has very clearly gone against them. Let me offer up Bandar Kuching as an eg. This is a DAP stronghold which nevertheless fell to the BN in 1995 thanks to the popular former Kuching mayor. DAP reclaimed it in 2004 after the BN had put up a candidate whom no one wanted, not even BN's own supporters. This time, they put up a bright young lawyer and BN loyalist who had strong grassroot ties and was seen as capable of giving the DAP a fight. In another election, he probably would have. Not this time, he was crushed comprehensively. This is not, I don't think, through any fault of this particular candidate, but that the "silent majority" had already made up their mind, regardless of candidate. This scenario was replicated elsewhere in the country.

Anwar not having a seat to contest was a blessing in disguise for the Opposition. He could criss-cross around the country, helped provide a focus to their national campaign, and possibly did more damage than if he had been contesting. Another factor that cannot be discounted was the incessant criticism of Dr. M, whose endless barrage must have worn down some of BN's defenses.

It's interesting to note the emergence of young guns this time around. I used to occasionally read Nik Nazmi's writings when he was a student at King's, now he's sudddenly an MP for PKR! I had told Wai Nyan, where Tony Pua (Oxford) was contesting, that I had a favourable view of his work at Education Malaysia. I was quite surprised to see a figure floating around somewhere than Malaysia's demographic had gotten younger, and the truth is, there are many bright and educated people who are well-informed, and as long as the BN fails to reform itself, will inevitably gravitate towards the Opposition. Another bright young guy, who didn't contest this time around, was the Harvard-educated Nat Tan, who works for PKR.

I'm actually glad that DAP and PKR now have the opportunity to govern a few states, if only for the experience. The most important thing to remember is that they have to be given time. They're new at this, and you can be certain they'll have problems. As long as they show a willingness to learn, to try their best, and not fall prey to shortcuts, this will be invaluable for their leaders. Lim Guan Eng's, Penang's CM-designate, press conference was encouraging at sounding all the right notes (see below). Cautioning against lavish victory parades was another welcome (and canny) move.

As for BN? Well, hopefully, this will prompt some soul-searching. Malaysia will benefit from a reformed BN. Gerakan's Dr. Koh has been gracious in defeat, and Ku Li's honest appraisal is encouraging as well. Please, UMNO, don't opt for the ostrich approach. Pak Lah, please admit that this was indeed a vote of no-confidence, and be willing to reform the system. You'll be more respected for that. Malaysia is showing signs of being more willing to discuss issues of race and religion more openly. By all means, be cautious, but lose the authoritarian approach. There are signs of hope.

I'll like the Opposition in Parliament to adopt some semblance of a shadow Cabinet, as in Britain and Australia, now that they've got the numbers. I think it's a useful practice and helps with accountability.

I guess finally, as a Christian, I can be thankful that God's hand will not slip, and I know that whatever happens, we can trust in Him. Our hope does not lie with political reform, but with the saving grace of God through Jesus.

I'm completely shattered, so I need to pause here.


Lim Guan Eng's press conference



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