Will Malaysia’s elections bring an Asian Spring?

Citizens are weary of the politics of patronage, giving the opposition a fighting chance to win.
Tim Lee | Apr 19 2013 | comment  

malaysia election

Against a backdrop of more visible geopolitical events a small country on the southern tip of continental Asia is preparing to elect a new government – or re-elect an old one. Malaysia will hold her 13th general election on 5th May 2013. After 55 years of independence, the opposition coalition Pakatan Rakyat (People’s Pact) has got its act together enough for a decent shot at winning government. It is led by the PKR (Justice Party), whose president Dr Wan Azizah is the wife of Anwar Ibrahim, the charismatic leader of Pakatan.

In the blue corner is Barisan Nasional (National Front), a coalition of ethnic-based parties led by the dominant UMNO, founded by Tunku Abdul Rahman, father of Malayan independence. UMNO’s power base is drawn from the Malay Bumiputera (the “princes of the earth”, a description favoured by Malay supremacists), most of whom are Muslims.

The achievement of “the Tunku” was an enviable harmony among the country’s three main ethnic groups that enabled the nation to prosper. This was largely undone in the racial riots of 1969 which led to his ouster and marked the onset of divisive racial politics. He was an outspoken critic of Dr Mahathir, Prime Minister from 1981 to 2003. Mahathir used draconian internal security laws to suppress dissent, enfeebled oversight by the judiciary, diminished the role of the Sultans and dispensed patronage through mega projects that valued prestige over grassroots development. In his twilight years, the Tunku called Mahathir the second doctor who kept him alive – with a life-sustaining passion to expose and oppose iniquity.

Religious freedom is another issue to be addressed. Malaysia has a reputation for religious tolerance relative to other countries where Islam is the dominant religion, and people of other faiths are well represented: 60 percent of the people are Muslim, 20 percent are Buddhist, 9 percent are Christian and 6 percent Hindu. Many Orang Asli (aboriginal) communities live in the interior of the peninsula and the two states (East Malaysia) on the island of Borneo. If anyone can call themselves sons of the earth, it’s the aboriginal people.

While Christians and people of other faiths are not overtly oppressed in Malaysia, their rights are curtailed in many petty ways. These include onerous restrictions on religious publications, the building of non-Muslim places of worship and conversion from Islam, whose bleak view of apostasy has crossed over from Sharia into civil law. In 2009, more than 10,000 copies of the Bible in Malay were confiscated for using “Allah”, the Arabic word for “God” traditionally used by Christians in East Malaysia.

The present Prime Minister, Najib Tun Razak, is a University of Nottingham economics graduate and son of the Tunku’s successor. His “1 Malaysia” catchcry has struggled to gain traction amid widespread perception of a tainted ruling elite past its best-before date. The latest scandal to gain wide exposure on non-government-controlled news sites and social media is a secretly-taped video clip that implicates in blatant corruption the Chief Minister of the country’s biggest state. Najib himself has been unable to shake off the lingering cloud of allegations of complicity or at least complicit silence in the murder of a Mongolian model who worked as a translator in government negotiations to purchase French submarines.

With the people weary of the politics of patronage and corruption, the opposition has a fighting chance to win and open a new chapter in the country’s history. This could have momentous consequences in the region and the Islamic world. As a peaceful transition from a de facto one-party state to a real democracy in the Westminister tradition, it would be an Asian Spring without the blight of violence that has marked the Arab Spring.

Unfortunately, the opposition has its own character baggage to contend with. Whether Anwar has the moral fibre to succeed in nurturing the unity in diversity needed for the garden to bloom is an important question. No stranger to controversy throughout his career, he spent six years in prison for corruption after falling out with Dr Mahathir over the handling of the 1997 Asian financial crisis. He was also convicted of sodomy in 2000, a conviction that was overturned in 2004. In a BBC interview last year, he called Malaysia’s sodomy laws “archaic”, at the same time saying he supports the sanctity of marriage between a man and a woman. Though not an Asian version of Mandela, Anwar nevertheless carries the hopes of a nation stunted by a regime whose spirit of service has long been stifled by an obsession with keeping the status quo and protecting vested interests.

Race-based affirmative action is an unsustainable yoke on the people’s shoulders. In a massive distortion of meritocracy, the Malays are vastly over-represented in the civil service and given the cream of government contracts and tertiary education opportunities. This has led to an appalling loss of human capital in a steady exodus of Chinese, Indians and even Malays from Malaysia. Racist programs have largely alienated the minority races while widening the income gap between the favoured and the marginalised of all shades, and cultivating cronyism and a benefits mindset. On the BBC’s Crossing Continents program, Anwar spoke about replacing this system with affirmative action based on need. He likened the idea of Malay supremacy to a false patriotism that was “the last refuge of scoundrels”.

There is a lingering fear among non-Malays of the Islamist leanings of opposition coalition member PAS, which has strong support from Malays in West Malaysia. However, this is balanced by a recognition that religious freedom has over many years been seriously eroded in UMNO’s pitch to Malay extremists to stay in power. In 2012, unprecedented mass rallies, with participation reflecting the country’s racial mix, were held under the Bersih (Clean) banner to push for an overhaul of electoral laws in the interest of free and fair elections. The impetus for these rallies was exposure of widespread fraud in previous elections involving postal votes and a double-digit percentage of phantom voters.

Against these odds, there is a pent-up hunger for political change that transcends the divisive parochial politics of a bygone era. Malaysia, like some late-blooming baby boomer, is on the threshold of maturity as a democracy. She deserves our encouragement for a coming of age.

Tim Lee, a retired business analyst, grew up in Malaysia. He lives in Sydney and is MercatorNet’s comments editor. 

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