Malaysia: A Sleeping Government Gets its Wake-Up Call
By Farish A. Noor
On 8th March 2008 Malaysians went to the polls and voted at the country’s 12th General Elections. The results, as they were announced over the very same evening and well into the next morning, sent shock waves across the country. After being in power for more than half a century, the ruling National Front Coalition not only lost the vital two-thirds majority of seats in Parliament, but came close to losing its majority altogether. In the bargain, five state governments were lost, and the opposition coalition made up of the Pan-Malaysian Islamic party (PAS), the Democratic Action Party (DAP) and the Peoples Justice Party (PKR) won more than 80 Parliamentary seats and control of five state assemblies.
The most remarkable thing about the election results on the day itself was the fact that they were hardly ever mentioned in the mainstream state-controlled media. As the results came pouring in, it was clear that there was about to be a massive swing to the opposition and that the administration of Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi was in for a pounding.
Yet official commentators on TV and radio could only mumble inanities such as “we never knew the public were so disaffected”. How? Why?
This election was a clear and simple sign that the Malaysian public has grown thoroughly fed up and disillusioned by the empty promises of the Badawi government, that had won such an overwhelming mandate in 2004. Badawi came to power on a wave of electoral promises, ranging from institutional reform, the opening and freeing of the public domain, the settlement of outstanding cases of high-level corruption and abuse of power, greater transparency and accountability.
Yet after five dismal years hardly any of these promises have been fulfilled and instead the Malaysian public were fed with broken promises, stunts and gimmicks that were better suited to a vaudeville opera instead. While thousands of Malaysians continued to live below the poverty line and as prices and crime rates soared, the Badawi government sent a Malaysian astronaut to space as a space tourist on board a Russian spacecraft, just to break its own book of records. While the poor Malay-Muslims of northern states such as Kelantan and Trengganu looked for sound economic development and equal distribution of wealth, Badawi’s government treated them to an Islamic civilisation theme park that cost 250 million ringgit (RM), complete with merry-go-round instead.
The real merry-go-round, however, was the Badawi establishment’s total failure to address key institutional, structural and socio-cultural issues that had irked and alienated so many Malaysians over the past four years: The non-Malay minorities have been demanding greater state protection of their collective identities after the spate of Hindu temple demolitions, denial of permits for building churches, seizure of Bibles, etc. Yet in all these cases when and where Badawi could have personally intervened, he did nothing and stood silent and indifferent, falling back on his worn-out mantra of being the ‘Prime Minister of all Malaysians’.
But surely the Prime Minister of all Malaysians would stand up for the rights of minorities, defend the plight of the poor and marginalised, listen to the demands and protests of the disaffected, and actually take corrective measures to do his job properly. Throughout 2006-2007 all the signs of a latent protest movement were there, with lawyers demonstration for judicial reform, ordinary citizens calling for free and fair elections, and religious minorities begging to have their concerns addressed.
The Badawi administration’s reaction to these demands was to demonise protestors, set the police on civil society gatherings, refuse permits for public seminars, ban books deemed dangerous, and stifle freedom of press instead.
Thus it came to pass that an inward-looking administration cut off and isolated from its own public was finally served its notice last weekend. Throughout the campaign the opposition parties of PKR, DAP and PAS repeatedly used the now-iconic image of Prime Minister Badawi dozing off asleep during one of his UMNO party’s meetings, as an emblem of an administration that is cut off, unable to listen and unwilling to respond. By the second week of the campaign it was clear that the momentum had developed and that the vote swing this time round would be as great as in 2004, though in the opposite direction.
The morning after, a shocked and dazed Badawi stood before the cameras and admitted that his administration had failed to take into account the demands of the public. But with a weakened government and an UMNO party that is unwilling and unable to correct itself, how can there possibly be any change to the Malaysian governmental system, save by voting UMNO and the National Front out of power at the next elections? This much, however, is certain: The ‘sleeping administration’ of Prime Minister Badawi has been served its wake-up call. And this time it is the Malaysian public that is going to be making the demands on the state, and not vice-versa.
Dr. Farish A. Noor is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University of Singapore; and one of the founders of the http://www.othermalaysia.org research site.