Thursday, January 3, 2008

Political gap narrows in Malaysia, as it becomes difficult to lie

The political gap narrows in Malaysia
By Anil Netto , Jan. 4, 2008

PENANG - Malaysia enters what is widely expected to be an election year with its ruling coalition looking uncharacteristically frail.

Economic grievances, inter-religious disputes and unfulfilled pledges have spawned growing disillusionment with Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi's administration, threatening to erode popular support for his United Malays National Organization (UMNO) party at the ballot box.

Abdullah took over the reins of power in 2003 after 22 years of autocratic rule under Mahathir Mohamad. After pledging sweeping reforms, he cruised to a landslide victory in a general election the following year. But critics say he has failed to live up to the heightened expectations - and the calls for reform have strongly resurfaced.

Several trends during the Mahathir era continued into the Abdullah administration. The old blueprint for national development based on an affirmative action policy known as the New Economic Policy (NEP), which was first implemented in the early 1970s and continues to favor the majority ethnic Malays and other indigenous groups over the minority Chinese and Indian communities. Now it appears that policy is falling apart as wealth becomes more concentrated among a narrow elite.

During the second half of Mahathir's long reign, however, the emphasis shifted from primacy to Malay political dominance as the well-connected elite scrambled for contracts and licenses, one political analyst observed. "No longer was it a priority to eradicate poverty, including Malay poverty; Mahathir wanted to create a select group of Malay billionaires."

That, he said, resulted in a massive misallocation of resources for projects that critics say were of little value to the masses such as the lavish administrative capital Putrajaya and the gleaming Petronas Twin Towers, once the tallest in the world. Parts of the public service were also privatized to well-connected firms while ailing firms were bailed out - a trend that some economists describe as the "privatization of profits and socialization of losses".

Analysts believe the ruling coalition's legitimacy and ability to entrench its position depend on a robust economy, abundant powers of patronage, and a dominant leader who can hold together the coalition. These conditions may not be as strong as they once were.

Even though the economy grew around 6% year-on-year in 2007, for many Malaysians the "trickle-down effect" has not been enough to ease the pain of higher food and fuel prices. Neo-liberal economic policies and the import of cheap migrant labor have depressed local wages and widened the gap between the rich and the poor. The richest 10% of the population earns 22 times the average income of the poorest 10%.

Economic pains for the working class, after heightened expectations Abdullah would implement a more equitable economic system, have spawned a season of discontent. A series of small protests along with a couple of huge demonstrations over the past two months have called for greater social justice and accountability and revealed just how much the political landscape has changed.

Political analysts have observed that UMNO's political dominance within the ruling coalition and its access to enormous financial resources has resulted in factionalism within the party. Every decade since the mid-1970s, UMNO has erupted in factional strife in varying degrees. "The fuel for internecine strife in the party is economic stringency when there is insufficient patronage to go around," says the political commentator.

Some observers now predict that conditions are ripe for another convulsion, perhaps over the increasingly influential role played by the prime minister's ambitious son-in-law, Khairy Jamaluddin, now the deputy UMNO youth head.

Analysts say UMNO's dominance has relegated other ruling coalition parties, including those representing minority interests, to insignificance and fueled discontent over ethnic, religious and economic marginalization. This was starkly evident when 30,000 Indian Malaysians rallied in Kuala Lumpur on November 25 to voice their grievances.

Old complaints, new response
The disillusionment has also been fueled by a series of allegations of corruption and abuse of power in the main institutions of government, including the judiciary, the anti-corruption agency and the police force. Critics say these scandals reflect poorly on the premier and his three-prong reform program of eradicating corruption, police reforms and a civil service revamp.

The latest perceived failure was the withdrawal of a bill to set up a special complaints commission to oversee the police after widespread criticism that it fell short of a royal commission's main recommendation to establish a more powerful independent police complaint and misconduct commission.

Abdullah has also been seen as weak on freedom of religion issues, disappointing those who once saw him as a "moderate" leader. A string of inter-religious disputes has surfaced and been allowed to simmer under his watch. These disputes range from competing civil-sharia jurisdictions to a controversy over the construction of a 36-meter-high Chinese "Goddess of the Sea" statute in the north Borneo state of Sabah.

"Unless the ruling political leadership gives due attention to democratic institution building, we are not going to have the systems and processes to deal with the dialogue that is critical and the accountability that is essential if justice and fairness are to prevail," said social activist K Haridas in a recent commentary.

Meanwhile, opposition icon Anwar Ibrahim has been hitting the hustings, trying to draw the disparate opposition parties together into a more cohesive force. His task is apparently made easier now that the main opposition Islamic party, PAS, has allowed its long-term goal of setting up an Islamic state, once a major stumbling block to closer opposition party ties, to fade into the background.

Although the opposition's economic platform has not been widely publicized, Anwar himself wants the NEP scrapped. In its place, he favors a growth-oriented market economy balanced by what he characterizes as "humane considerations and distributive justice".

There is now a growing confidence among opposition parties of a significantly improved performance at the upcoming general election - despite complaints of politically motivated gerrymandering of constituencies, vote-buying and abuse of the media and government agencies for UMNO campaign purposes.

What makes it even more challenging for the ruling coalition is its loss of a near monopoly over information flow - though it retains a stranglehold over television and radio. The proliferation of independent websites and blogs such as Malaysia Today and Malaysiakini means the ruling coalition's propaganda machinery now faces agile and resourceful opponents in cyberspace.

Controversial or embarrassing incidents that once could be swept under the carpet are now being posted on YouTube, blogs and websites. "Nowadays, it is difficult not only to lie but also to conceal effectively," said media analyst Mustafa Kamal Anuar.

Last week, for instance, the senior cabinet minister who heads the ethnic Indian party in the ruling coalition was jeered when he officiated at a regional dance competition in Penang. It would have passed unnoticed if a video-clip of the incident had not been quickly posted on YouTube.

"So the monopoly on truth has been cracked by bloggers and others," said Mustafa. "A lot more people have become more discerning especially after recent demonstrations revealed the stark contrast between the mainstream media's coverage and [that of] the bloggers."

(Inter Press Service)

No comments: