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Selangor – the battleground for Malaysia’s future

Ooi Kee Beng | 21 Sept 2010

Comment  in Malaysiakini.com

IN MOST WAYS, Selangor and its  politics cannot help but set the tone for Malaysian governance in the years  to come. The federation succeeds or fails, depending on what happens in this  key state.

One could go so far as to claim that the nature of Malaysian federalism  itself depends on how Selangor governance will develop over the next few  years, how that will strengthen the Pakatan Rakyat in its bid to take federal  power, and to what extent decentralisation of power will define Pakatan Rakyat’s federal politics.

Geographically, Selangor is centrally situated; economically, it is the richest; development-wise, it is the most advanced; demographically, it is the fastest growing; and politically, it is the jewel in the crown for any party hoping to control the federation. Its industrial infrastructure is also the best in the country.

All this has led to a powerful influx of labour of all skill levels into the Klang Valley over the last 40 years. This is of course reflected in the enormous investments that has come into the region from the private, public and foreign sectors.

Whether Malaysians like it or not, economic growth relies on urbanisation and the free flow of labour, and although what is termed ‘agriculture’ contributes greatly to the state’s economy, this sector is based largely on agricultural industries such as palm oil and rubber.

The first cut

Selangor came into being in 1766 as a sultanate neighbouring an apprehensive Dutch-controlled Malacca. It was centred on Kuala Selangor, and was peopled by Bugis immigrants settled in a region earlier populated by Minangkabaus from across the Straits.

As in the case of Penang slightly to the north 20 years later and Singapore half a  century hence, huge numbers of migrant peoples soon moved into Selangor. This trend brought into being stable polities that exhibited strong political dynamism and enviable economic acumen.

It was in Selangor that the Alliance model of politics was born in the early 1950s, which made it possible for the British to convince themselves that they could pull out and not leave their rich Malayan holdings to the communists.

Kuala Lumpur was chosen as the new country’s capital, and yet no Malaysian prime minister has emerged from this ‘Abode of Sincerity’ (Darul Ehsan). It was also in Selangor that the country’s worst racial riots broke out on May 13, 1969.

And it was in order to nullify the possibility that this important state headed by a sultan would once again run the risk of falling to the non-Malay opposition that the central government of the day administratively cut Kuala Lumpur away from Selangor on Feb 1, 1974 to be controlled centrally as a federal territory.

This left the population of the capital with a one-tier democracy, allowing them only the right to vote for parliament. Back in those days, Kuala Lumpur was very much a non-Malay city, and such considerations were important to the delicate balance of power.

Forty years down the road things have indeed changed greatly and ‘the best laid schemes of mice and men’, not to mention of central governments, have unravelled in many complex ways. The demographics alone tell an exciting story.

Resistant to racial politics

Between 1995 and 2000, 131,400 people from Kuala Lumpur moved out into Selangor to join 13,000 other immigrants from other states, especially from Perak, Johor, Pahang, Kelantan and Pahang.

Interestingly, Selangor was the only state in Malaysia, aside from Pahang where the figure is dropping, to show net immigration by 2000.

Figures from that year show that two out of seven persons registered in the state had migrated from elsewhere. These figures alone go some way towards providing the socio-economic reasons for the new political trends that became undeniable on Mar 8, 2008. We are seeing a concentration of young people of all races moving very quickly into the most lucrative part of Malaysia.

The grounds for success for Pakatan Rakyat parties in Selangor are therefore as much socio-economic as they are ideological. Indeed, the two are hard to separate at this point. Not only does the urban and migratory nature of Selangor’s population make things difficult for systems based on patronage that the BN had been fostering, the fact that more than half of Selangor’s constituencies are racially mixed weakens
campaigns propounding racialist and ethnocentric thought.

In 2000, Muslims – meaning Malays – actually made up 53.3 percent of the population in urban areas. No doubt, three out of four rural people were from the Muslim community, but if one considers the fact that the urban population grew by 62 percent during the 1990s, and the rural population by 21.1 percent, the trend is clear.

Aside from important factors such as the growth of the Internet and the lack of capable leaders in the BN, one has to draw the conclusion that the federal government was unable to read the changed situation or respond adequately to

Even after March 2008, it has failed to counteract the opposition with a credible discourse, and the measures taken to oppose the new Selangor government have not been in the realm of positive discourse.

Pakatan must assess weaknesses

Of the five states won by opposition parties in March 2008, the case of Selangor holds extra significance because of its centrality where economic development, demographic concentration, urbanisation, inter-ethnic relations and political fervency are concerned.

Penang, Kelantan and Kedah are fringe states with conditions that are not typical of the rest of the country, while Perak lacks economic significance. Selangor’s fate is bound to decide the future of the country in a profound manner.

The major challenges the Selangor government has had to face stem from several sources. This has strengthened the conviction in its ranks that the Pakatan must win the next general election if things are to change dramatically on all fronts.

However, what seems he most effective way of ensuring victory next time around is for each state run by the Pakatan to structure policies, arguments and visions that the public can easily respond to. To do that, Pakatan parties have to do some serious soul-searching and consider their internal weaknesses.

Four outstanding issues present themselves.

First, Pakatan Rakyat inherited a sustained administrative system and a public economy based on patronage, privilege and political contacts, where many civil servants continue to identify themselves with the old regime, and consider the new government as an aberration.

The power that the federal government still exerts at ground level despite having lost state elections has been a painful lesson for Pakatan parties and for the people who voted for them. How this is to be handled is a major concern for the Pakatan Rakyat state governments.

Second, there is inexperience in Pakatan’s rank and file where the running of a government is concerned, that significantly includes a tendency to underestimate the might of the federalgovernment.

This weakness can be overcome over time through experiences that are being gained, but also through a concerted effort to better the quality of Pakatan leaders. The painful decision of letting old loyalists go is being postponed in many cases and is damaging Pakatan’s reputation. The fear of legislators joining the BN if offended is a major problem.

Unifying ideology lacking

Third, there is the lack of a unifying ideology, especially within PKR, many of whose members came into maturity in the BN school of politics. PAS had problems initially withstanding the lure of ‘Malay unity’ that the Umno dangled before some of its members. This issue seems to be shelved for the moment.

While agreeing on a common platform is a start, it is still critical for Pakatan parties to reach a more compact consensus on issues of secularism and rule of law, if its image is to transcend the public suspicion that its politics may be merely tactical and expedient.

Fourth, the fact that political opposition in Malaysia had for a long time been a self-sacrificial undertaking has created a ‘street-fighting culture’ among non-BN politicians and parties.

Party discipline is therefore a regular problem.

Over the last two years, Pakatan Rakyat leaders have also had difficulties changing their behaviour and image from being oppositional in character to being credible policymakers. One major challenge for each party will be how they can convince their rank and file to be more inclusive. The DAP has to appear less Chinese in character, the PKR has to appear less of a collection point for the discontented from all schools, and PAS has to appear more concerned with humanitarian ideals than religious correctness.

Over the last two years, Selangor’s Pakatan government has been able to show in many instances that it understands what is required of it. Aside from consolidating the three parties into a credible alternative to the BN coalition, it was compelled to showcase policy measures that differentiate it essentially from the practices – and most importantly, the ethics – of its predecessor. No doubt, this had seemed an easy job to do given the excesses of the previous regime under Mohd Khir Toyo.

Adopting best practices

The future of the Pakatan does depend greatly on Selangor, the testing ground for the Malay-led multiracial PKR. Its measures must therefore not only clear the ground for a stable two-coalition political system, it must also adopt best practices evident in successful governance models in other countries.

The move to register Pakatan as single political party with a common policy platform has been welcomed by many, although there are worries among some that such a move of simplifying the opposition into an apparent united entity on too many fronts may shape Pakatan into a mirror image of the BN in the long run.

Another example of a highly visible and effective measure aimed at defining the government’s ethos is the special Select Committee on Competence, Accountability and Transparency (Selcat, left) it founded in May 2008.

This aims to enhance transparency. The initiative taken by the PKR to bring dubious courses held by the National Civic Bureau (Biro Tatanegara or BTN) into public discussion is perhaps the move that has gained the Selangor government a lot of credit and credibility. It had been an open secret for decades that these courses were propagating Umno racialist ideology on a national scale.

The ambition to realise a Freedom of Information enactment is also popularly received and eagerly awaited. It is already becoming common for members of the public to call for the release of all sorts of public documents, showing increased interest and knowledge among the ublic in matters of governance.

Such moves can no doubt run foul of federal legislation such as the Official Secrets Act, and even the Internal Security Act, but Selangor is pushing the limits both from within the government and from a public happily participating in the new and evolving mass media.

No mere testing ground

Selangor also has the initiative where the separation of powers at the state level is concerned. It is striving to enact a law that will make the state assembly independent of the state government and its administrators. Such an achievement will be difficult for other states to ignore.

Indeed, that is the essence of politics in this transitory stage in Malaysia’s history, and that occurs behind the common rhetoric pronounced in the mass media. Policymaking competition is the name of the game, and with the help of the new media, this can be watched and judged by a large and interested public, unlike in the old days when the flow of information was strictly controlled by the BN government.

Since many of Malaysia’s ills are often blamed on the New Economic Policy that had survived 20 years longer than originally planned, the Pakatan’s alternative of a needs-based programme has to be worked out in detail and publicly discussed.

Given the special position that Selangor commands it is not merely the testing ground for future nationwide policies. It is where new solutions must evolve and where second chances will be rare.

Any failure on its part to respond to the wishes of the somewhat fickle electorate and to new economic challenges will have grave repercussions on the country’s ability to manage globally. The most serious issue to consider when the next general election comes around is how much decentralisation of federal power Pakatan will publicly wish for.

The chances for state power to be amplified vis-à-vis the centre will increase if an agreement is reached between the three parties before going into the election, than if the matter were left to be decided after an eventual taking of federal power. One of the greatest worries that voters have about the Pakatan’s federal ambitions is that it will retain much of the centralist model of BN.

In which case even if its policies were more transparent they would not be more democratic since the need for consensus between the three parties would compromise the goals of each party, and consequently the freedom of the individual states.

These uncertain times when the federal government retains power but is unable to go on a convincing campaign to win back voters, and the opposition, though impressively strengthened, has to bide its time at the state level, develop its governing skills and knowledge about public administration, and recruit and train a better breed of personnel, is therefore a period of innovation, learning and soul-searching.

Of all the Pakatan-ruled states, it is Selangor that can set the tone. Indeed, it is Selangor that is on the frontline where the battle between the ‘old politics’ of race and patronage and the ‘new politics’ built on international best practices is being fought. So far, the new is not doing too badly.

The above was first published as “Selangor: Where Socio-Economic Shifts Meet Political Inertia”, a chapter in ‘The Road to Reform: Pakatan Rakyat in Selangor‘ (SIRD 2010), edited by Tricia Yeoh


About Ooi Kee Beng

Dr OOI KEE BENG is the Executive Director of Penang Institute (George Town, Penang, Malaysia). He was born and raised in Penang, and was the Deputy Director of ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute (formerly the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, ISEAS). He is the founder-editor of the Penang Monthly (published by Penang Institute), ISEAS Perspective (published by ISEAS) and ISSUES (published by Penang Institute). He is also editor of Trends in Southeast Asia, and a columnist for The Edge, Malaysia.


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