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BN’s systemic weaknesses are not going away

By Ooi Kee Beng

For TODAY │ March 16, 2011

JUST WHEN things were starting to look up for Malaysian Premier Najib Abdul Razak and the ruling Barisan Nasional, come disturbing reminders to voters that the essential nature of the UMNO-controlled ruling coalition has not changed.

Although Mr Najib’s 1Malaysia initiative and economic reform documents such as the Economic Transformation Programme and the Government Transformation Programme may have won him some support, they do not go so far as to promise betterment of governance or the diminishing of racialism in governance that voters had been demanding.

Be that as it may, the BN has been patting itself on the back after winning five by-elections in a row, the latest being the twin polls on March 6 in Merlimau in Malacca and Kerdau in Pahang. The last two victories were largely expected, but still, a victory is a victory. And within the government’s adopted strategy of “small reforms but big spin”, that is encouragement enough.

However, Mr Najib’s achievement over the last months is not so much in the winning of by-elections or in using foreign consultants, as in managing to keep old and new controversies from reminding voters of the reasons they deserted the government throughout the northern states three years ago. Furthermore, the ongoing sodomy trial against opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim has kept the latter disoriented and his Parti Keadilan Rakyat unable to take bold initiatives.

During the latter half of the Abdullah Badawi period, in 2007-2008, it was the blatantly unequal treatment of citizens by the administration on issues of political affiliation, religion and race, coupled with the unaccountability of ministers and others associated with the BN, which made it impossible for mild-mannered but concerned voters to continue supporting the federal government.

The present strategy of allowing the formation of a Malay Supremacy NGO like Pertubuhan Pribumi Perkasa Malaysia to take over the traditional racially strident role of UMNO Youth, while keeping controversial UMNO leaders out of the limelight, did lessen the pressure on the Prime Minister. But without serious reforms, the systemic weaknesses of BN’s governance were bound to shine through again sooner or later.

Home Affairs Minister Hishammuddin Hussein, whose infamous waving of the keris at successive UMNO assemblies lost precious votes for the government in the last general election, had to reappear on the mass media stage to threaten to leave no stone unturned in investigating critics of Sarawak state’s long-time Chief Minister Taib Mahmud.

Mr Taib came to power in 1981, the year Dr Mahathir Mohamad became Prime Minister, and is today, 30 years later, also the state’s Financial Minister and Planning and Resource Management Minister. He is a Melanau, whose Parti Pesaka Bumiputera Bersatu is one of the 13 members of the BN. Elections in the state have to be called by July this year, which explains the federal defence of Mr Taib’s ill-repute at this time.

Allegations of corruption and of abuse of power from national and international quarters have been a constant companion during his time in power. The latest such critic to grab the international headlines is the Radio Free Sarawak, run from London by Sarawakian DJ Peter John Jaban and former BBC journalist Clare Rewcastle Brown. The latter is the sister-in-law of former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, which naturally adds to the wide interest in the controversies.

Instead of investigating the allegations and giving the new though already badly tainted anti-corruption agency, the MACC, the chance to repair its damaged reputation, the federal government has decided to go after the whistle-blowers instead; in the process, giving Malaysians a strong experience of deja vu about the state of governance in the country.

Another issue that holds serious consequences for the coming elections in Sarawak – and the expected snap general election later this year – is the seizure of 35,000 bibles at the port of Kuching in Sarawak and at Port Klang near Kuala Lumpur. These books are in Bahasa Malaysia and are largely meant for the many Christian bumiputeras who are indigenous to the states of Sabah and Sarawak.

What’s worse, this impoundment by officials seems to be occurring against the will of the Prime Minister. While this has riled major Christian and other bodies in the country, the influential Muslim organisation, Angkatan Belia Islam Malaysia, is demanding that Mr Najib state his final stand on the use of the word “Allah” by non-Muslims. The High Court had on Dec 31, 2009 disallowed a Home Ministry directive banning such usage, but that decision had since been stayed by an appeal from the government.

The key question stemming from these developments is: Can the BN really change?

While in these days of DNA engineering, a leopard should be able to change its spots, putting the animal to sleep and getting it to surgery is not without its dangers – even for PM Najib Razak.

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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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