by Ooi Kee Beng
For TODAY, 2 Sept 2011
On July 9, the streets of Kuala Lumpur played host to animated engagements between demonstrators and the police. Bersih 2.0, which started out as a simple and hesitant attempt to revive public interest in electoral reforms, became a huge demonstration that captured the imagination of many young Malaysians.
It seized their imagination more strongly than anyone expected, leaving little doubt that Malaysia is in transition.
But what needs studying is what it is transiting away from, and what it is transiting to. The two are, of course, strongly related but what is this widespread eagerness for change a part of, which now pervades the country?
The situation is complicated no doubt but we do not need to go very far back in time to find an answer.
Let us remind ourselves that the long-lived Barisan Nasional (BN) ruling coalition enjoyed its best electoral results as late as in 2004, under then Mr Abdullah Badawi. As many as 91 per cent of voters supported him and the honeymoon period that the public gave him as Prime Minister was a long and gracious one. It was only in 2007 that signs appeared to say that a lot was not well under Mr Abdullah.
So what was it that happened? And why is it that the BN has not been able to turn things around since then? It still has a lot of power; why can’t it correct itself?
Former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad’s recent comment that the problem was not with the BN model as such but with the lack of good leadership, was but the latest and rather desperate attempt to limit the credibility crisis that the ruling coalition suffers from.
After the General Election of March 8, 2008, the country went through an uncertain though exciting period. This was to be expected after the shock results that saw five states coming under the rule of opposition parties and the long-lived BN losing its power to amend the Constitution at will.
The opposition parties immediately had their share of problems – ranging from a serious lack of experience in governing, to sabotage by civil servants unable to distinguish party from government, and the economic and political measures by the federal government to punish and undermine them.
The federal government naturally tried its best to control the damage it had suffered. This included putting on trial – again – opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim for sodomy; regaining the state of Perak through dubious means in February 2009; and manoeuvring PM Abdullah Badawi from power in April 2009 and replacing him with a more dynamic and debonair Najib Abdul Razak.
Mr Najib’s main task was to generate public confidence in the BN’s ability to respond to changes for the national good, to regain the trust of the Malay middle class and to rejuvenate the coalition.
The Sarawak state election on April 11 this year, when the opposition made impressive gains, showed that he was not doing enough and that he was not succeeding. Bersih 2.0 showed that the government was more alienated from public sentiment than ever before.
Things began to go seriously wrong when UMNO began turning right after its historic victory in April 2004.
In mid-2005, UMNO Youth brought the Malays-first New Economic Policy back into the national consciousness and the swing towards the right was most noticeable in how the movement’s leader, the present-day Home Affairs Minister Hishammuddin Hussein, unsheathed and brandished his keris at the party’s general assembly. He would continue to do that for two more years despite extensive criticism.
The arrogance stemming from the 2004 victory spread quickly and with the absence of a national vision following Dr Mahathir’s retirement, divisions in Malaysian society became worse and deeper while UMNO thinking was vulgarised into simple racialism. Religious tensions began rising when Muslim authorities and individual leaders recognised the new freedom being allowed them to win political points through creating friction with other religions.
What we see today – the impudence of right-wing Perkasa, the use of draconian legislation instead of criminal laws, the steady subsuming of government institutions under the ruling coalition and the conjuring of a Christian threat to Islam – are the results of this imprudent swing to the right that began six years ago.
In short, the strong longing for change now evident in Malaysia is largely a public reaction to the inability of the BN model to create a society that is open-minded and diverse enough to be the harmonious and liberal Malaysia that the founding generation had imagined possible.