By Ooi Kee Beng [This article was first published in The Edge Malaysia, Nov 26-Dec 2 issue]
THE coming into being of a steady two-party system in Malaysia is often thought of as a necessary step in democratic development. But we have to remind ourselves that the process itself, the detailed dynamics of that transformation, is not a given matter.
There are many ways to skin a cat, and there are many ways for Malaysia to become a country where open political competition is a norm . even now when the polarity has become so obvious, and so obviously contentious and deep.
To be sure, we are talking about coalitions, and in both cases – the Barisan Nasional and Pakatan Rakyat – the marriages are largely of convenience.
In many ways, therefore, there is a stand-off in Malaysian politics where both sides, despite their best efforts at putting on a united front, do not seem able to make serious inroads into the position of the other side. In such a deuce situation, the advantage of incumbency becomes a major factor to consider.
The national budgets for 2012 and 2013 have both been geared towards electoral concerns, and notwithstanding social media and Internet news sites, the government still controls the print media and television networks. This is alongside the enormous resources that are available to the federal government, which have often been used as much for policy purposes as for partisan campaign reasons.
And yet, this 50-50 situation is not a stable one. Today, as the 13th general election approaches, the great challenge to this largely peninsula-based division comes from East Malaysia.
The neat divisive dimensions that we are so used to when studying Peninsular Malaysia are not only undermined by the Sabahans and the Sarawakians; they are actually becoming outmoded. And it is, therefore, the challenges to basic dimensions of socio-political life and thought in the country that we
should be paying greater attention to.
We are dealing with a deep paradigmatic shift, not just a simple challenge to the race-based party coalition by another that is less race based.
As in 1969, it was the failure in 2008 of Chinese-based parties within the ruling coalition to harness votes for the BN that led to serious reversals in popular support.
But unlike 1969, the general election of 2008 saw a broad maturing of Malay opposition to Umno – and by extension, to BN itself – and it was under the leadership of that enhanced Malay interest in nation-building options that the other communities also revealed their wish for a change away from the system of government that the BN had settled upon.
Paradoxically, it is this gradual rise of a strong Malay opposition which lies behind the shift away from racial politics. The other ethnic groups would not have moved to any significant extent – be this through Bersih or Hindraf – without the sustained public display of dissent by members of the Malay community over the last 15 years.
More immediately, the disappointment with former premier Tun Abdullah Badawi’s reforms was a major element in the electorate decline of the BN.
That disenchantment was deepened by the conceit and arrogance, not to mention the lack of political sense, displayed by establishment figures and ministers following the amazing victory won by Abdullah in 2004. Although the popular support was just over 60%, the BN gained control of over 90% of parliamentary seats.
We should also remind ourselves that the BN won all – I repeat ALL – by-elections during the 2004-2008 mandate period. The Reformasi of 1998 seemed forgotten, and the relative success of the opposition in the 1999 elections (excepting the DAP), seemed a thing of the past.
What is the situation today?
The ball is actually still in BN’s court. Adopting a reform platform following Tun Mahathir Mohamad’s retirement as prime minister in 2003, Umno leaders tried to regain support by adopting reform agendas. Abdullah’s was a promising one, and he was generously given the benefit of the doubt by Malaysians. However, in the end, his inability or unwillingness to carry things through branded him a faint-hearted if not insincere reformist.
Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak, unlike Abdullah and being unavoidably seen as the second reformist BN leader in a row, never had a honeymoon period. Four years after taking office, he is still launching projects to reform the financial, political and economic structure of the country.
However, he suffers from a credibility problem which is not due only to his political past, but more immediately to the perception that his party and his coalition are not wholeheartedly supporting him. This turns his efforts in the eyes of cynical Malaysians into manipulative gestures.
How much is spin and how much is sincere? Without biting the bullet where his own supporters are concerned, the prime minister’s ability to project himself as a reformist of a calibre needed at this point in the country’s history is seriously questioned.
His refusal to chastise right-wingers among Umno followers does nothing to correct that image of him as a general without an army. His huge popularity relative to his coalition is a telling one.
If he should act against his own right wing, the extra support he would gain may guarantee him his own mandate as prime minister.
However, things have gone so far that such a move has to be thorough if it is to convince fence sitters. It is here he is found most wanting. In that important sense, the election is his to lose.