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Articles, Commentaries, Straits Times

Even political status quo spells change in Malaysia

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By Ooi Kee Beng

For The Straits Times, Singapore (22 Feb 2013)

Change is at hand! D-Day is approaching! The Day of Reckoning is nigh!

Malaysia’s 13th General Elections is inspiring all sorts of sensational outbursts. But hyperbolically stated or not, the cold fact remains that the results on Election Day will be highly significant. The political situation in the country has indeed reached a point where even if the status quo stays, major changes will nevertheless follow.

Despite his wounded repute and the constraints of the country’s political situation following Mahathir Mohamad’s and Abdullah Badawi’s retirement from office in 2003 and 2009 respectively, Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak has nevertheless carried out quite a long list of reforms over the last four years, ranging from financial reforms to ease foreign investments, to legal amendments as dramatic as the repeal of the Internal Security Act.

If anything, he may have overdone it. Or more correctly, he may have got his priorities wrong, and has therefore been suffering a credibility problem. Seeing how little support he seems to have won back for the ruling coalition, one has to seek reasons for the deflated efficacy of his administration.

Why is he not warmly embraced as a reformist leader in spite of his palpable wish to be considered as such?

He is, to be sure, much more accepted than his coalition, the Barisan Nasional (BN). In March 2012, his approval rating notched as high as 69% following payouts of RM500 to low-income families under his Bantuan Rakyat 1 Malaysia (BR1M). Yet, half of those polled were unhappy with the government.

During the latter part of his premiership, he implemented policies that were economically dubious – some would say frivolous – and these overshadow his earlier more impressive reforms in the public mind. Measures such as BR1M, for example, were obviously aimed at winning votes, and not at remedying structural weaknesses in the country’s governance.

One must wonder how solid the effect of such populist policies can actually be. Has the delaying of the elections caused the prime minister to adopt desperate measures that are obviously costly for the country? By December 2012, his popularity according to the Merdeka Centre had dropped to 63%, which is still high compared to the approval rate for the government at 45%. A recent survey by Universiti Malaya had Najib and opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim running neck to neck as being “most qualified to be prime minister—at 43% to 42% respectively.

Finally, where he seems to have retained most consistency is in his ability not to upset the extreme segments of his support base. Despite statements and declarations that are hard for anyone familiar with Malaysian politics not to label seditious, right-wingers in his party, under the guise of non-government organisations such as Perkasa, have gone without any official admonition, not to mention punishment.

This weakness, more than anything else, punctures most sharply his efforts at projecting a fair and inclusive administration.

Recently, Perkasa went so far as to call for the burning of Bibles carrying the word “Allah”. Happily, no one turned up for the event, not even those supposed to have been organising it.

Najib’s job on succeeding the ousted Abdullah Badawi in April 2009 was to win back voters for the BN, be these Malays, Indians or Chinese. This was indeed a tall order given how strongly and suddenly the voting population had turned against the coalition a year earlier.

His mandate thus comes from the party, not from the popular vote. Therein lies his dilemma. Should he think of the party or of the country as a whole? That is not an easy juggle to perform. The disjuncture between the strong conservative bent of his party and the reformist image he knew he had to project of himself could not be overcome.

Signs are clear that he has not managed to woo the Chinese, which explains his recent strained efforts during the Chinese New Year season to appeal to that community. Where the Indian community that turned against the BN in 2004 is concerned, he has succeeded better. How he has fared with the Malays is ambiguous still.

What has been missing though, are concerted efforts to curb, not to mention break the back of corruption; to reform the police and calm the fears that have caused urban dwellers from Penang to Kuala Lumpur to Johor Baru to barricade themselves within gated communities; and to advance the inclusiveness that his 1Malaysia slogan boasts of achieving.

If Najib does not do significantly better in the coming elections than Abdullah did in 2008, he will in effect have failed in the eyes of his party. To fend off any challenge from within – actually from the right – at that point, will be a Herculean task.

He may be realising a little too late that his best bet at staying longer in power is to appeal to the Malaysian middle ground, independent of race. Should the opposition win in the coming elections, then major changes will quite definitely unfold, though not necessarily in a systematic or planned manner.

Whatever the outcome, the status quo is not a stable option.

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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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