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Articles, Commentaries, The Edge

More bee than butterfly in this boxing ring


By Ooi Kee Beng

For THE EDGE, Kuala Lumpur, 24 Feb 2013

Now when only weeks remain before the 13th general elections take place, it is interesting to see how Malaysia has irrefutably become a two-party state, with polarised arguments, populist policy contests, and uncertainty about who will gain the right to form the next government.

In short, what we have is a championship boxing match.

Much of the stadium is hidden in darkness, all the better to hide dubious moves and punches perhaps. The youngish crowd has never been this big, nor has it ever been this excited. The roar of voices is deafening, as they cheer the two contenders on.

In one corner, we have the reigning champion, Barisan Nasional. This is the coalition that has always formed the government of Malaysia (not forgetting that it altered its name in 1973 from the Alliance, and ceaselessly changed the rules of the game to suit itself as well). It is a heavyweight, no doubt, though many will say it is definitely overweighed and burdened by a reputation that has in recent years become ungainly. It consists of 13 parties—five from the Peninsula and eight in East Malaysia.

Despite a bloodied nose from the epic fight in March 8, 2008, it is still standing, though on wobbly feet. It refuses to go down, and there are rumours that if it should go down, it would pull the whole stadium down with it. Few believe that though. In fact, this champion has lately been hoarsely proclaiming that it is in fact the other boxer who in defeat would destroy the place.

Led by a prime minister whose mandate comes from the dominant party and not the people, the BN is heavy footed, unbalanced by clueless peninsular parties such as the Malaysian Chinese Association, the Parti Gerakan Rakyat, and the Malaysian Indian Congress. These allies remain wrong footed and are unable to add much to the BN’s punching power.

The BN’s member parties in East Malaysia have also had their confidence shaken by the sudden change in the power balance on the peninsula, and how they will fare this time around is not as certain as had been the case for a long time. The East and the West no longer understand each other as well as before.

As a whole, the governing coalition has had trouble aiming its punches, which tend to backfire. The right fist tends not to follow what the left fist does.

But it does control the federal apparatus and has the advantage of incumbency. Although, because the bout has been delayed so long, it has lost part of its ability to surprise its opponent.

The BN may still be able to sting wildly like a bee, but it certainly cannot fly freely like a butterfly.

In the second corner, we have the challenger, Pakatan Rakyat (PR). Formed in April 2008 after its three members saw their electoral agreement not to contest against each other in the 12th general election succeed beyond their wildest dream. So this is the first rematch between the two.

Pulled together by the charisma and promise of Anwar Ibrahim, the Democratic Action Party, Parti Keadilan Rakyat and Parti Islam SeMalaysia managed to win five states. It has since then shown more staying power than anyone could have expected. Despite losing the state of Perak, and despite a lack of resources and jurisdiction, they managed to stay together and retain much of the crowd support that had gone to them mainly by default in 2008.

Anwar Ibrahim is a boxer who has a proven capacity to survive any blow under the belt—or in the eye—that his opponent can throw. Despite a tainted reputation from his time as finance minister and deputy prime minister, he still packs quite a rhetorical punch, and his ability to capture the imagination of the public remains an impressive knockout gift.

Compared to Premier Najib’s team, Anwar’s camp boasts a more impressive bevy of cheerleaders and allies. However, inexperience and weak discipline do plague the PR, and this may trip it badly just when fast footwork is needed. Furthermore, whenever religious issues are concerned, PR’s fists automatically attack each other.

Standing between these two hopeful fighters is the referee, the Election Commission (EC). The EC has been under attack from a large section of the crowd for being biased, and for fixing matches. Protests against the judging procedures have been taking place regularly over the last six years. There is therefore great pressure on this referee to perform—or be seen to perform—as fairly as it can.

Now, let’s take a look at the animated crowd. They place themselves in two clearly separate groups on two sides of the stadium, with few seated in between. Many are no longer happy just watching the match, and wish they can be in the ring. Few are expected to leave the stadium before the end. Outside are many who cannot get in for one reason or another, while there are some in the stadium who have sneaked in through the back door. The are seated in the back, in the shadows, shouting like phantoms.

Whether the victory will be by knockout or by judges’ decision, the boxing arena in Malaysian politics is certainly here to stay.


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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