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Articles, Commentaries, The Edge, The Edge Review

It’s the groundswell, stupid

TheEdge Review
By Ooi Kee Beng

For THE EDGE REVIEW, 22 March 2013

A serious prediction of anything important is a throw of the dice. If a correct forecast is made based on secret information about factors that are decisive to an outcome, then that is not really predicting; that’s more like a staged magic act. And if one happens to prophesy accurately without special information, then one is simply lucky.

If the population of seers is large enough, one of them is bound to get it right. It’s like a lottery draw.

In the old days—meaning before March 8, 2008—guessing who would win in a Malaysian general election was an easy matter. Even those who foresaw a win for the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) in 2008 got it right.

But now that the country has a two-coalition system, and the vote margin between the two sides is by all accounts going to be small at the federal level, then controversies and events close to Election Day—and there will be many, whether staged or accidental—can be decisive. Predicting those episodes is clearly close to impossible. As was clearly the case in 2008, the campaign itself was crucial to the final results.

Given how uncertain and unsteady the short-term development of the political situation is, we should rely on the medium-to-long term perspective to provide a better idea of Malaysia’s future will be like. The question to ask should be about how Malaysia came so suddenly to have two strong competing coalitions. The answers will tell us what the more lasting dynamics are, no matter the results of the coming elections.

If we concentrate too strongly on the wile and guile of the two coalitions—the BN and the five-year-old Pakatan Rakyat (PR) challenging it— the nature of our observations begin to approach that of sports commentators at a boxing match, trapped by a fervour for the melodramatic and the immediate.

The truth is that a lucky punch at the very end may prove the decisive incident.

What we should be looking at is the audience, as well as the stage itself. Without the demands of the audience for such a match as the 13th general election is, things would have remained as before, and the poll results would be quite predictable.

Truth be told, the remarkable shift in voter sympathy away from the BN which became evident was a long time coming. And whatever is a long time coming cannot be easily denied.

We should rightly locate ourselves in a prolonged post-Mahathir period. We are dealing with the crumbling of Mahathir’s Vision 2020 model for economic growth; the facade of Bangsa Malaysia, the giddy Islamization of public life; the off-hand undermining of state institutions including UMNO, the ruling party itself; and the broad social unrest released by the dismissal of Anwar Ibrahim as his deputy and as finance minister.
Apart from that, demographic changes had begun to alter political sympathies and the coming of the Internet was loosening the control on news flow that the mainstream mass media had exercised since the late 1980s.

In choosing Abdullah Badawi as his successor, Mahathir managed to assuage rising public dissent and lull it into a hopeful and passive mode. Abdullah’s combination of appealing personality and lofty promises did indeed moderate the strong and negative reactions to his predecessor’s legacy of national mismanagement and acrimony.

But the bigger the promises he made, the greater the disappointment in him.

So when that anger finally showed itself, it came both as a voter revolt as well as street demonstrations. And having being delayed, it became uncompromising and cynical. Fortunately for the opposition parties, they managed to project sufficient consensus just in time for anti-BN sympathies to move to their advantage.

The cast is now set in the sense that the PR now runs four state governments, and is therefore here to stay. It is now able to mount a proper challenge to the BN, forcing the latter into a one-upmanship race, which in effect come across as an obsession with political spin.

Once it broke surface to upset the status quo, the social groundswell, fed by myriad streamlets of disillusionment, facilitated the founding of a strange coalition between religious and secular parties that to a degree expressed both rural and urban concerns.

This “capture”, to use a fashionable word, of social forces by diverse opposition parties is of course not complete. The sense of empowerment that followed the 2008 elections thus saw acceleration in social activism, spreading from calls for electoral reforms to environmental protection.

So while much can be discerned through watching the complicated and excited political game in Malaysia, educated forecasts of the country’s future must consider in minute detail the forces that raised the opposition to its present height in the first place, and the failings that brought the BN down from the summit.

So even if the BN wins the electoral battle and stems the tide for a while, the war will still continue.

Some would argue that it is too early for BN to win back any ground since it bears the blame for so much that has gone wrong for so long with Malaysian nation-building—be this the deteriorated level of governance, of the education system, of the civil service, and of the police; or the persistent brain drain, corruption, cronyism, income gap, fiscal deficit, inter-ethnic tension, traffic woes and other urban predicaments; not to mention the developmental stagnation.

It is doubtful that Najib’s reforms have been enough to win him a two-third majority, which is his best guarantee against a revolt in the party election that comes soon after the national polls. But should he endure a challenge from within UMNO, then he has to undertake the most difficult task of all—reforming his own party.

Where opposition politicians are concerned, it is just as important for their survival that they do not forget that their time came because the groundswell favoured them, practically by default.


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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