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Articles, Commentaries, Penang Monthly [formerly Penang Economic Monthly]

Let’s not go back to the late Abdullah era

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By Ooi Kee Beng

Editorial in Penang Monthly June 2013

One important effect of the March 8, 2008 elections was that it forced the BN government in Putrajaya into crisis management. That became the responsibility of Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak when he replaced Tun Abdullah Badawi as Umno president and as Malaysia’s Prime Minister in April 2009.

No doubt, such a situation meant that federal policies under Najib were formulated and implemented more with electoral gains than nation building in mind. But certain important things did change between the late Abdullah period and the early Najib period.

For starters, the rhetoric of the government became more conciliatory and the behaviour of top leaders became less provocative. When you are trying to regain the middle ground, snootiness and haughtiness just don’t help.

The 1Malaysia slogan, for all its faults and all its lack of sincerity, implies the embracing of all groups, and did not involve insulting minorities and tearing down temples. Many of Najib’s transformation measures were directed at winning the middle ground, and so there was a winding down of racially provocative statements from top ministers. Rabid racism was left to groups like Perkasa.

It certainly did help Najib that Syed Hamid Albar, the Home Affairs Minister under Abdullah who became infamous for provocative statements, was no longer in the government; and that Syed Hamid’s successor in that position, Hishammuddin Hussein, decided to be more reticent than when he was Foreign Affairs Minister and head of Umno Youth. It also helped that Khairy Jamaluddin, after succeeding Hishammuddin as head of the party’s youth wing, chose to discontinue its traditional role of being loud and uncompromising race champions.

However, what the results of the May 5 election showed Umno was that Najib’s measures did not win him votes in the large numbers the party had hoped for. What saved the day for the BN were not his liberalisation policies, but the long-term malapportionment between constituencies. Will this awareness in Umno now mean a reversal of Najib’s 1Malaysia? Will political discourses revert to the race-baiting and provocations of 2006-2008?

It is worrying that new Home Affairs Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamid has chosen to publicise his shocking view that Malaysians unhappy with the country’s political system should migrate. This is an ominous sign that race-baiting suppressed at the top level during Najib’s four-year long election campaign may return.

To stop such a trend, it would be advisable for the government to provide as much substance to 1Malaysia as possible before it is too late. This should be done through policies that are conciliatory and through initiatives that can foster cooperation across the coalitional divide. A committee system in parliament would be a fantastic start and would help start a healthy debate culture in Malaysian politics.

The next five years can be a fruitful period if Najib’s reforms have nation building goals in mind rather than be about mere survival beyond the 14th General Elections.

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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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