Malaysians wait as government hesitates over election date

Developing Just Leadership

Abdar Rahman Koya

Dhu al-Hijjah 22, 1428 2008-01-01

South-East Asia

by Abdar Rahman Koya (South-East Asia, Crescent International Vol. 36, No. 11, Dhu al-Hijjah, 1428)

As Crescent went to press, Malaysians were still awaiting announcement of the date of the country’s general elections, which had been widely expected to take place before the end of the year. They have been delayed because of a number of man-made and natural events that have shaken the confidence of the government of prime minister Abdullah Badawi (pic).

In November and December there were anti-government protests taking place almost weekly, with at least two of them large-scale by Malaysia’s standards. Scores of people, including teenagers and an 81-year-old man, were arrested for taking part in “illegal protests”: the phrase used for any protest that has anti-government slogans on its placards.

When all the warnings and threats of arrest appeared unheeded, Abdullah’s government finally had to use the Internal Security Act, a law used by the British colonialists to detain without trial anyone deemed a threat to “national security”. The ISA is a tool which Abdullah’s predecessors used frequently to quell dissent, but usually only when the situation reached a crisis point, such as when student leaders held continuous anti-government protests in the late seventies, the UMNO leadership crisis in the eighties, and the Anwar Ibrahim saga in the nineties. Thanks to pressure from both the opposition and ruling parties, Abdullah had not made any new arrests using ISA since taking over from Mahathir four years ago, although the use of police and intelligence organisations to strike fear into opposition supporters is a habit of UMNO’s that he has not abandoned.

That decision to refrain from using ISA gave way after a protest on November 25, in which thousands of ethnic Indians heeded the call for a silent campaign to hold a demonstration in the capital, to press for equality and fair treatment in government policies. Such subjects are taboo in Malaysian political discourse, and those who raise such issues will find themselves grouped with those who cause “racial tensions”: a perfect excuse to use ISA without attracting much attention either within or outside the country. The ghost of the racial riots in 1969, which killed hundreds of people, is also deliberately not exorcised. Convincing the general public about the danger of public discussion of ethnic issues is also no hard task, especially when the political elite that governs Malaysia has been racially biased toward Malay dominance; to a certain extent this is true of the opposition too, however hard the latter tries to portray itself as multi-racial.

The latest ISA detainees are a group of ethnic Indian leaders who had organised the protest. No matter what the group’s demands are (one of which is its legitimate grievance of Indians being institutionally sidelined, as well its more preposterous claims of ‘ethnic cleansing’ and wanton demolition of Hindu temples), the fact that it has captured the imagination of the affected people and brought them out on the streets in large numbers has worried the government. The government’s reaction is predictably old-fashioned: non-stop propaganda, as if it has yet to refine its propaganda apparatus since the time of Mahathir, when the media were used to dish out anti-opposition diatribes. Such a reaction only hints at an underlying worry: if an obscure group with no backing from political parties, armed only with the internet and talks held at restaurants, can successfully mobilise its supporters, think of what larger groups might do.

The resulting situation is that Abdullah is criticising the method of demonstration itself as a political tool, only to attract derision from the more educated parts of society. The government has also issued stern warnings against any future protests, and does not even tolerate fashionable human rights-type protests: it arrested participants from a small group of lawyers who wanted to celebrate a human rights day last December, and banned a candlelight vigil by human rights activists in support of ISA detainees.

Yet some events cannot be controlled either by arrests or by the use of ISA. As the year draws to a close, another event seems to have pushed the election date further back. Major floods have caused chaos in several states, resulting in deaths and millions of dollars’ worth of damage to property, with thousands forced out of their homes.

But as the unknown election date is pushed further back, it only makes the guessing game easier, because the UMNO-led government will not want the elections to be held any later than April 2008, when Anwar Ibrahim’s ban on politics ends. Much as UMNO know that they will win the elections hands down, thanks to a combination of propaganda and dirty tricks, they also do not want certain individuals to be elected to parliament, most notably Anwar. His presence even as an individual in parliament is bound to create unease among his former lower-rank colleagues who now occupy higher posts.

Meanwhile, Abdullah has been doing a balancing act to neutralise the ‘dictatorship’ image caused by his clampdown on opposition protests, as well as to quell general dissatisfaction with the state of the economy among ordinary citizens. While doing the ‘undemocratic’, he has also made the surprise move of heeding opposition demands to hold a royal commission of inquiry to investigate a recent video-tape scandal exposing Malaysia’s judiciary (see Crescent, October 2007). The ongoing investigation even resulted in the interrogation of former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad on December 21, over his alleged involvement in the scandal, which has exposed that a top lawyer had been ‘fixing’ prominent cases with a top judge and some tycoons in cooperation with Mahathir. Alongside cosmetic gestures such as the prime minister himself leading an Eid takbir on television – a rare display of Islamic knowledge by an UMNO leader, especially following the demise of Anwar Ibrahim and his fellow “Islamists” – Abdullah has also held meetings with ethnic Indian leaders to hear their “frank” views on the government’s failures to help the community. Such gestures usually go down well with the ordinary ballot-going citizen, who is conned into voting for the “devils they know” (rather than for either the devils or the angels who have not had a chance to introduce themselves).

Demonstrations in the heart of the capital, especially the anti-government type, are rare in Malaysia; so when they happen, the reactions of rulers are often panicky. With a law that bans any gathering of four or more persons unless there is a police permit, the protests are a slap in the face of Abdullah’s government. So far the government has managed to cushion the effect of the slap.

For the opposition parties, another defeat seems imminent. They have yet to succeed in making use of political tools, other than going to the polls, as an effective means of pressurising the government. Some have also been careful not to go too far by highlighting Malaysia’s clampdown on political dissent to the foreign and international media, fearing a domestic backlash that would be hard to deal with because of the media’s being so tightly controlled. Their hope may lie in a more informed public. Right now, a large section of the ‘informed’ public responds with an indifference to political advances from either side of the fence. As things stand, it seems likely that Malaysia’s political scene is going to go the way of most western-style democracies as a result of manipulation and control, using the press and media as just one of many tools of social control.

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