Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Anwar Liberates Malaysian Politics


08Anwar Liberates Malaysian Politics

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By Anwar Ibrahim
Categories: Sidenotes by Colum Murphy
Far Eastern Economic Review
September 2008

Whether Anwar Ibrahim becomes Malaysia’s next prime minister or not, Malaysians are already seeing the benefits of political competition as entrenched parties are forced to rethink policies.

After waiting a decade to re-enter parliament, Anwar Ibrahim is in a hurry to be Malaysia’s next prime minister. Fresh from his impressive victory in the Aug. 26 by-election in Permatang Pauh in the state of Penang—where he won two-thirds of some 47,000 votes cast—the 61-year-old former deputy prime minister has set Sept. 16 as a target for grabbing power from Prime Minister Abdullah Badawai and his ruling coalition, Barisan National.

Few expect him to meet this ambitious deadline. Yet with a bit more time, Mr. Anwar’s quest is within the realm of the possible. The consequences of such a historic achievement have a far-reaching impact on Malaysian society—the United Malays National Organization has enjoyed a 50-year stranglehold on power. A new government under Mr. Anfwar might better reflect the diversity of the country in terms of ethnicity, religion and political views. It is not hyperbole to say it could represent the dawn of true political pluralism in Malaysia. Further, if Mr. Anwar delivers on his promises of better governance and clean politics, Malaysians could see their flagging economy soar to heights similar to those enjoyed in the years leading up to the Asian financial crisis of 1997.

Not So Fast

Great expectations, indeed, and perhaps a somewhat unfair burden to place on the shoulders of Mr. Anwar. This is especially true given the considerable personal and political obstacles in Mr. Anwar’s path. The pressing concern is the latest sodomy charge. Mr. Anwar has denied having sex with a male aide and alleges the charge is politically inspired—which the government denies. A poll released in July by the Merdeka Center, an opinion research firm, suggests two-thirds of Malaysians share Mr. Anwar’s assertion. Proceedings will begin this month. If found guilty, in addition to going to jail, Mr. Anwar could lose his seat in parliament and be banned from politics. Were this to happen—and in the absence of an alternative political leader of Mr. Anwar’s stature—all talk of a sweeping overhaul of Malaysia’s political system would be put on hold. That’s not to mention the public outcry that would surely arise if a guilty verdict were handed down. That was the case in 1999 when Mr. Anwar was first convicted for corruption and sentenced to a six-year prison term. In 2000, he was charged with sodomy and given an additional nine-year penalty. He was freed in 2004 when the sodomy conviction was overturned by Malaysia’s Federal Court. With this latest charge, the prospect of Mr. Anwar going back to jail seems too remote—or too depressing—for him or his supporters to give it serious thought. Instead, the euphoria from last month’s by-election victory is still there and the afterglow from the March elections, where opposition parties enjoyed unprecedented success at the polls remains, encouraging Mr. Anwar to press ahead and tackle other challenges.

Consolidate First

It’s the evening before the Permatang Pauh by-election and Mr. Anwar is supposed to be taking a brief rest at his campaign headquarters’ before heading to two rallies, planned for that night. Instead, he greets a steady stream of visitors: relatives, friends, a local delegation from alliance partner Parti Islam se-Malaysia, or PAS. Nearby an aide speaks loudly on a cell phone to a journalist, trying to quash yet another political rumor about Mr. Anwar circulated perhaps by his political rivals. Finally, I am summoned into his dispatch. Two weeks of intensive campaigning have clearly taken their toll on Mr. Anwar. Tired and gaunt, his voice is barely audible. Yet he is clear as to what his immediate priority will be after the by-election that was triggered by the resignation of his wife, who held the seat after 1999. “Consolidating the coalition,” he said, with a brief flash of enthusiasm.

Mr. Anwar’s Parti Keadilan Rakyat, or National Justice Party, together with PAS and the mainly ethnic Chinese Democratic Action Party, form the opposition alliance Pakatan Rakyat, or People’s Alliance. In the March general elections, Pakatan won 82 of 222 seats in the federal parliament, and at the state level its parties now govern five of the 13 states that make up Malaysia. BN candidates won the remaining 140 seats.

To achieve his goals, Mr. Anwar first needs to ensure his coalition allies are happy. His coalition looked vulnerable earlier this summer when PAS engaged in talks with UMNO, Mr. Anwar’s former political party and current political enemy. Analysts now say it’s unlikely that PAS and UMNO can overcome intense rivalry to forge a political partnership. Yet fault lines within the Anwar alliance remain. A report in Malaysia’s the Star newspaper said the Pakatan leader came in for criticism from some PAS members in mid-August “who [were] unhappy with his ‘secular’ politics.” For now, Mr. Anwar is managing these potential flash points, but it seems reasonable to expect that PAS, and the DAP for that matter, sooner or later will demand some form of payback in return for their support thus far.

Consolidation also means he needs to swell his alliance’s ranks by at least 30 members of parliament to gain control of the government. The question is: where to find enough pliable “frog men” willing to jump from the BN’s ship? One place Mr. Anwar is looking is East Malaysia, to the states of Sabah and Sarawak. “There is a strong sense of alienation and marginalization between these states and the central government,” explained Mr. Anwar, which has left them on the fringes of development. “Unless something is done to help, they will continue to have major grievances.” Mr. Anwar intends to do that something.

Next Stop Borneo

Offering a helping hand to East Malaysia also makes for shrewd politics. The two states together account for 55 seats held by the BN—30 in Sarawak, 25 in Sabah. Of the 25 in Sabah, 14 are UMNO seats and 11 belong to other BN parties. That East Malaysians feel marginalized is an understatement. Sabah seems particularly aggrieved—with many there openly disdainful of Semenanjung Malaysia, or Peninsular Malaysia. “I hate Malaysia,” a young ethnic Chinese man told me one recent night in Kota Kinabalu, the state capital. Many Sabahans view the federal government in Putrajaya as a leech, sucking revenues from the resource-rich state. Roughly the size of Ireland, Sabah is Malaysia’s largest producer of palm oil and cocoa, and a major producer of rubber, timber and plywood, crude oil and gas. Most oil and gas revenues go to the central government with Sabah receiving just 5% in royalties. James Chin of the School of Arts and Social Sciences at Monash University’s Malaysian campus said many in Sabah consider the royalty level an “insult” and consider the federal government’s transfers back to the state in the form of economic development insufficient. A common refrain goes: how come Sabah was once the richest state and is now the poorest? According to Hiew Keng Chiu, DAP MP for Sabah, electricity coverage in Sabah is only 62%, compared to 92% in neighboring Sarawak and 98% in Peninsular Malaysia. “Why are we so far behind?” he asked.

Sabahans see themselves as distinct from West Malaysians. Racial composition in the state is different from Peninsular Malaysia where Malay, Chinese and Indian are the dominant races (in that order). In Sabah, indigenous ethnic groups, the largest of which is the Kadazandusun, account for around one third to 40% of the state’s population, given in the government’s Ninth Malaysia plan at around 3.1 million. (Due to the large presence of illegal immigrants in Sabah, population estimates vary widely.) The different ethnic profile in Sabah is especially significant when religion is factored in. Among the Kadazandusun, for example, Christianity, mostly in the form of Roman Catholicism, is the main religion.

This sense of apartness is underscored by history. Peninsular Malaysia—then known as Malaya—gained independence from the British in 1957. Six years later, in 1963, Singapore, Sarawak and Sabah together with Malaya came together to form the Malaysian federation (Brunei declined to take part). As a result, many in Sabah consider their state as an important and equal partner in the creation of modern Malaysia. As such, its people should be treated with respect and not ignored like country-bumpkin cousins, as is often the case, they claim.

It wasn’t always like that. In order to recognize the special status of Sabah and Sarawak, the federal government agreed to the “20 points,” giving special rights to the states, including recognition of greater autonomy for Sabah and Sarawak. Since then, the 20 points have been diluted over time almost to the point of being forgotten. Until recently, that is. The agreement—or the spirit of it, at least—is making a surprise comeback to the national political agenda now that the difference gap in terms of federal parliament seats between the ruling and opposition coalitions is so narrow. “Sabah and Sarawak have never been able to decide the outcome of the federal government. Now suddenly they are kingmakers,” said Monash University’s Mr. Chin. Sabah’s grievances have become hot topics, as both Pakatan and the BN scramble to address concerns.

Mr. Anwar has been quick to recognize the opportunity presented by such grievances. The possibilities (aides don’t like the word “promises”) discussed include: granting a greater number of political posts to Sabahan and Sarawakian politicians and civil servants; increasing royalties on oil and gas to 20% from the current 5%; and transferring greater autonomy for economic development from the federal government to the state governments in Kota Kinabalu and Kuching. There has even been mention of appointing an additional deputy prime minister to be filled by someone from East Malaysian affairs.

So far none of the Sabahan members of parliament that belong to the BN coalition have officially declared their willingness to cross over, preferring instead to adopt a “wait-and-see” approach. Only Yong Teck Lee, president of the Sabah Progressive Party, or SAPP, has come out most forcibly for Mr. Anwar. “We would support a change in leadership. After 50 years of UMNO hegemony, the atmosphere in Malaysia is very stifling,” he said, adding that Prime Minister Abdullah must go because “he is not paying attention to Sabah.”

Earlier this year, SAPP initiated an unprecedented no-confidence vote against the prime minister. (It must be said that Mr. Yong, who is a former chief minister for Sabah and no longer has a seat in parliament, is being investigated for corruption by Malaysia’s Anti-Corruption Agency according to reports in Malaysian Business magazine. Mr. Yong denies any wrongdoing in connection with the investigation. ACA could not be reached for immediate comment.)

Politics in Sabah, however, have long been characterized by divisiveness and in-fighting. Even Mr. Yong’s SAPP is said to be split on the issue of joining Mr. Anwar’s ranks, forcing Mr. Yong to remain coy about his party’s next steps. “We are neither withdrawing from the BN, nor are they expelling us,” he said. In the meantime, the ruling coalition seems intent on finding ways to thwart Mr. Anwar’s poaching plan, including, Mr. Yong said, devising ways to “divide and rule the SAPP.” “It’s like a slow cooker,” he said. “They slowly steam you.”

BN Fights Back

Mr. Anwar’s chances of taking power will be just as much influenced by how the government responds. In Sabah, and elsewhere, the BN is fighting back, but will efforts be enough to keep the coalition afloat and regain popular support?

The initial response from the BN seems to be to throw money at the problem. In Sabah, for example, the government recently has granted the state an additional one billion ringgit (just under $300 million) in funds. Each of Sabah’s parliamentary constituencies has also been granted one million ringgit “special allocation.” A similar grant of around 400,000 ringgit has been earmarked for each state-assembly member. The federal government has also announced plans to set up a special committee tasked with addressing another thorny problem in Sabah—illegal immigrants said to number around 150,000 people.

On the national level, the government’s 2009 budget proposal, which was presented to parliament on Aug. 29, also offered generous spending increases. If approved, that would push Malaysia into deficit to the tune of 4.8% of GDP—greater than the 3.1% originally envisaged.

But few feel these moves are aggressive enough to win back public confidence in the Abdullah government. Deeper reform—starting with UMNO, the main party in the government coalition—is needed. In a speech to the Bankers Club Luncheon Forum on July 15 this year in Kuala Lumpur, Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah, a senior UMNO leader and former finance minister, outlined the challenges. According to a transcript of his address, a lack of democracy within the party; failure to develop policies that transcend race; and arrogance and corruption were behind the party’s abysmal performance in the March general elections.

In the absence of meaningful reform, UMNO faced destruction, possibly “plunging the nation into a spiral of decline,” he said. Mr. Razaleigh, who wants Mr. Abdullah to resign, intends to challenge the prime minister for the presidency of UMNO in upcoming party elections slated for December this year. Mr. Abdullah has already announced he will step down in 2010, transferring power to his deputy, Najib Razak.

Listen to the Rakyat

Shortly after he won the by-election in Permatang Pauh last month, Mr. Anwar was quick to declare a “People’s Victory.” Irrespective of whether this is true in the usual sense of a “sweeping to power” of a new government or not, the truth is that Mr. Anwar’s saga has already resulted in benefits for the rakyat, or the people of Malaysia. The very fact that the country has for the first time in its history a viable opposition under a charismatic leader will have important, positive consequences. “It’s definitely a step forward. People have broken through the ‘fear threshold’ and now feel they can make a difference,” said Khoo Boo Teik, an associate professor at the Universiti Sains Malaysia’s School of Social Sciences in Penang. “The most important benefit will be that it pluralizes the political system,” he said.

Such a benefit may not be as abstract as it seems. Like many people around the region, Malaysians are grappling with the prospects of an economic downturn. A recent UBS report estimates consumer prices to increase by 5.2% in 2008, up from 2% last year. With an export-to-GDP ratio of around 25%, the investment bank describes Malaysia as one of the most exposed economies to the global downturn.f

Underlying the short-term economic factors are more deep-seated problems. Ifzal Ali, chief economist at Asian Development Bank, said Malaysia’s investment climate is probably worse now than before the 1997 Asian financial crisis. Over the years since, “Issues of governance, corruption and political uncertainty have all taken a very heavy toll,” he said.

With the emergence of a truly pluralized political system, Malaysians can expect greater scrutiny of government and its institutions. The result should be a stronger government with better policies that closer match the needs of the people. There is much work to be done, and understandably, Mr. Anwar views his role as spearheading efforts from within the prime minister’s office. Yet even as head of the opposition, much can be achieved.

Colum Murphy is deputy editor of the REVIEW.


7 Responses to “Anwar Liberates Malaysian Politics”
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1 Hani
Sep 24th, 2008 at 1:32 pm
Dear DSAI, all the Malaysian people always support u 200%. We need change the goverment.
Please hear the voice of M’sian people. Hope the justice will be win.
P/S : selamat hari raya Aidilfitri soon.

2 also anak malaysia
Sep 24th, 2008 at 1:50 pm
new dawn
new hope
new government
new way
new life
….. change we can believe in …..

3 Edwin John
Sep 24th, 2008 at 2:38 pm
Dear Datuk Seri,
I really have to wonder about the 30 MPs that you say are ready to jump. You say you cannot reveal their names upon their request for fear that they will be harassed by the authorities. Perhaps so. But what kind of commitment do these MPs have if they are afraid of a little harassment?
Look at RPK. He’s a true Malaysian hero! He goes to jail because he’s standing up for what he believes is right.
Look at Ms Tan Hoon Cheng, arrested simply for doing her job. Teresa Kok too wears the “ex-jailbird” tag. Datuk Seri, you yourself went through hell for 10 years.
And yet, these well-paid, well-fed MPs who supposedly want a new dawn for Malaysia can’t even stand up for themselves and for the nation? They want to play it safe and hide behind you still. They don’t have even half the guts and gumption that Ms Tan & Teresa have shown. Don’t these MPs have any backbones? Can you trust such people? Does their loyalty lie with the rakyat or their own well-being?
And really, what do they think the govt will do to them? Blow them up? Nah. Arrest them all under ISA? Maybe. But if the govt does that, I tell you it will be the final nail in BN’s coffin.
I hope these 30 MPs will develop a spine and tell their old BN bosses to pack up and ship out. A new govt is ready to take it’s rightful place.

Sep 24th, 2008 at 2:48 pm
In the last 50 plus years, the government of the day (Perikatan or BN) NEVER accepted the opposition’s proposals BUT made use of their ideas in much later stages as if they were their OWN or DELAYED the implementations by adding some ’sweeteners’here and there. The government’s attitude towards the opposition had and has NEVER been friendly. They, the opposition, were considered as ‘aliens’ who are non-constructive and never productive, non-commitant etc. This attitude has definitely put the current opposition in the position which BN had all the while been branding them. Therefore, it is understandable that the opposition CONTINUES to be ’silent’.

The ‘people power’ or the’makkal sakthi’ OPENED the eyes of BN and it (BN) is now RUSHING into so many ‘left over’ areas. And in the process making more mistakes (knowingly or unknowingly). Citizens today are better educated, more watchful on the political scenes and are more critical than my father’s days! BN had been lying on its laurels until after the March 8 elections. Until and unless the oposition rules, we would not be able to evaluate their performance.

During my kampong days in the 50’s, politicians would only come and talk about anti-British actions and ALL (Malays, Chinese, Indians, Javanese, Banjaris etc) to join hands to ‘defeat’ them in order to attain Merdeka.

NOW,the country is heading for worst (as per ADB) financial future? Are we Malaysians CONFUSED? Don’t we have GOOD ECONOMISTS or ECONOMIC SYSTEM? Why, Where, When and How are we to combat? Only answer now IS DSAI to lead!

5 Mohd Nizar Ahmad
Sep 24th, 2008 at 2:54 pm
Full of undeniable facts and figures. I will recommend this article to my friends and colleagues.

Hidup DSAI ! Hidup PKR - ” One party for all ” !

YB Dato’ Seri, saya adalah warga TERAS KIMIA SDN BHD, sebuah syarikat yang disebut-sebut oleh YB Dato Seri ketika Debat Perdana sedikit waktu dahulu. I serve the company as AGM, Human Resource. Based on my survey among employees of TERAS KIMIA, majority of us believe in your “Harapan Baru Untuk Malaysia”. Looking forward to meet you for an autograph.


6 Lee
Sep 24th, 2008 at 4:01 pm
I really don’t care how DSAI do it, just make sure all this hope becomes a reality….Sept 16 has pass and i am sure something is happening this very hour even when i am typing this comment.Is this 916 or what ever we call it now does not happen , Malaysians are going to be disappointed but nevertheless we still trust DSAI and it’s coalitions to carry out whatever is necessary to achieve greatness for Malaysia. We all know that even it has to happen during the next election …so be it after all the voices of the opposition in parliament are very loud…..not like before the last election. We are definitely moving forward and forward we shall match towards a better future for all Malaysians. WE pray to give strength to those who fought for the rakyat and to all Malaysians of all walks of life please pray for RPK and all the ISA detainees for their release and also to all their family’s..

7 Steven Lee
Sep 24th, 2008 at 4:48 pm
Relax dudes, as long as DSAI is with us, toppling BN is always in sight. Just make sure DSAI do not forget this agenda!!


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