Friday, September 19, 2008

A New Malaysian Government May Be On Its Way

A New Malaysian Government May Be On Its Way
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Written by johnleemk on 1:45:00 pm Sep 4, 2008.
Categories: Malaysian Politics
Recently to combat fears of Barisan Nasional MPs crossing over to Pakatan Rakyat, several MPs have been swearing their loyalty to the Barisan coalition. While this is supposed to be reassuring, I can't help but think that this is anything but. With almost six times as many Barisan MPs not having taken the pledge, this means as many as 120 MPs are contemplating crossing over. While clearly 120 MPs will not take the leap, it seems to me that either Barisan leaders did not put any effort into recruiting MPs to take the oath, or a lot more MPs might be thinking about switching parties.

In the last couple of days, Malaysiakini has been carrying more and more stories about the potential of MPs or even whole political parties crossing the floor from Barisan to Pakatan. There have even been rumours of Anwar meeting with the Agong to submit the names of MPs who have agreed to switch sides, though Anwar has denied them. Something is afoot.

But previously during the Permatang Pauh by-election campaign, Hishammuddin Hussein led 20 MPs in declaring their loyalty to the Barisan coalition government. The first thing that struck me was why, of all 140 Barisan MPs, only 20 would pledge their allegiance. Even if they all could not personally and publicly swear, they could at least agree to put their names down, as 10 of the 20 MPs did.

So why the small numbers? If Barisan wanted to make an emphatic impact, wouldn't they have personally approached each Barisan MP and done their level best to get each MP to take the oath? And if Barisan just wanted to shrug off Anwar's claims of crossovers as completely baseless, why give them credibility by having Barisan MPs take any oath in the first place?

Just as striking is the fact that many of the 20 MPs who took the oath are those who would be least likely to jump ship in any event. Mukhriz Mahathir's family has a personal feud with Anwar; Khairy Jamaluddin is personally invested in the present administration; Hishammuddin Hussein likewise is too bound up with the government and holds a Cabinet post; Liow Tiong Lai and Wee Ka Siong are in the upper echelons of the Barisan leadership; Tiong King Sing has personally benefited from government bailouts in the past, most notably in the case of the Port Klang Free Zone; and Chua Tee Yong, as the son of a former top Barisan leader, would be unlikely to rock the boat. Over a third of the MPs who took the oath then are not really backbenchers, and are very likely to stay put with Barisan.

In a related but more recent event, Cabinet member Shafie Apdal asked the 24 MPs from Sabah to take a similar oath; he was promptly rebuffed by the Sabahan backbenchers. Anifah Aman, chair of the Sabah backbenchers, said that they had repeatedly promised their loyalty to Barisan, and felt insulted at the insinuation that their previous promises were not enough. While this may be true, the fact is that refusing to take just one more oath signals you are unwilling to completely promise you will never jump.

The conclusion from all this is obvious: either Barisan is being very sloppy in its efforts to assure the public that nothing is up, or there are many MPs contemplating switching sides. Barisan may be incompetent, but I find it hard to believe they would not put a bit more effort into getting their MPs to promise they will not cross over. I think there is every chance that Pakatan is getting closer to its much-vaunted target of taking power.

Last week, just after Anwar Ibrahim was sworn in as the MP for Permatang Pauh, I spoke with a Pakatan legislator. He confided that the main issue Pakatan has been dealing with is obtaining the support of institutions such as the police and military in the event of a transition of power. If things have gotten to the stage where you are worrying about getting the police and army to go along, it sounds like you're on the right track.

I am still mildly skeptical that the September 16 deadline can be reached, however. Another Pakatan legislator I spoke with expressed strong pessimism that the government would fall by that date; the legislator who seemed more confident nevertheless spoke of the debate for the budget, scheduled in October, as if he expected to still be in the opposition benches. Nevertheless, I think there is enough basis for the rumours that have been flying around.

The reality on the ground is that Barisan as it currently is simply does not appeal to the people. The Prime Minister's approval rating has fallen to an all-time low, not even breaking the 50% mark. Over 70% of respondents polled by independent researchers say they want a true multiracial party, not the current Barisan model of racialism. Almost as many, including over 60% of Malays and non-Malay bumiputra, want the NEP replaced with a means-tested poverty eradication policy. Anwar Ibrahim won a stronger mandate in Permatang Pauh on a platform campaigning against the crux of Barisan's governance. The fact is, Malaysians want change, and I do not think MPs are blind to that.

After all, the actions of the Barisan parties besides UMNO are increasingly telling. Their words aside, they have been pushing for the same things as Pakatan because they know Pakatan's agenda is far more in line with the people's demands than the "Malay agenda" of UMNO. Samy Vellu came out in support of HINDRAF, and said he would seek foreign help if UMNO did not listen. The MCA and Gerakan have been making much stronger noises about multiracialism and forcing UMNO to tamp down its traditional racist politics. The East Malaysians have clearly not been happy with the policies the government is pursuing; the leader of the Sabahan backbenchers, Anifah Aman, was the sole backbencher criticising the DNA bill in Parliament. Actions speak louder than words, and the fact is, the non-UMNO parties in Barisan have more and more in common with Pakatan than they do with UMNO.

The morality of MPs switching parties aside, I look forward to a change in government. The fact is, a one-party democracy is not healthy; it is difficult to even call it a democracy if the same party can remain in power forever, no matter how good or bad it may be. And I believe there is reason to look forward to a more democratic future very soon, maybe not by September 16, but God willing, soon enough.

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