Cracking Malaysia

Posted by Penarik Beca Friday, September 19, 2008

Jakarta Post (19/9/08): The cracks have been apparent since the March election when the ruling coalition could only muster a relatively narrow 30-seat majority.

Since then Malaysian politics have been simmering towards an inevitable boil which will either spill over towards a new dawn or burst into another failed political puff.

These are the tribulations of a politically closed political system, i.e., cyclical crossroads which any reticent regime must face in a bid to sustain a monopoly of power.

Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi is no Mahathir Mohamad.

The former prime minister was cut from the same cloth as our own Soeharto albeit with different tailoring -- not as ruthless but just as shrewd.

Mahathir raised Malaysia to regional eminence by the same combination of fear and bounty.

The nation's body politic contracted by an injection of racially charged fear, as avarice was satisfied by economic opportunity.

Though he did try, Badawi has failed to consolidate his power base within the Barisan Nasional (BN) ranks.

The regional mood for change which has swept the region since 1998 has found a haven in small corners of the Malaysian state and in pockets of a disenchanted middle class.

What set apart old dictators from new autocrats was the elegance with which they could discharge opponents.

Whether the charges be true or false, "sodomy" is hardly a stylish deposition fitting political rationale.

Since coming to power in 2003 Badawi has not helped his own cause by failing to win over public sentiment as inflation remains a concern, economic disparity widens and promised reforms progress at a frustrating pace.

Even promising to step down in 2010 has not quelled discontent within the BN rank.

Increasingly Malaysia politics are turning back toward the terrible specter of primordial politics -- religion and race -- as a means of distracting the electorate from the political interests of the elite.

This is a sad state of affairs for a country supposedly infused with "Islam Hadari" (Civilized Islam).

However, Malaysia is, unfortunately, wanting in alternatives.

There are questions whether the perceived prime minister-in-waiting Najib Tun Razak can sustain the dominance of the old guard.

Najib's performance as minister of finance, which he assumed Wednesday, will gauge his acceptability as Malaysia's next leader.

On the other end of the spectrum the opposition coalition of Pakatan Rakyat under Anwar Ibrahim has been big on headlines but lacking on actual policy proposals.

Less we forget, Anwar too was a very integral part of the status quo until he was exorcised through charges of sodomy.

Is Anwar's plight a consequence of his "good fight"? Or has he picked up the mantle of change because he lost his own political fight?

While we welcome the ushering in of democratic change within our neighboring state, we lack full confidence that the practical alternatives will suffice for Malaysia's needs.

Let us remind our Malaysian cousins that based on Indonesia's own painful experience, a change of allegiance at the elite level is not equivalent to a change in fundamental beliefs toward the primacy of civil society.

Defecting lawmakers from the ruling coalition to the opposition does not make them democracy's soldiers, only political opportunists.

We fear that what we are seeing in Malaysia is neither revolution nor evolution, but is instead a potential transition from one power to another.

BN and its preceding Parti Perikatan which has governed Malaysia since independence, has ruled for too long.

It is time for change.

But Pakatan too must show it is more than just a vehicle for Anwar.

More importantly it has to demonstrate that it can be a voice for all Malaysians - not just Malays and Muslims - living in a multiethnic society.

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