Sunday, March 16, 2008

On shaky terrain

The results of the 12th general election show that the Barisan is not invincible after all. The people now have opened their eyes to know what people power can do.

IF people of Pakistan, Taiwan, Thailand and Australia can do it, so can we. If Dato’ Anwar can swing 30% of Malay votes in Malay heartland, Hindraf 80% of Indian and DAP 50% of Chinese votes, we may see a new government. Vote opposition...” That was the text message I received from a friend in the Opposition a few days before the general election.

Obviously, when one lives in the bastion of Barisan Nasional – Johor – one could only dismiss it with a wry smile.

But a few days before the election, signs became visible that the Opposition was gaining ground, judging from the huge turnouts in their ceramahs-turned-rallies and anti-establishment mood prevailing in cyberspace.

As the results turned out, an unprecedented swing took place from all the races in the country, particularly the urban and poor Malays.

The voting pattern has obviously emerged with Malays now not hesitating to vote for the DAP and the non-Malays, for PAS. Similarly, how many of the Malays were actually Indonesians-turned-Malaysians, no one knew either. Neither would one dare to surmise what the outcome would have been if more than four million Malay unregistered voters had cast their votes this time.

However, one thing is certain – the taboo of replacing the Barisan government has been broken. The people now have opened their eyes to know what people power can do and that the Barisan is not invincible after all.

While many this time had just wanted to register a protest vote, they as well as the Opposition probably did not expect that that would bring about a change in four state governments.

The other thing is also certain – fear no longer works now for Malaysians.

Whatever it is, the results obviously showed the populace’s unhappiness with the Barisan government. The Obama-change mood was prevalent as all that many voters wanted to tick on the ballot paper was any party, as long as it was not the Barisan.

It did not matter to them that:

the DAP is now working with PAS, and vice versa.

PKR candidates hold wholly divergent views on race and religion – with those fielded in the cities believing in freedom of religion under Article 11 and others in the Malay heartland who do not.

a DAP candidate has been disciplined by the Advocates & Solicitors Disciplinary Board; and

a PKR candidate in Penang has wrongly stated that he is a member of the Malaysian Bar Council when he is not.

The Barisan government, instead of portraying itself as compassionate, such as creating the environment for the release of Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim from prison and the setting up of the Royal Commission of Enquiry on the Lingam tape, launched what voters viewed as personal attacks against Anwar.

The Prime Minister’s caution that the non-Malays would not be represented in the government did not go down well with them who took it as a threat. Likewise, his statement that he did not want to form a government based on one race did not appeal to the urban Malays who felt that he was counting his chickens before they were hatched, similar to the Gerakan leadership announcing the three possible candidates for the Penang Chief Ministership before they had even been elected.

Also, we must not forget the last-minute about-turns by the Election Commission on the use of unstamped statutory declarations and indelible ink.

All said, this time round we must give credit to the Opposition for being able to ride on the wave of anger, not so much of change, against the Barisan. For example, the Opposition put up posters relating to the keris incident in Chinese majority areas and that of the Zakaria mansion in Malay kampungs in Penang.

As for the MCA, it only obtained 15 out of the 40 parliamentary seats it contested. Comparatively, among the Barisan component parties, the MCA’s top leadership is the least controversial. Moreover, the MCA’s amendment of its constitution allowing its President to hold office for not more than three terms went down well with the people – something no other political party or leader in the Barisan and Opposition had tried doing. Also, many MCA elected representatives served their constituencies well through their service centres.

While many had expected a reduction in the MCA seats this time round, none had expected such a dismal performance. What actually caused it?

Two plausible causes:

The urban population in Kuala Lumpur, Selangor and Penang where many MCA seats are situated wanted a strong Opposition; and

MCA’s association with Umno, Gerakan and MIC – a victim of one for all, all for one principle.

The mood in the cities is that the Barisan’s 2004 win of 90% of the seats had made them too powerful to the extent of becoming an elective dictatorship. Most were concerned about the independence of the judiciary and the rule of law, and the revelations in the Lingam Tape enquiry woke up many on such a need even though these revelations were more related to events that took place during the Mahathir administration.

So, when Malay intellectuals started appearing in DAP ceramahs advocating a need for that, this only strengthened the Chinese urbanites’ resolve. This was also egged on by the former prime minister, Tun Dr Mahathir, who still commands much respect among the Chinese community, when he too advocated for a strong voice against the Government.

The Malays and Chinese, too, were attracted to Anwar’s statement that the Opposition would work on a new economic agenda based on need rather than race as the NEP has only benefited the well-connected.

It follows that even if one had put the best MCA leader in the Klang Valley, he would still have lost. That was what happened to a good Umno minister like Datuk Sharizat Jalil, who lost to a political novice.

Secondly, the swing against Umno caused the MCA to lose in Chinese marginal seats which depended on Malay votes. The people of Penang’s dissatisfaction with Gerakan and wanting to change the Government also translated into votes against the MCA.

The MIC President’s refusal to step aside also caused 80% of Indian voters to turn against the Barisan in these marginal seats.

Further, the Opposition this time round parachuted well-known activists from civil rights groups who are intelligent and eloquent compared to the MCA whose hands are still tied as it had to first consider grassroots leaders who are more used to looking at local issues rather than larger issues like freedom and human rights.

Take the Bakri parliamentary seat, for example. The swing against Umno actually helped the DAP candidate when Malays too voted for the DAP. Umno lost the state seat Sungai Abong to PAS in the Bakri constituency.

This phenomenon of the Johor Malays voting against Umno appeared to also happen in the Johor/Malacca border areas as Umno also lost the Maharani seat to PAS while votes against Umno in the Muar parliamentary constituency also increased substantially.

Most of all, it must not be denied that the MCA’s constraints in speaking up openly on certain issues affecting the Chinese community also cost the MCA dearly.

The Chinese no doubt had wanted the MCA to stand up to Umno on the keris incident, its warning given to the MCA for saying we are a secular state and issues like freedom of religion, erection of places of worship and education, but the party was prevented by the spirit of Barisan rather than lack of courage. For the MCA to do that in the pre-election period when Umno was hugely dominant would mean they had to leave Barisan, which would be more detrimental to the interests of the Chinese.

It now appears that this closed-door and quiet diplomacy with Umno on sensitive issues started by past MCA leaderships is no longer an option. If in these four years, the DAP can prove to be an effective voice for the Chinese, the MCA may very well become irrelevant. Therefore, the last thing the party should face now is internal bickering. United, they can still dong shan zai qi (make a comeback).

All in all, it is time for the Barisan component parties to work even closer together. The spirit of cooperation should not just be there during election time.

One urgent area is for Barisan state governments to expedite land and building plan approvals for non-Muslims’ places of worship. Such approval often take a long time, if not years to come.

And if the Barisan is not able to eradicate corruption and poverty regardless of race, it may just be wiped out by the Opposition in the next election if people living in the Opposition states are experiencing less corruption and better rights and quality of life.

In a way, it is good competition but only in the next election can one finally conclude whether a two-party system has emerged, that is, provided the Malay votes do not swing back to Umno.

All in all, politicians must be able to feel the pulse of the nation before the ground moves, let alone shake.

As an American writer, Simeon Strunsky, once wrote: “People who want to understand democracy should spend less time in the library with Aristotle and more time on the buses and in the subway.”

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