There was a lot of optimism right after March 8, 2008. There was a sense that things would get better. But has there been much change two years since that day?
Instead of seeing multi-racialism being freely accepted and manifested in government policies, we find ourselves becoming more divided along racial lines. Right after March 8, Umno embarked on its campaign to warn the Malays that they were under threat and to rise up against this.
The government has assumed a schizophrenic personality – the prime minister talks about 1Malaysia while his deputy says things that are completely contradictory. The PM talks about multi-racial unity while his own party campaigns for Malay unity.
Many of us had hoped that, after the elections, both Barisan Nasional and Pakatan Rakyat would set aside their political differences and get down to the business of working for the national interest, of saving this country.
Instead, they have been doing their darnedest to do the dirty on each other. BN is coming out tops in that effort because it has the media under its control. Both seem to be doing their worst to win the next general election.
We hoped for leaders who would be honest, clean and respectful of us the people, who would not think we were stupid or immature. Quite soon after Najib Abdul Razak took over as prime minister, he told a gathering of senior mainstream media editors: “I have no baggage.”
The editors nearly fell off their chairs. If the No. 1 leader of this country can say something like that, what can we expect of the rest?
No wonder then Home Minister Syed Hamid Albar could say that Sin Chew Daily journalist Tan Hoon Cheng had been detained under the Internal Security Act (ISA) “for her own protection”. And current Home Minister Hishammuddin Hussein (right) could come out to defend the cow-head protestors and actually say “they felt victimised”.
But the ‘best’ comment on that incident came from Dr Mohd Khir Toyo: “There was no religious significance in bringing the head. The cow is a stupid creature and (the protestors) wanted to point out that the (Selangor) state government was being stupid.”
How did such a person become menteri besar of Selangor?
Instead of being a formidable force providing a strong opposition in Parliament, Pakatan is now fighting to salvage its image. The number of elected representatives who have quit PKR is distressing, and Pakatan can’t blame the mainstream media for this. Neither can Pakatan blame anyone for its ability to produce ‘frogs’.
Anwar Ibrahim promised us defections from BN to Pakatan on Sept 16, 2008, but it never happened. Now it’s happening – but the defectors are from Pakatan. In any case, Anwar’s attempt to take over the federal government on Sept 16 was misguided and merely exposed his true ambition – to be prime minister, above all else.
We now see infighting among Pakatan’s elected representatives. We hear allegations of corruption in their ranks. We realise that many of them are in public service not to serve the public but to serve their own interests. All these negative developments threaten to erode our faith in Pakatan. Can they put their act together? Can they form a viable government?
After March 8, we hoped the government would undo the damage that had been inflicted on our country by the man who screwed up our institutions, created a culture of fear, fostered the negotiated contract, invested our money in white elephants – and still doesn’t know when to shut up. The Americans could only make ‘Avatar’; he managed to lead a country to the dogs. And yet the government has not dismantled the culture he created in order to restore our faith in the country’s institutions.
On the issue of race, Najib’s 1Malaysia project is mere window-dressing. It’s old wine in a new bottle. And I’m not apologising for the non-halal reference. I leave that sort of apologising to Star.
What 1Malaysia is there when Najib says one thing and his deputy, Muhyiddin Yassin, says the direct opposite? The very day Najib publicly unveiled the 1Malaysia logo, Muhyiddin said Umno would fight to the last drop of blood to protect Malay rights. He has also said the BTN courses are uniting Malaysians in line with the 1Malaysia concept. How? Pray tell.
What 1Malaysia is there when Najib says one thing and his aide Nasir Safar says the Indians came to this country as beggars and the Chinese as prostitutes? And that “We can anytime revoke the citizenship of the Indians in
More insidious is the rise of the right-wing movement that the government has done nothing to discourage. Only last week, the Home Ministry granted its most prominent group, Perkasa, a permit to publish a fortnightly newspaper. Meanwhile, Utusan
Surely, Najib could put a stop to such spin since the newspapers are owned by Umno? Why doesn’t he? Is it because he encourages media freedom? If so, why do we still have the Printing Presses and Publications Act, which requires media organisations to renew their licences every year at the pleasure of the home minister? Why is it still there to turn media owners and editors into eunuchs?
Star recently published an article which critiqued the caning of the three Muslim women for illicit sex, and public caning in general. When a few Muslim NGOs complained, the Home Ministry promptly issued the newspaper a show-cause letter. The ministry also insisted on an apology. So the paper dutifully apologised. No doubt all this is meant to intimidate Star so it won’t dare to run such articles again.
Should it be frightened? How do we push the parameters if we continue to be frightened? How do we encourage healthy public debate? I personally doubt the ministry would close down Star. The public repercussions would be negative for the government. More importantly, BN would cease to have an important organ for the dissemination of its propaganda. Star reaches out to a wide non-Malay, mainly middle-class readership. BN can’t afford not to reach out to these people.
Even after March 8, the mainstream media is failing us. Remember how relatively balanced they were in the months after March 8? Their owners realised that for the sake of public acceptance, they had to temper their pro-government bias and so they opened the window of objectivity by a few degrees. Besides, they had to hedge their bets in case Anwar did manage to take over the government.
But then when Sept 16 didn’t happen, there was no need to consider that any more. So the mainstream media stopped being balanced. Months later, Najib took over as PM. He tightened the screws. Thereafter, the mainstream media went back to bashing Pakatan.
To be fair to Najib, he has shown that he’s serious about economic reform and he’s trying to make
The effects of all these, however, are not conspicuous yet. He did try to table three laws in Parliament to settle the touchy issue of religious conversion but this was forestalled at the last minute by the Conference of Rulers. But meanwhile, where are the institutional reforms?
When he became PM, he released numerous ISA detainees, among them the Hindraf leaders. But wasn’t that done with the next general election in mind – to win back the Indians? What about the more important issue – the ISA itself? What is being done about that? And what about the Universities and University Colleges Act, which denies student participation in not just political activities but also social activities that are not approved by the vice-chancellor?
Recently, the Universiti Malaya Speaker’s Corner was reactivated and a deputy minister who was somehow present at the event called it a clear example of the government’s open approach. Someone should test what can’t be said at that Speaker’s Corner.
What about the law enforcement institutions? We have yet to see the setting-up of the IPCMC which could help reduce crime and police corruption, and promote better observance of human rights by the police.
The ACA was reformed to become the MACC to battle corruption more effectively. Look at what it’s doing these days – mostly picking on opposition politicians to bring them to shame. Almost every opposition leader worth his salt is being investigated by the MACC. If you are not being investigated, you haven’t arrived.
We could also go into the attorney-general’s office and ask what has happened to the Lingam case, the PKFZ case, the RMAF case, the Hasbie Safar case, and whether the people who placed wild-boar’s heads in the two mosques have been arrested. What do you think we might discover?
Shaking off fear
So, what good has March 8 brought us after all?
Fundamentally, I think Malaysians are becoming more courageous. More and more are speaking up. Fewer and fewer are kowtowing to the people in high places. We are struggling to shake off the culture of fear – and I think we are succeeding. Look at the turnout at candlelight vigils and protest marches.
At the protests against the ISA detention of Tan Hoon Cheng, Raja Petra Kamarudin and Teresa Kok, people whom you’d never expected to see at such gatherings actually showed up. Three years ago, such people would not have dared come near such activities.
There is a new spirit of defiance now, and we have models of defiance to show us the way – among them Anwar Ibrahim since the reformasi days, Raja Petra, P Uthayakumar, Mohammad Nizar Jamaluddin and his Perak band, and Malaysiakini. Instead of giving in to authoritative pressure, they stood tall. And that’s how it should be.
Malaysians are no longer so afraid of another May 13. Sure, there is always the possibility of racial riots flaring up but people are generally more sensible now. Besides, no responsible government would want racial riots to erupt and frighten away investors. The recent ‘Allah’ issue reinforces that. Despite the puny efforts of a few to create an incident by fire-bombing churches, attacking a surau and depositing wild-boar heads in mosques, the opportunity for riots fizzled out.
The political battlefields of
In the 1999 general election (GE), it was the non-Malay voters who saved BN from possibly losing its two-thirds majority. Compared to the 1995 GE, Umno’s votes in 1999 dropped by 8 percent. Najib nearly got voted out of the Pekan constituency. He scraped through with a majority of only 241 votes.
In fact, as long ago as the mid-70s, it had already been predicted that a time would come when the major political strife would be between the Malays. The failure of the NEP to evenly redistribute wealth among the Malays has accelerated this. A class fight is settling in between the Malays who have not and the Malays who have a lot.
The real issue now is corruption. Many Malays have come to realise that the people who join Umno these days are largely doing so not because they believe in helping their own community but because they want to get rich.
Umno still tries to sell the idea of ketuanan Melayu but to the Malay have-nots, what is the meaning of that ketuanan? Even so, when push comes to shove, anything can happen. Much will depend on how effectively Umno plays the racial game. While it is unwise to look at the Malays as a monolith, it is equally unwise to ignore the tribal instincts of a community. Especially when it’s constantly being told that it’s under siege.
Looking forward on a more optimistic note, however, we have to acknowledge that March 8 has given us something precious for the next GE, and hopefully for longer into the future – choice. Now we have two coalitions to offer us their idea of a better deal. If we want to retain this duopoly that should work to our benefit, we have to nurture it. It sure beats having a monopoly.
The next GE will be crucial. It will determine whether we’ll get more of the same old, same old or whether we will get real change. Whether we will continue to be a nation divided along racial lines or be hopeful of being a truly Malaysian nation. If we are to keep the March 8 spirit alive and make irreversible the trend to take
It’s going to be a tough GE. Najib will want to prove himself worthy of being PM by winning it. He hasn’t won one yet. He’s PM now by default. He’s PM because of 2,600 Umno delegates. That’s the number that actually decided who would become prime minister. Only 2,600. We have seen in his handling of Perak how ruthless he can be when it comes to such things. So we need to be vigilant.
One of the tactics BN will resort to is gerrymandering. This might explain the recent PKR defections. BN will need a two-thirds majority to push through a Bill in Parliament calling for a redelineation of parliamentary constituencies. If it succeeds, redelineation will be really bad news for Pakatan. The opposition will have to strive even harder to win constituencies re-drawn to favour BN.
As it stands, Sabah and
Whatever it is, when the next general election comes around, it might be appropriate to recall the words of Franklin Roosevelt: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
Choice is what we have now. That has been the gift of March 8. We should exercise that choice – for the betterment of our country. And exercise it without fear.