Malaysia’s democratic pause

Taken from, October 28, 2008

Malaysian politics is at present an intriguing mixture of stasis and flux. The most high-profile issue in September-October 2008 has been the failure of leading opposition figure Anwar Ibrahim to deliver his promise to find enough numbers to create a majority in parliament and as a result create a more representative government. Instead, prime minister Abdullah Badawi has agreed to step down in March 2009 – a year after the Anwar-inspired “democratic tsunami” which deprived the ruling Barisan Nasional (National Front / BN) coalition of its parliamentary majority – and turn over power to his tainted deputy, Najib Tun Razak. Najib’s record in office includes a readiness to adopt hardline measures against political opponents, reliance on Malay chauvinism, crony practices and an apparent reluctance to undertake the political reform that Malaysia needs.

For proponents of greater democratic governance in Malaysia, the hopes raised by the stunning election result of 8 March 2008 have seemingly evaporated. These changes reflect the endemic obstacles in changing a system based on elite rule. Elites in Malaysia are largely risk-adverse, and overwhelmingly protect their own interests rather than Malaysian citizens as a whole. Yet the downturn in prospects for democratic governance in Malaysia belies significant movement at deeper levels toward broader representation and inclusiveness. Malaysia’s transition is “on pause”, but it is not stunted.

The pause

The pause began with the inability of Anwar Ibrahim – who served as deputy prime minister to Malaysia’s longstanding (1981-2003) leader Mahathir Mohammed, until (in 1998) he was deposed, charged with sodomy and imprisoned – to fulfil his pledge to reshape the government. Notwithstanding the momentum created by Anwar’s supporters following the general election of March 2008 – and his own return to parliament in a by-election victory in August – the rhetoric has as yet not translated into reality (see “Bluff and counter-bluff“, Economist, 18 September 2008).

The heart of the setback is that Anwar needed several members of the national assembly to join the opposition (which includes his own Parti Keadilan Rakyat [National Justice Party / PKR] in order for it to pass the threshold needed to gain power. The reasons why this in the end did not happen include the character of those Anwar was targeting. Many potential “crossovers” from the BN are tainted with corruption practices, and would themselves have been accused on these grounds targeted once they had the umbrella of protection that the National Front provides for its own been removed. Abdullah Badawi’s politicised use of “watchdog” bodies has undermined confidence in fair adjudication over corruption issues.

The inherent vulnerability of the possible crossovers is compounded by the fact that many are involved in political contests within their own parties. The flux within all the parties in the governing National Front curtails independent decisions by members of parliament. They are understandably concerned with preserving their own political base, and are cautious not to stray too far from the position of their home parties.

But the obstacles faced by the opposition go beyond the risk-adverse constraints on those who might shift their allegiance. The shadow of a second sodomy trial against Anwar Ibrahim casts uncertainty over the man who is believed to be essential to bridge the different factions of the opposition. The effort of the Abdullah Badawi administration to hamper Anwar has had an effect, even though it is clear that the charges are groundless.

This uncertainty has seeped into the opposition itself, whose parties are gathered in the Pakatan Rakyat (People’s Alliance) – which apart from Anwar’s own party includes the Chinese-based Democratic Action Party (DAP) and the Parti Islam sa-Malaysia (Islamic Party of Malaysia / PAS).

The Islamist party, PAS, continues to show lukewarm and inconsistent support for a national opposition government by the People’s Alliance. Some factions within the party are driven by personal interests and are blinded by the same pro-Malay dominance racial outlook that has undermined the National Front itself. PAS’s ethnic outlook has stymied collaboration with other parties and undermined trust among other opposition actors. The ties forged by the promise of an alternative national government have loosened.

The insider

In these circumstances there is increasing attention on the figure of Najib Tun Razak, Malaysia’s deputy prime minister. Najib is the consummate “insider”, entering politics in his 20s in the footsteps of his father (who served as the country’s premier from 1970-76).

Indeed, no one rises through the ranks of the Pertubuhan Kebangsaan Melayu Bersatu / United Malays National Organisation (UMNO – the main component of the ruling National Front) without practicing some degree of patronage. Najib is no exception, and in the process of forging his own independent base within UMNO (which Abdullah Badawi was unable to do) he also accumulated a lot of baggage (in particular, perceptions of corruption tied to patronage).

Thus, Najib has faced a number of charges: involving defence contracts, alleged abuses of power, and (most seriously) a connection with Altantuya Shaariibuu, a Mongolian model murdered in October 2006. The mysteries of this case, including the nature of Najib’s role, have circulated widely in blogs and the international press. The inconclusive court proceedings, and the bumbling of the prosecution side, have raised questions about the judicial process. The mix of established record and plausible rumour means that  “character issues” haunt Najib’s ability to gain public legitimacy.

Another important element of Najib’s UMNO insider roots is his record of Malay chauvinism. This has created anxiety among non-Malays, who fear that Najib will use racism as a means to build his power-base. There is a precedent here: for Najib did precisely this in 1986-87, when he is remembered for lifting a Malay knife in a call for Malay unity against Chinese Malaysians.

Since 2003, the country has watched how a weak prime minister has used the instrument of a rejuvenated and race-based New Economic Policy (NEP) in order to hold onto power. The result of this refocus on ethnic issues is that Najib has overseen the worst downturn in race relations in Malaysia in the past thirty years.

This worsening has occurred primarily among elites, but it has included too a souring of Indian-Malay relations in the wake of a draconian response by Malay elites to calls for more representation of Indian Malaysians. The retreat to race-based discourse and a sense of entrenched “ethnic” concerns have undermined real debate and substantive policy reform to address poverty across races. The process has also seen attempts to make religious issues divide along ethnic lines, thus creating a zero-sum mentality that has cut into Malaysia’s traditional religious tolerance. Najib has not played an integral role in creating a climate of growing ethnic tolerance, and has yet to suggest greater inclusiveness in any substantive way.

All that has accreted around Najib during his rise towards the pinnacle of power – the operating modes, the inherited debts, the connections, the acceptance of authoritarianism – could undermine Malaysia’s democratisation process. Najib has shown no capacity to engage with criticism and dissent as a healthy component of a democratic society – rather, his instinct is to clamp down on it. He has shown no willingness to increase the transparency that will promote reform and better governance. Where he has been active – such as introducing a national-service programme, his main policy achievement – his record is filled with scandals and inefficiencies.

In the current climate of economic turmoil, this means that the demand on Najib (who also serves as finance minister) for effective policy will be a serious weight. His character, ethnic record and policy shortcomings cannot be ignored, even within his own party. This set of problematic issues suggests that Najib’s own rise within UMNO and the National Front cannot be fully secure.

The prospect

There is no question but that elite interests and limitations in bridge-building and policy insight have hampered Malaysia’s transition to date, and deepened political uncertainty. The dreams engendered by the election of March 2008 are still on hold. Yet it would be wrong to focus on elites alone, for to do so can lead to a neglect of the broader dynamics that have moved the democratic process forward. These – among them greater media freedom, more robust political discussion and (not least) consistent calls for better governance across races and generations in Malaysia – offer energetic challenges to entrenched forces determined to prevent change.

Malaysians will check their elites through the very cacophony of their voices, and ultimately at the next general election. The country’s worsening economic climate (reinforced by regional and global economic troubles) and continuing political “pause” will ensure that voices calling for a fairer and more inclusive system will get louder. This in turn means that whoever is in power – Najib, Anwar or someone unexpected – will have to face a more demanding public.

Between now and the UMNO polls of March 2009 – when Abdullah Badawi has promised to step down and Najib is projected to replace him – backroom dealing and negotiations will continue. The pause cannot continue indefinitely. Through the commitment of Malaysians to a better system, the “play” button will ultimately be pressed. That moment will promise a richer outlook for democracy in Malaysia.