Malaysia: Ruling party facing greatest challenge in poll

Pro-democracy rally in Kuala Lumpar in April last year.

Ever since Malaysia was granted independence in 1957, the party that the British colonial rulers groomed and installed as their neo-colonial puppets, the United Malay National Organisation (UMNO), has clung on to power by hook or by crook.

At various points in history, UMNO (the central party in the governing Barisan Nasional (BN) ruling coalition) have relied on colonial military might, ethnic pogroms, jailing dissidents, media control, gerrymandering, vote rigging, corruption and patronage to stay in power.

UMNO's grip on power seemed unshakeable, but in the lead up to the 2008 general election in 2008 the situation changed dramatically. The people began to lose their fear of a return to the government-organised ethnic pogrom of May 13, 1969 despite regular efforts by government leaders to keep that fear alive. The fear that politically paralysed a couple of generations of Malaysians was broken.

The ruling party's monopoly on newspapers, radio and TV was challenged with the internet. The dissident army of brave bloggers and social media grew.

And with the help of new media a mass movement for free and fair elections, named Bersih (meaning “Clean”) arose and mobilised tens of thousands in the streets. Clumsy government attempts to squash this with repression backfired and only fueled the mood for change. In the coming May 5 general election, the opposition parties are hoping to put up their biggest electoral challenge yet.

On April 13, I interviewed Anil Netto, one of Malaysia's many fiesty bloggers and an independent journalist whose article often appear in the Asian Times. Netto is also a voluntary activist with the Malaysian social justice NGO Aliran.

* * *

Bloggers like yourself have played an important role in the flowering of the democratic opposition since 2007. What is your thinking about the coming general election?

There is a groundswell for change, especially in the urban areas. Everywhere the talk is about change. But we don't know how far this mood has spread outside urban areas.

There is also some uncertainty about how the first-time voters will vote. Many of them are products of our education system, which does not train people to think creatively and analyse critically.

But lots of young people were seen in the streets in the recent democracy protests.

That is true, but these would be the young people who are more exposed to alternative news websites, political discussion and debate. Many of them don't belong to any political party or NGO, but have become newly engaged in the movement.

There is a sprinkling of young people coming into the movement as organised activists with groups such as Aliran, but most young people are engaged in informal and spontaneous activity, using Facebook and other social media to gravitate around a particular campaign and then move on to another campaign later on. Much depends on what is the “issue of the day”.

Over the past few years, there has been a doubling of the number of unemployed graduates from our universities and polytechnics, and unemployment is their most serious concern. This is turning itself into broader political disaffection.

Malaysia has had continuous strong GDP growth and its economy is not in the type of recession afflicting Europe and North America, so why is there so much disaffection?

We may have had economic growth but the question is how are the fruits of this growth distributed. We have a widening Gini coefficient [inequality index] in Malaysia and Singapore. It is among the highest inequality in the region.

This is a serious concern and the ruling party knows this. This is why they are giving handouts of RM500 ($160) for households earning below RM3000 a month.

These one-off handouts to help low-income households apply to a huge cross-section [4.3 million households, and the total number of households in Malaysia was estimated at just 4.6 million in 2011]. This shows how uneven the distribution of income is in Malaysia.

The government has admitted that 30% of workers live below the poverty line. It has decided finally to introduce a minimum wage but there is a lot of procrastination by employers.

They are making all sorts of excuses and trying to include all sorts of things into the calculation of the minimum wage such as overtime, supplied accommodation and other “benefits in kind”.

Ordinary people are finding it hard to cope with the cost of living, especially food, transport, health care, education and housing.

So all this GDP growth has come at the cost of a growing divide between the rich and the poor, and also at the expense of the environment.

Hill slopes are being recklessly cleared for property developments and toxic developments like the rare earth refinery by the Australian company Lynas and aluminium smelters in Sarawak. We have only 5-10% of our primary rainforest remaining in Sarawak.

So economic growth has come at a price.

Malaysian politics has been frozen for many years by the ruling party's exploitation of the “race card”. Is there a decisive break from this politics of fear?

I think there has been a gradual evolution rather than a decisive break, especially in the minds of younger people. Few of them are thinking in terms of race, though there is always a group that has been indoctrinated by the state into thinking along the lines of racial and religious division, manifested in [chauvinist] groups like Perkasa.

But on the whole more people are aware that this is a tactic to keep people divided while the BN and its cronies plunder the country.

On the opposition side, the parties have become much more multiracial and multi-religious. In fact Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS) has just announced its first non-Muslim parliamentary candidate for the coming election and there are a few more to come apparently.

These are important milestones in moving away from the “old politics” based on race and religion.

What has been the record of the state governments won by the opposition in the last election? And what does this record say about a possible future federal government composed of today's opposition parties?

Many people see in the opposition alliance Pakatan Rakyat [“People's Front”] a hope for change. To a certain extent the four Pakatan state governments have demonstrated that they are a bit more accountable, transparent in their dealings and more financially prudent.

They have been able to show that by eliminating obvious corruption, they have found the extra cash to bring about some changes to help the ordinary people. But in the terms of the model of development, I still have many questions and reservations.

We are talking about a foreign investment-drive, export-oriented development model as well as a neoliberal financial system, which has created the growing gap between the rich and the poor. In this, Pakatan is not any different from the BN.

In Penang [under a Pakatan state government], for instance, development is very property-centric and there is a penchant for iconic projects to impress the voters such as grand convention centres, tunnels, highways and that sort of thing.

In Aliran, we are hoping for change but not the change that is stuck in the same model of development. If we manage to make a break from BN rule, what change we push for after that is also important.

We need real changes in things like the health and education systems and housing for the ordinary people not expensive housing for speculators. The public transport system remains neglected even under Pakatan state governments.

What are the most progressive points of the platform of the opposition in this election?

The best point is their support for free education which they plan to fund with money saved from ending corruption, cronyism and through plugging the outflow of the billions of ringitt from the country.

Do you think the opposition has a chance of winning the coming election?

I think it will be a very closely contested election. For the first time, people believe there is a chance of a change in government even though the probability may not be high. There could be many twists and turns in the election campaign that shift those probabilities.

What also makes this election different is that we've got an alternative media and this increases the possibilities for change. But it is going to be very difficult in Sarawak and Sabah and in the interiors of Johore and Pahang, where it is not easy for the opposition parties to speak to rural constituencies unlike the BN which has access to mainstream media, particularly TV and radio.

The BN has also seemingly unlimited access to funds and state machinery.

Meanwhile we can see all around us the attempts by the government to buy an election win with free dinners, give aways of laptops and cash handouts. They no longer have to slip money quietly under the table. Vote buying has been normalised.

They don't do it officially through the BN parties but use clubs and NGOs they control, like 1 Malaysia. The ordinary person is thinking this is just not right.

What about the changes to the electoral rules that the BN government has introduced under pressure from the Bersih movement? Will they make a difference?

One big change is the introduction of the use of indelible ink to prevent people voting more than once, which is a step in the right direction. But there are other concerns such as the integrity of the electoral roll and the wholesale issuing of citizenship papers to foreigners as we saw in Sabah.

They have supposedly widened the range of citizens overseas who are allowed to vote [previously restricted to military and government personnel]. But not many Malaysians overseas have been allowed to register to vote for this election ― just a few thousand of the tens of thousands of eligible Malaysian voters overseas.