Sunday, February 25, 2007

Ripening Durian

Ripening durian
by Sim Kwang Yang
Feb 24, 07

DESPITE the PM’s often repeated statement that the next general election is not likely to be held soon, the vote is obviously very much on the mind of politicians, journalists, and political pundits throughout our land.

Obviously, the PM must have received worrisome reports from intelligence agencies about how people feel generally on the ground. In the last twelve months at least, the natives have been restive, and the Chinese and Indians have been seething with discontent.

You can analyse until the cow come home why suddenly Malaysians of all races begin to harbour doubts about the credibility of the ruling parties in delivering the good life, but surely, like most modern democracy, the economy must sit very much at the centre of this tornado of resentment.

In the last month or so, there has been an apparent attempt to change this public perception that we are now better off than before. The shares market is finally climbing towards the level similar to that before the 1997 disaster. All sorts of statistics about our booming economy dominate the front pages of our newspapers. Ambitious projects to revive the economy and huge government expenditure under the 9th Malaysian Plan are touted weekly.

Apparently, our trade figure has surpassed the one trillion mark for the first time. Our unemployment rate is low, and so is our consumer price index. Our GDP growth rate continues to hold at between 5 to 6 %. All these numbers indicate a prosperous booming economy. The people should be enjoying a high standard of living, and happily support the government during the pending general election.

Unfortunately, in this country, we do not have credible professional public opinion poll, like the Gallup Poll in the US. Most first world nations have regular opinion polls to gauge the mood of the people on any subject at any one time. That we have yet to see such professional poling is an indication that we are very far from being a first-world nation.

Grey area

We can only speculate as to the reason why we do not have such polls in Malaysia.

We do know that both the ruling parties and the opposition have their own solid support base, consisting of die-hard supporters who will vote for the object of their loyalty, no matter what. Generally speaking, the support base for the ruling parties will be far larger and more solid than that for the opposition. The ruling parties do have the advantage of incumbency, and possess such resources and political largess as to consolidate their power base with ease.

Between the die-hard support bases for the BN and the opposition, there exists a grey area of undecided voters, ranging from very intelligent voters who will weigh and compare the two contending sides, to voters who simply do not have a clue about politics. Their size in any constituency varies, but small they may be in numbers, their polling trend may and often does change the outcome of any keenly contested election. One could say that these “fence-sitters” are actually the king-makers in any general election.

Seasoned campaigners know well that no effort and expense should be spared in wooing these “fence-sitters”. Loyalty to their race and religion often works, and so does intimidation and fear. In Sarawak and Sabah, cash usually speaks louder than words.

Everybody loves a winner. Strange as it may sound, there are actually many fence-sitting voters who will vote where the wind blows. Somehow, if they get an inkling that in any one constituency, the opposition is enjoying strong support, they will be better fortified against bribe and intimation to vote for the opposition as well. There is always this group psychology of strength in number at work. This trend seems to apply to both informed and uninformed voters.

Therefore, it is not to the interest of the ruling parties to allow professional credible public opinion polls. For one thing, if the government is getting unpopular, a transparent poll showing it to be so may trigger off and create a chain-reaction of discontent, encouraging more support for the opposition. For another, without independent objective polls, it is far easier for the BN controlled media to manufacture the public perception that all things are rosy and well.

Public perception may not be the end all and be all in a democracy, but it is nearly that. Take the American Presidential election for instance. There, the presidential election is now shut off to all except those who are very wealthy themselves, or who can raise billions of campaign funds, much of which will go to TV advertising. In this age of media illusion being mistaken for reality, Abraham Lincoln would never be elected because of his less-than-handsome feature.

Trickle down effect

The latest round of spin about how well our economy is doing is an indication that the next general election is near at hand. At the same time, the PM may also wish for the massive injection of public investment into the national economy to bear fruit. That means allowing the 9th Malaysian Plan to gestate. The trickle down effect will have to take some time.

The critical date to watch would be our nation’s 50th Independence Day this year. With the usual outbursts of euphoria and hysterical patriotism usually associated with such an event, the national mood would be favourable to the ruling partiers. Then again, somewhere down the line in October perhaps, the Budget Session of Parliament is another occasion for the government to shower the nations with a whole host of goodies.

Without access to privileged information, and wild-guessing entirely from my comfortable armchair, I would predict that the next general election could possibly fall sometime after October this year, and more likely to happen at the beginning of next year.

The next 12 moths are crucial for all parties eyeing the next general election with great interest.

It will be even more crucial for the PM. Obviously, his honeymoon with the Malaysian electorate is over. There were great expectations of what he could deliver when he led the BN to a landslide victory in 2004. That kind of expectations will now return to haunt him.

His baggage will now wear on him like the Himalaya mountains. His own party and the parties within the ruling coalition are cracking at the seams. Having been liberated from the iron claws of the previous PM, the media have uncovered many huge hornet’s nests and giant skeletons in the BN closet. The nation is awash with a plethora of highly inflammable issues.

Above all, the people are hard up, no matter what the official statistics say about our booming economy.

A recent poll conducted by an independent body has shown that as of now, if an election were held today, two-third of the Chinese would vote for the opposition, while one-third of the Indians and the Malays would do likewise.

The PM may not be all that worried about a swing of Chinese votes to the opposition, as long as he holds on to the Malay base in rural and semi-rural constituencies, especially those in Sarawak and Sabah. Given the decades of electoral gerrymandering, the proportion of Chinese majority seats in the country has declined with each delineation. Even if no Chinese votes for the BN, the ruling parties may still be in power.

Anwar’s biggest challenge

This time around, however, there is a difference. There are many seats where no single ethnic community enjoys a simple majority. There are many seats where the Chinese votes count from between 5 to 15% of the total votes within the constituency. If there is a keen contest between two equally powerful candidates, the Chinese voters may find themselves playing role of king-makers. Extrapolate this situation to the whole country, and the Chinese votes would suddenly become crucial in deciding the national balance of power – if only they know it, and know how to make use of this fact to their advantage.

The racially mixed seats ought to be fertile hunting ground for Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR). This young party has been in a political doldrums, even after the release of Anwar Ibrahim. The next election is certainly the do-or-die battle for them. It may also be Anwar Ibrahim’s severest test in his entire political career.

No single opposition party can ever dream of threatening the BN grip on power naturally. Our nation’s politics is condemned to be one of alliance. So far, no meaningful alliance of opposition parties has ever appeared on our nation’s political stage.

Whatever his political baggage may be, Anwar Ibrahim is the X factor in opposition politics. He is still the only one who can work as both a pivot and a catalyst in forging a rainbow coalition of opposition forces and making a significant dent in fortress BN. That makes the next general election more interesting to watch.

During fruiting season, the durians that are almost ripe will fall of their own accord. The same phenomenon applies to politics as well. What kind of durian will we get after the next election is anybody’s guess.

About the Author

SIM KWANG YANG was DAP MP for Bandar Kuching in Sarawak 1982-1995. Since retiring in 1995, he has become a freelance writer in the Chinese-language press, and taught philosophy in a local college for three years.He is now working with an NGO in Kuala Lumpur, the Omnicron Learning Circle, which is aimed at continuing learning for working adults and college students. Suggestions and feedback can reach him at:

‘An Examined Life’ appears in Malaysiakini every Saturday.

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