Saturday, April 25, 2009

Does Umno care what Malaysians think?

APRIL 24 — Come on Malaysia, stop feigning surprise and indignation.

Umno has always had a different value system from the rest of the country.

This is a party which has celebrated chauvinists, defended the corrupt and provided refuge for individuals with question marks draped over themselves.

So why should it surprise Malaysians that Tengku Adnan Tengku Mansor (V K Lingam video clip fame) was re-appointed as the secretary-general of the ruling party and Malacca Chief Minister Datuk Seri Ali Rustam (corruption) and Tan Sri Rafidah Aziz (Approved Permits) were appointed to the supreme council by Datuk Seri Najib Razak.

Their appointments merely confirm what many suspected — the bar is much lower for Umno. It also suggests that despite all the flowery talk of change, the new prime minister cannot toss out realpolitik considerations when making decisions on the country or party.

There was a major spin campaign by the Najib camp after he unveiled his Cabinet line-up several weeks ago.

They noted how several individuals touched by scandal were dropped from the line-up of ministers and how this signaled a desire by the PM to start with a clean slate.

Much of that spiel was puff and fluff.

More than eighty per cent of those appointed ministers were old faces and a sprinkling of them had dodgy records.

The fact is that Najib had to fall in line and follow the old BN formula of picking the Cabinet.

He had to reward component parties and loyalists, and make sure all states had representatives as ministers.

That is why the slim line Cabinet was jettisoned for a bloated one.

Similar considerations were at play today when he appointed Ku Nan, Ali and Rafidah.

Najib wants to be inclusive and cast his dragnet as wide as possible. He wanted Tengku Adnan Mansor because this chap is an operator, a true party warlord who can organise the troops and get his hands dirty if the need arises. He is also fiercely loyal to the party president.

So what if the Putrajaya MP was censured by the Royal Commission on the VK Lingam video clip for being one of the main actors who fixed the appointment and promotion of judges.

So what if the commission recommended that authorities investigate him and others for a slew of offences?

The commission in its report last year said that “having regard to the totality of the evidence and for the reasons stated, we are of the view that there was, conceivably, an insidious movement by Lingam with the covert assistance of his close friends, Vincent Tan and Tengku Adnan

Tengku Mansor, to involve themselves actively in the appointment of judges, in particular, the appointment of Tun Ahmad Fairuz Abdul Halim as the Chief Judge of Malaya and subsequently as Court of Appeal president.’’

The Attorney-General has since said that no further action will be taken against some of the individuals implicated.

But truth be told, Ku Nan’s involvement in this sorry episode was never a problem with Umno members.

They could not understand what the fuss of judge fixing was all about.

Indeed, they were upset that the Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi administration made public the commission’s report.

In Ali’s case, he was probably co-opted into the supreme council to assuage his supporters who remain upset that he was barred from contesting the number two spot in the party after being found guilty of money politics by the Umno Disciplinary Board.

The Chief Minister who upset the Chinese community with some pointed barbs has played the role of loyal party man since being prevented from taking part in the party polls.

While chief ministers and mentris besar are usually appointed to the supreme council, if Najib wanted to make a statement about the importance integrity in Umno he could have overlooked Ali.


Rafidah’s inclusion is not surprising.

Najib wants to close ranks in Wanita Umno and send a message that winners don’t gain everything, and losers don’t lose everything.

Despite being backed by Najib’s supporters, the former Minister of International Trade and Industry was thumped by Datuk Seri Shahrizat Abdul Jalil for the top position in the women’s wing.

She was one of the Umno officials who played a critical role in convincing Abdullah that he would not be able to obtain 58 nominations from the divisions to defend the party president’s position.

Rafidah was a minister in Abdullah’s first term as PM but had to live with a big cloud over her head after Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad questioned her over the distribution of Approved Permits.

She denied any wrongdoing but the former prime minister has never retracted his allegations that there was abuse in the AP scheme. More recently, the Opposition has alleged that APs were given to a company owned by her relatives.

Still, these allegations and question marks over her character may not matter much in Umno. So there is little downside for Najib to have appointed her to the supreme council.

What lesson should Malaysians take from this exercise?

Simple, that there is one set of standard for the men and women of Umno and a higher set for

the rest of the country.

It has been that way for a long time.

Does the party care what the rest of the country thinks? Apparently not.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Government vs Mafia

22 Apr 09 : 8.30AM

By Wong Chin Huat

WE are now told by the new Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak that by-elections are bad because they distract us from dealing with the economic crisis.

Tunku Abdul Rahman (left-Public domain) This aversion towards elections is nothing new to Malaysia. In the spirit of learning our national history, let's revisit some past decisions made by Alliance/Barisan Nasional (BN) leaders.

The BN's track record

In March 1965, Tunku terminated local elections, which were mostly won by opposition parties, especially in the urban centres. Tunku promised to restore local elections once the Indonesian Confrontation was over. Of course, he never did. Neither did his five successors. Their reason? Elections are a waste of money.

Lee Kuan Yew (right - Public domain) In August 1965, Tunku expelled Singapore from the federation of Malaysia because Singapore Premier Lee Kuan Yew — like Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim 43 years later — was actively courting East Malaysians to challenge Umno rule. To be fair to Tunku, his Umno colleagues actually wanted a more repressive solution — Internal Security Act (ISA) detention for Lee and his People's Action Party lieutenants.

In 1966, Sarawak Chief Minister Datuk Stephen Kalong Ningkan — from the Sarawak National Party (SNAP) — was ousted unconstitutionally following dubious defections, much like Perak's Datuk Seri Mohammad Nizar Jamaluddin 43 years later. When the Borneo High Court ruled to reinstate Ningkan, he wanted to let the people decide.

However, before Ningkan could dissolve the legislature, the Tunku administration proclaimed emergency rule in Sarawak. The Federal and Sarawak constitutions were amended so that a motion of no-confidence could be passed and a more compliant chief minister appointed.

Mustapha Harun (left - Public domain) The late Tun Mustapha Harun was allied to Tunku and also avoided elections in Sabah. In 1969, when the Malaya Alliance struggled to hold onto power, Mustapha's Sabah Alliance bagged the state's 16 seats through "walkovers". In later years, he even contemplated making himself a sultan.

Tun Abdul Razak also had his moments in outmanoeuvring the electoral process. He expressed an aversion to "politicking" and preferred to focus on administration and development. After 1969, he gradually co-opted all but two parliamentary opposition parties, DAP and SNAP, first into coalition governments and later in 1974 into the BN.

His reward? A total of 47 walkovers or 31% of parliamentary seats in the 1974 elections.

In 1974, Razak also carved Chinese-Malaysian-majority Kuala Lumpur out of Selangor presumably to ensure that opposition parties like the DAP could never capture the state. The new Federal Territory was not to have its own state government, or any elected government for that matter.

Hussein Onn (right- Public domain) Razak's successor, Tun Hussein Onn, took a slightly different tack when faced with political difficulties. For example, he declared an emergency and imposed direct rule in Kelantan in 1977 when PAS, then a member of BN, tried to oust their own menteri besar, Datuk Mohamad Nasir, who was much-liked by Umno. Hussein lifted the emergency and went to polls four months later when Umno had strengthened its base. Umno and Nasir's splinter party, Berjasa, eventually thrashed PAS in the election.

While elections under Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad were arguably never free or fair, he was particularly innovative in his own party's elections. In 1988, he effectively purged Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah's supporters, by triggering the deregistration of Umno and the creation of Umno Baru. To protect the incumbents, Mahathir introduced the quota for nominations for the presidency and other senior positions, which Najib now proposes to remove.

In 1994, Anwar, then deputy prime minister and Umno deputy president, brought down the Parti Bersatu Sabah (PBS) state government through mass defections of lawmakers within a month after elections. Denying the use of financial inducement and coercive measures, Anwar recently reiterated that he merely "invited" those defectors. Of course, no fresh elections were called.

Musa Hitam (Source: One BN leader who made markedly different decisions was former Deputy Prime Minister Tun Musa Hitam. As the acting prime minister in 1985, he prevented Tun Mustapha's plot to install himself as Sabah chief minister despite not having a legislative majority, through — yes, even then — a palace coup.

But Musa's decision can be seen to be the exception rather than the rule in the BN's elections track record.

In February 2009, Najib orchestrated the downfall of Perak's elected government and installed Datuk Seri Dr Zambry Abdul Kadir as menteri besar.

While Anwar's Pakatan Rakyat (PR) has no legal or moral ground to protest the defections in Perak, why didn't the BN subsequently allow for a fresh poll?

Their answer is the usual — elections are disruptive and wasteful, and now bad for the economy.

Why are elections a must?

Why must we have elections to decide our governments?

Why can't we opt for horse-trading among lawmakers; palace coups; the rule of judges; military coups; mutinying police officers; mutinying bureaucracies; or mob rule à la Thailand's People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) as alternatives to topple and install governments?

PAD supporters armed with makeshift batons and golf clubs, 2008
(Pic by Mark Micallef, source: Wikipedia commons)

Provided the people do not protest, these methods may well be much smoother, more efficient, peaceful and attractive to certain types of investors.

So, why must the so-called liberal democrats and constitutional monarchists protest?

The answer, in a nutshell, is that elections distinguish a government from a mafia or triad.

A state is similar to the underworld in three senses: (a) they extract money; (b) they control territory; and (c) those living on their territories cannot opt out from being their subjects.

Tilly (right - Source: Why do governments fight against foreign countries (war-making), suppress domestic rebels and outlaws (state-making) and offer law and order for their subjects (protection)? So that they may have the power to extract their subjects' resources (extraction).

Charles Tilly, the American sociologist, called a spade a spade: war-making and state-making are but organised crimes. Four centuries before him, Tang Zhen, a Chinese thinker in Imperial China, called emperors thieves who fed on their subjects.

It is clear that in political theory, there is only a thin line between a government and a mafia or triad. While a government collects "taxes", a mafia or triad collects "protection fees". Sometimes, the mafia or triad is the government and carries out most governmental functions. For example, Kapitan Yap Ah Loy was both in 19th-century Kuala Lumpur.

Yap Ah Loy (left - Public domain) So, what is the real thin line between a government and a mafia or triad? That mafias or triads do not know how to employ a public relations company for legitimacy branding?

No. It is elections. It is the principle of "no taxation without representation", which ignited the American Revolution.

No mafia or triad will allow their subjects to elect their Godfather or Patriarch. You only have a duty to pay protection fees, but no right to elect your protector.

In a civilised world, a state must not be like a mafia or triad. That's why electoral processes and elected governments must not be subverted.

This month, when you pay your income tax, remember to cherish elections. Without elections, what you pay is only protection money.

The Godfather (© Paramount Pictures)

A political scientist by training and a journalism lecturer by trade, Wong Chin Huat is based in Monash University Sunway Campus. He hopes his home state will soon cease to be a kleptocracy propped up by unelected institutions. If democracy can only be restored with two more by-elections in Perak, he would appreciate any act of God.

Monday, April 13, 2009

The Last UMNO Prime Minister

As it now stands, Najib is doomed to be the last UMNO Prime Minister. He will not be even a “one-termer.” He will go down in history as our shortest-serving Prime Minister. Worse, it will be recorded for posterity that he was the Malay leader who brought down a once glorious organization, UMNO, an institution his late father was so instrumental in setting up.

by M. Bakri Musa

Newly-sworn Prime Minister Najib Razak created a buzz when he released 13 prisoners detained under the Internal Security Act (ISA) and lifted the ban on Harakah and Suara Keadilan, publications of the opposition parties. He also promised “a comprehensive review” of the ISA, a statute long abused to silence the government’s critics.

Malaysians long yearning for a change applauded him. There were skeptics, of course.

Alas that was last week. This week the hopes of those citizens were cruelly crushed when they saw the real Najib with the announcement of his new cabinet. Far from being a team that would wow Malaysians, Najib’s cabinet was, as Tunku Aziz put it, “a team of recycled political expendables.” And a bloated one at that!

The skeptics were right; Najib’s earlier act was nothing but a big and cruel tease.

This roster of “political expendables” was the best that the man could offer, from a leader who only a week earlier warned his party that it should “change or be changed.” When given the ultimate freedom to choose his own team, Najib stuck to the tried and true, or what he thought to be so. So this was Najib’s brave version of “Berani Berubah!” (Dare to Change!).

Najib is incapable of change; there is nothing in him to suggest otherwise. He could not even recognize the need for one, much less respond to it. Change would be totally out of character for the man. Far from welcoming or be invigorated by it, change would threaten him.

Unfortunately for Najib, Malaysia has changed. Incapable of change, he is doomed to be changed come the next general elections, from Prime Minister to Leader of the Opposition. He will be our shortest serving chief executive, our Gerald Ford. Ford was the unelected American President who assumed office following Nixon’s forced resignation over the Watergate scandal. Like Ford, Najib too was not elected to the highest office. Ford was subsequently rejected by voters; the same fate awaits Najib.

For Malaysia, that would truly be a wasted decade, with the first half already being squandered by Najib’s predecessor, Abdullah Badawi.

The True Najib

Najib is the obedient first son, the loyal subordinate, and the traditionalist aristocrat. He even inherited his father’s ancient tribal title, Orang Kaya Indera Shahbandar! How quaint in this 21st Century! His career path has been straight and narrow, on a track that had been conveniently laid down for him by others who felt indebted or grateful to his illustrious father.

Najib has never shown a talent for striking new paths. Even his ascendance to the Prime Minister’s office was paved by others, in particular Tun Mahathir and Muhyyudin Yassin. Najib must remember that a favor offered is a favor owed.

Just as he was the obedient son, Najib was also the dutiful and loyal subordinate. His blind obedience to Abdullah Badawi drew the wrath of Tun Mahathir. As for experience, Najib has been dependent on paychecks from the public purse all his adult life. He never had to meet a payroll; he has no idea of the trials and challenges of that endeavor; nor does he appreciate the sense of accomplishments and independence of those who have.

This is not the profile of a leader capable of making radical changes that Malaysia so desperately needs now.

Unfortunately the track Najib is on now ends at his office. Ahead, for him and the nation, is uncharted territory, with steep hills to climb and wide canyons to traverse. Turning back is not an option, as that path so carefully crafted by earlier leaders is now destroyed for lack of maintenance and prudent use.

That Najib is now portrayed as an agent for change is more a tribute to his highly-paid public relations operatives and the all-too-eager-to-please toadies in the mainstream media. However, you could pedal a dud only for so long; sooner or later the ugly reality would emerge and the bubble burst.

When that inevitability happens, beware! Voters react with vengeance when they feel that they have been hoodwinked by their leaders. Ask Najib’s immediate predecessor, Abdullah. The by-election results since the last general elections are portends for Najib and his party.

Totally Inept and Inadequately Prepared

Najib assembled his cabinet only last week. Even then he spent that limited time talking with leaders of his Barisan coalition instead of with potential candidates. He is clearly being negligent. He knew he will be Prime Minster months ago; he should have been interviewing and short-listing candidates all along. Being unopposed as president of UMNO and thus freed from having to campaign, he had plenty of time to preview his choices prior to last week.

I am particularly concerned with the choice of his deputy. Did Najib have a private session with Muhyyudin before selecting him? Nowhere is it written that UMNO Deputy President should also be the Deputy Prime Minister. Najib is trapped by tradition.

Najib should have done a “Khairy Jamaluddin” on Muhyyudin, that is, keep him out of the cabinet and make him focus on rebuilding the party. God knows, UMNO needs intensive rehabilitation as much as its Youth wing, if not more so. Dispensing with Muhyyudin would strengthen Najib’s image as a reformer, quite apart from taking the sting out of having singly excluded Khairy from the cabinet.

Najib gave the very important Education portfolio to Muhyyudin. Is Najib assured that Muhyyudin agrees with him on the major policy issues, in particular the highly contentious matter of continuing the teaching of science and mathematics in English? Muhyyudin is unusually quiet on this.

It is equally hard to be enthusiastic on the rest of Najib’s team. This is what happens when you choose your cabinet based on pleasing others, especially those whom you owe favors.

Najib struggled to get his team, just like Abdullah and Mahathir before him. Like them, he too found the pickings slim as he fished only in the same polluted and shallow puddle of UMNO and Barisan. He did not have the courage to venture beyond.

Najib unwittingly revealed much in his first few days as Prime Minister. Thanks to his PR team, Najib managed to sound very positive, at with his promise of “a comprehensive review” of the ISA. That sent orgies of praise for the man in the mainstream media and elsewhere. The more perceptive (or skeptical) would note that he specifically did not mention anything about repealing it.

Then there was his announcement on the release of the 13 ISA prisoners “with immediate effect.” In Najib’s lexicon, “with immediate effect” means at least three days later! This shows how much he is in tune with the actual workings of the civil service.

If I had been Najib’s communications director, this is what I would have done. Knowing how easily our civil servants could screw things up, I would first check with the Home Ministry, specifically the Chief of Police and Prison Director, to arrange for the release of the prisoners. Send them to the nearby rest house at government expense if their families were not yet ready to receive them. I would then alert television stations and other news media so they would be there to cover it.

Only after assuring myself that all those meticulous preparations are in place would I have Najib make his announcement. Imagine the dramatic impact when the split screen on the nation’s television screens would also show the prisoners being released as he made the announcement. It would also showcase the crispness of Najib’s new administration. Had he done so, he would have been spared the embarrassment of his orders being delayed for days because of – you guessed it! – paperwork!

On the day Najib announced his new cabinet, the judge in the long running Mongolian model murder trial rendered his judgment. Najib had been trying hard to ignore the grizzly tragedy, but it kept cropping up at the most inopportune time. His strategy is to stonewall, banking that the success of his policies would make citizens forget the gruesome crime.

Najib is gravely mistaken in this. Even if his ethics were beyond reproach, Najib would find his policies a tough sell. Conversely, if he could clear up those sordid allegations (assuming of course he is innocent, a huge supposition) he would find that with his personal credibility now enhanced, the public would more likely buy into his policies. Stonewalling is no strategy.

As it now stands, Najib is doomed to be the last UMNO Prime Minister. He will not be even a “one-termer.” He will go down in history as our shortest-serving Prime Minister. Worse, it will be recorded for posterity that he was the Malay leader who brought down a once glorious organization, UMNO, an institution his late father was so instrumental in setting up. All destroyed in just two generations; the first to build it, the second to destroy. Truly a very Malay story!

For those who warmly applauded Najib on his first few days in office thinking that his was the dawn of a new day for the nation, I hope they would translate their disappointment into effective action. Deliver to Najib his own KPI (Key Performance Index) at the next general elections. It will be less than four years away; plenty of time to lay and grease the track for Najib’s (and UMNO’s) exit. ---M. Bakri Musa

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Sivakumar remains Umno’s stumbling block

Mohamed Hanipa Maidin sits on the Pas central committee and is the Pas legal adviser. He is also a lawyer who blogs at

On Thursday the Federal Court declared that the three independent Perak state assemblymen have not resigned and remain as state assemblymen. A five-man panel, in an unanimous decision, made this declaration after it ruled that the Election Commission has the right to decide the status of the three state seats.

The three — Hee Yit Foong (Jelapang), Jamaluddin Mohd Radzi (Behrang) and Mohd Osman Mohd Jailu (Changkat Jering) — had applied to the Federal Court for an interpretation of points of law in the Perak Constitution with regard to vacancies of state seats and whether it was the EC or the Speaker of the Perak legislature who had the final say in determining the vacancy of a state seat.

Court of Appeal president Justice Alauddin Mohd Sheriff, who chaired the panel, said the EC was the rightful entity to establish if a seat in the Perak State Assembly was vacant.

One may ask whether the Federal Court decision finally determines once and for all the legal status of the three assemblymen. The simple answer is a resounding no.

Before I share the reasons, it is germane to highlight here the thrust of the Federal Court’s judgment.

Basically the court was asked to determine the following issue, namely which authority has the power to determine the casual vacancy of the three state seats. Was the power vested in the speaker or the EC?

Since the court ruled that the power was vested in the EC, the latter was therefore entitled to establish that the three state seats were not vacant. Be that as it may the EC was not required to hold any by-election in those three state seats.

As the EC had made a decision that the three state seats were not vacant, it therefore follows that the three state assemblymen remain as state assemblymen.

It is submitted that despite the aforementioned decision of the Federal Court, the legal status of three assemblymen could still be challenged. There are few reasons for that.

The Federal Court merely decided which authority was empowered to determine the casual vacancy of the state seats. Nothing more, nothing less.

Just because the EC has the power to determine the casual vacancy of a state constituency, that does not ipso facto mean such a decision is valid and good in the eyes of law. The legality of the decision of the EC may still, under the law, be challenged by any aggrieved party.

The Federal Court’s judgment did not touch upon the issue of the legality of the EC’s decision and the reason being it was not asked to do that by the three assemblymen.

It is trite law that any decision by a public authority such as the EC is susceptible to judicial review. Since the court has not decided on the legality issue of the EC’s decision, the EC’s decision can still be quashed by the court if it is proven that it was legally flawed or tainted with elements of illegality or irrationality or procedural impropriety or bias or mala fide, etc.

To his credit, Perak Speaker V. Sivakumar has filed an application for a judicial review against the decision of the EC in the Kuala Lumpur High Court. The latter has fixed the hearing of the application in May.

Even the Federal Court conceded that its decision did not prejudice the judicial review application filed by Sivakumar. When one of the lawyers representing Sivakumar, Ranjit Singh, asked if the decision meant that it would be without prejudice to two related judicial review applications in the Kuala Lumpur High Court, Justice Alauddin said: “It is understood (that it would be without prejudice).”

In the circumstances, until and unless the court has finally determined the status of the three assemblymen via the judicial review application by Sivakumar, the status of the former remains in limbo despite the Federal Court’s decision.

If that is the case one may ask whether Sivakumar has the power to restrain the three assemblymen from entering the state assembly. Frankly speaking I can see no reason for Sivakumar not to exercise his power to bar these three individuals from going in.

Nowhere in the Federal Court’s judgment is said that Sivakumar is prohibited from restraining the three state assemblymen from entering the state assembly. The three assemblymen merely obtained declaratory reliefs and such reliefs, from the legal perspective, are incapable of imposing any obligations on Sivakumar. In other words as far as Sivakumar is concerned , the declaratory reliefs obtained by Umno are impotent.

In short, one may conclude that the Federal Court may send the three assemblymen in but it seems to me that the Federal Court implicitly allows Sivakumar to send them out in the absence of any order restraining Sivakumar from doing that.

Despite the victorious judgment obtained by Umno, that per se does not help it in curbing Sivakumar’s power. No matter what it takes, Umno has to acknowledge that Sivakumar remains its stumbling block “dulu, kini dan selamanya”. ---The Malaysian Insider

Thursday, April 9, 2009

So much effort by BN for so little gain

The result of the Bukit Gantang polls shows that the campaign the BN carried out before the by-election to discredit Nizar and brand him a traitor has indeed failed. This puts further pressure on the Sultan to defuse the crisis in his state by calling for new elections soon.

by Ooi Kee Beng
Thursday, 09 April 2009 13:02

The results of the triple by-elections that the Election Commission took so much trouble to put on the same day, and a weekday at that, and suitably after the dominant Umno had held what was expected to be a disruptive party election, failed to convince Malaysians that the winds of change were now blowing against the opposition.

The Batang Ai state seat in Sarawak was closely watched for signs of whether Parti Keadilan Rakyat leader Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim and his allies had made any headway in persuading Malaysians in Sarawak to consider an alternative to the Barisan Nasional government. The increased margin that the BN attained seems to suggest that he has as yet not made any impression, at least among the hill Ibans.

To what extent he has gotten through to those living in the sprawling state’s urban and coastal areas has yet to be measured. The battle for votes in Sarawak is a protracted one, and the Batang Ai by-election has to be seen as a mere skirmish won by the defending forces.

The by-elections in Kedah and Perak, on the other hand, carry significantly more immediate import, mainly because these states constitute the frontline for the proverbial shooting war between the BN and Pakatan Rakyat.

Where Bukit Selambau is concerned, there was fear among PR supporters that the Indian vote might be badly split to the opposition’s disadvantage, and that the record number of contestants — 15 of them! — might tip the balance in favour of the BN, as had traditionally been the case.

Had this proven to be true, then some bad infighting within the PR was to be expected. If Hindraf, the Hindu rights organisation that played such a decisive role in the successes enjoyed by the opposition last year, had been hesitant in its support for Anwar, then one more weak point would have revealed in the PR’s position.

As things turned out, the Bukit Selambau loss suffered by the BN component party, the MIC, is most likely to be the final nail in its coffin.

Nowhere was the running battle between BN and PR more intense than in Perak. Not only was the Bukit Gantang seat a parliamentary one, unlike the other two, the opposition candidate was Datuk Seri Mohammad Nizar Jamaluddin, the mentri besar who is being sidelined through BN-orchestrated defections.

The key role played by the Perak sovereign, Sultan Azlan Shah, in naming a new government to replaced the PR, had placed the PR in the difficult position of disobeying him without being disloyal to the monarch. The opposition feared that some rural Malay votes would be lost because of that.

The result of the Bukit Gantang polls shows that the campaign the BN carried out before the by-election to discredit Nizar and brand him a traitor has indeed failed. This puts further pressure on the Sultan to defuse the crisis in his state by calling for new elections soon.

Had either Bukit Selambau or Bukit Gantang been lost to the BN, there would have been some grounds for the Najib administration to contend that voters were growing disillusioned with the PR.

That would also have given the new premier reason to believe that his series of tactical moves was working, and that would have encouraged him and his advisors to stroll that path and lighten the reforming of Umno, the BN and Malaysian governance in general.

The bigger picture that emerges after April 7, 2009, is that the voter revolt that started in March the year before has not lessened in strength despite the concerted offensive by the BN.

Alongside aggressive actions such as the takeover of power in Perak through defections and the criminal charges levelled against Anwar and others in the opposition camp, the government’s offensive also involved softer tactical moves such as the release of 13 detainees held without trial under the Internal Security Act, including two Hindraf leaders; the lifting of a short-term ban put suspiciously recently on two opposition party newspapers; a comforting calling for “One Malaysia, People First, Performance Now”; and promises of institutional reforms.

The charm offensive included the return of former premier Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad into Umno just in time for him to campaign in Bukit Gantang. The poll result suggests that that this tactic actually backfired, and the usefulness of Dr Mahathir may be limited, at least during elections.

What the BN can comfort itself with at this time is that Batang Ai was the first by-election it has won since the general election. Small comfort perhaps, especially when one compares with the increased margins with which the PR has won the other four by-elections carried out since that fateful day; but it is comfort that is rare at the moment.

An edited version of this article was published in TODAY Singapore.

The writer is Fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. His latest book is "Arrested Reform: The Undoing of Abdullah Badawi" (Refsa 2009).

Friday, April 3, 2009

Najib now has to deliver on his promises

APRIL 3 — Brand-new Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Abdul Razak is not in an enviable position.

While some fear that he will try to be a second Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad who will force party, Parliament and opposition to toe his line, chances are great that he will instead be a second Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi.

For one thing, Najib lacks the conviction and the self-confidence that Dr Mahathir had. Even if he chooses to show that he can be as Machiavellian as the next man, he has to convince a sufficiently large portion of the masses that the harsh measures he carries out are absolutely necessary. That will not be easy to do.

Secondly, given how little room Najib’s allies within the Barisan Nasional have to manoeuvre in, such a choice of direction would practically kill them off. What he really needs to do is to give BN component parties like the MIC, the Gerakan Parti Rakyat and the MCA goodies that their leaders can present to their potential constituencies.

Playing “tough guy” will instead work against allies trying hard to win back voters who deserted them because they compromised too much and allowed their party profiles to be subsumed under the federal government’s Umno-centrism.

Championing Malay ethnocentrism too loudly will not help Najib also because the emergent opposition coalition is now largely led by Malays as well. What is worse news for him on this front is that the Muslim card that Dr Mahathir used to good effect in the 1980s is not his to play. No Malay sees Najib as a religious leader in any credible sense.

Even when led by Abdullah, a man with respected religious credentials, Umno failed to gain ground among Muslims. The party led by Najib is definitely not able to adopt a position as champion of Malay Islam.

While BN and Umno had been using variations on their “Malay First” policy to justify most of their actions over a long period of time, their moral failings and the falling standards of governance had been supplying oppositional forces with endless possibilities — and time — to formulate ideas that find an easy response among voters of all ages and ethnic groups.

From this grew the opposition’s present impressive ability to repulse most of what the powerful central government can throw at it.

The strange coalition forged between the DAP, Parti Keadilan Rakyat and PAS, weak because of its apparent unholy mix, paradoxically enjoys the advantage, at least as long as they remain in opposition, of having collected most expressions of discontent against the BN government under its umbrella.

Najib’s biggest problem as he takes over from a disgraced Abdullah is that the opposition has a great discursive advantage over whatever his administration can think up. Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim and his allies keep focusing on governance issues, and call for more transparency, more accountability and more competence in government and the civil service. They talk about helping the needy independent of race, of welfare for the poor, of more freedom of expression, and of amending the affirmative action programme that favours Malays. All these find a ready audience.

Indeed, even the spiritual leader of PAS, Datuk Nik Aziz Nik Mat, has most recently declared his uneasiness over the term “Bumiputera”, saying that it smacked of racism.

What makes it less prudent for Najib to use harsh methods against his critics is that his personal reputation is badly injured by public association with the murder of the Mongolian national Altantuya Shaariibuu. Any future unwarranted use of draconian methods that can be directly linked to him will damage his image beyond redemption, if it is not that already.

What Najib would be well-advised to do at this stage, and given how the tide continues moving against him, is to do a repeat of the early Abdullah period, but with a desperate effort at ending with a different punch line.

Najib does seem to be in the promising stage at the moment. He wants Umno’s electoral structure reformed, somewhat in the way Dr Mahathir’s major opponent, Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah, had been calling for. He is also saying that Malaysia’s future development depends on ethnic fissures diminishing, something that most Malaysians would not disagree with, having said it themselves for so long.

But beyond parroting the calls for reforms first voiced by others, Najib has to deliver on his promises, and quickly. In that undertaking, the opposition will not be his main enemies. Umno’s warlords and power holders in the present enormous federal bureaucracies will be the ones he will have to combat. He might not have the ability to manage that.

The area where he can concentrate his efforts at showing leadership qualities is in national economic policy-making. With the global crisis getting worse by the day, he is offered the opportunity of being the prime minister who is able to soften its worst effects. Should he manage that, and in the process place the country in an improved international position when and if the next economic boom comes, then he will be able to leave a legacy far more excellent than any Malaysian anywhere in the world expects of him.

The writer is a Fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. His latest book is "Arrested Reform: The Undoing of Abdullah Badawi". - The Malaysian Insider