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Malaysia’s New Momentum

By Firas Ahmad

Less than ten years ago, Malaysia’s former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim was languishing in prison, suffering from arsenic poisoning surreptitiously introduced into his drinking water. Ibrahim was sacked after challenging the rule of then Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamed. Jailed on what he claimed to be politically motivated charges of sodomy and corruption, not only was Ibrahim’s political career apparently over, but his life was in danger. Only after his family secretly smuggled blood samples out of the country to confirm the poisoning were steps taken to ensure his health.

Fast forward to March 8, 2008. Even though he remains unable to stand for election until April of 2008 due to his previous incarceration, the Ibrahim-led opposition coalition dealt a stunning blow to the ruling Barisan National (BN) Party, breaking its decades-old super majority control of parliament. To call it a “comeback” would be an understatement. While the BN continues to hold a simple majority, a tectonic shift has taken place in Malaysian politics, and it was in many ways engineered by Anwar Ibrahim. The victory means a new political future for the world’s most economically advanced Muslim country, ushering in new chapter in Muslim democracy.

The last time the ruling BN party failed to secure a super-majority in parliament was 1969. Following the elections, Chinese celebrations sparked race riots that resulted in the deaths of hundreds of individuals. This national trauma catalyzed the establishment of a controversial race-based system of governance rooted in a New Economic Policy (NEP) that gave preferential treatment to the majority Malay Muslim community. A tenuous arrangement with minority Chinese and Indian groups held the country together since that time, mostly under the rule of Mahathir Mohamed whose aggressive economic growth strategies propelled Malaysia into the third-largest economy in Southeast Asia. Overtime, however, political progress failed to keep pace with economic development. While the largest building in the world was constructed in Kuala Lumpur, political power continued to rest almost entirely along sectarian racial and religious lines. The BN remained unchallenged by a weak opposition incapable of organizing against the status quo. Corruption, mismanagement and concentration of wealth set in. The ruling party had almost complete control over the media, public gatherings, special security laws and other government apparatus.

A number of factors contributed to rising discontent amongst Malaysians across racial divides, including rising crime, a slowing economy, a number of very public corruption scandals and increased oil prices. In addition, increasing discontent emanated from the minority Chinese and Indian communities over the pro-Malay NEP. The BN, now led by Mahathir’s hand-picked successor Abdullah Badawi, recognized its support amongst Chinese and Indians would weaken, but expected that Malay support would remain strong so as to ensure pro-Malay policies.

This was a serious miscalculation. Not only did Chinese and Indian voters flock to the polls in support of the opposition, but a number of Malays also followed suit. There was a growing realization among average Malays that benefits from the NEP seldom found their way to working-class segments of the community. Foreign investment continued to decline. Malaysia used to be America’s tenth largest trading partner. It is now the sixteenth. While the economy continued to grow, fewer people were benefitting from the gains.

Therein lies Anwar Ibrahim’s most significant contribution to Malaysia’s political earthquake. He coalesced a fractured opposition movement around the elimination of race-based politics – and did so in such a manner that supporters of the ruling BN party felt no compulsion to turn to violence, as a number of them actually agreed with Ibrahim. The achievement was made nonetheless remarkable by the fact that he campaigned through a complete media black-out and relentless attacks on his character through state-controlled media, but continued to draw significant crowds in the tens of thousands across the country including in areas dominated by the ruling party. The opposition’s innovative use of Youtube and text-messaging no doubt played a role in this as well.

Ibrahim was able to broker a cooperative arrangement amongst three major opposition parties – the left-leaning, mostly Chinese DAP, the Malay Islamist PAS party and his own PKR multi-racial Justice Party - to challenge the BN one-on-one in each contest. The opposition was able to achieve what most said was impossible given the entrenched power of the ruling BN party: it undercut BN support amongst Malays by appealing to their sense of justice and fairness. Malaysia’s race-based system was likely to give way sooner or later, but Ibrahim paved a path for peaceful transition by bringing his credibility as a Malay politician to the table while simultaneously assuring Chinese and Indians that their rights would be respected. He talked Malays into letting go of the fear that had incited communal riots in 1969. It is no small feat to transition peacefully out of entrenched systems of entitlement. One need only review Iraq’s unfortunate history since 2003 for an example of how such a process can be terribly mismanaged.

While the opposition victory is certainly critical for charting a more egalitarian future for Malaysia, it also bodes well for the development of Muslim democracy. The opposition coalition’s orientation brought moderate elements from the Islamist PAS party forward. PAS even fielded a non-Muslim candidate, an unprecedented move in its history. Meanwhile, Badawi sought to leverage racial divide by appealing to Malays through increasingly Islamist rhetoric. His efforts were resoundingly rebuked. The election results demonstrate that the majority Muslim country is interested in exploring a system politics that does not discriminate based on race or religion.

A weakened BN party cannot be entirely attributed to Anwar Ibrahim’s improbable political resurrection. However, he undoubtedly played a critical role in organizing the opposition and reasoning the Malay population through this transition. Political possibilities that were unthinkable last month in Malaysia are now suddenly on the table. Ibrahim refers to this reality as a new dawn for the country. If he is successful in accomplishing his stated goals, most fair-minded observers would have to agree.

Firas Ahmad is an essayist based in Cambridge, MA. His commentary and analysis has appeared in The Economist, The Washington Post and other publications on issues related to national and international politics.

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Comments (11)

hpy:

Anwar will unite all races in Malaysia against the UMNO racists.The future of Malaysia is hopeless if racism keeps on flourishing.
Ofcourse there will be no more market for them anymore.

ASC-- "A BUMIPUTRA":

HISTORY WILL LOOK BACK AND SAY THAT ANWAR IBRAHIM'S GREATEST CONTRIBUTION TO NATION BUIDING IN MALAYSIA AND GENERALLY IS THAT HE INSTILLED IN THE BROADER COMMUNITY THE NEED TO HAVE POLITICS TO BE ISSUES BASED AND NOT RACIALLY BASED OR RELIGIOUS BASED.

THE GOVERNMENT AND PARLIAMENT SHOULD BE ADDRESSING ISSUES LIKE HOW TO HELP THE NEEDY IRRESPECTIVE OF RACE OR RELIGION OR CREED, PROMOTE BETTER LIVING STANDARDS, EDUCATION, HEALTH,OPPORTUNITIES FOR ALL CITIZENS AND HOW TO ENSURE THAT MALAYSIA IS AT PAR WITH OTHER HIGH PERFORMING COUNTRIES.

NO USE THE GOVERNMENT TELLING US BUMIPUTRAS THAT THEY HAVE PROVIDED OUR CHILDREN UNIVERSITY EDUCATION AT THE EXPENSE OF THE CHINESE AND INDIANS WHEN THE DEGREES GIVEN TO OUR BUMI CHILDREN ARE USELESS BECAUSE THE QUALITY OF EDUCATION IS SO BAD THAT OUR BUMI CHILDREN CANNOT EVEN GET RECOGNISED OR GET JOBS IN SINGAPORE OR LONDON AND MISS OUT ON GLOBALISTION. THE BUMI POLICY HAS TURNED US INTO A "HANDICAPPED" SOCIETY DEPENDENT ON HANDOUTS AND NOT ABLE TO SURVIVE IN THE REAL GLOBAL ECONOMY.

Ramumenon:

The BN functioned with stability because of dominance of its Malay component, UMNO. Elections, while free, were never fair because of the control the ruling government had over the electoral process and the media. This time around, the vote against the BN was significant enough to overcome the advantages the BN had.

After the 2008 March elections, UMNO has been weakened and is likely to face internal pressures, as is becoming evident daily. It's also likely to face challenges from coalition partners representing East Malaysia, who now hold about 40% of the BN coalition seats, but whose members have few of the major portfolios in the Federal cabinet.

The Chinese dominated DAP, the Malay Islamist PAS the multiracial PKR have no experience in coalition politics. This is a marriage of covenience that Anwar Ibrahim brokered. Internal contradictions among these parties are likely to emerge and pretty soon.

There is no denying that the future of Malaysia lies with political coalitions. Coalition politics is a messy business. Unthinkable political possibilities have emerged, but make no mistake, the route to stable political coalitions is going to be rocky. It'll take time for major political players to figure things out and for some realignments to emerge. A coalition-based political center needs to emerge which addresses the issue of racial inequities fairly.

In the meanwhile, the sense one will get is that Malaysia is walking a tightrope.

Jas Li:

Malaysia is no more a "Muslim" democracy than Indonesia. Both countries are SECULAR democracies with a Muslim majority in the population. BN has changed the constitution nearly 700 times so now there is not only racist but religious discrimination. IF you believe the government stats, 60% of the population is Muslim but what are the real numbers. What if it's only 50% or even less?

The political tsunami that's hit Malaysia, IMHO, has more to do with the people's anger and Anwar's popularity.

haranah jusuh:

There could be some ushering out of previous
supporters.They were not nominated and hence
lashed out their frustration by telling their
friends to vote to the contrary. Little did they
realize the consequence!

Abandon Malay Theocracy & Monarchy:

< ? :+) YA YA :

MAHABAAR: (Hello)

It is common sense & inevitable that one of the "most Advanced Muslom/Muslim/Moslem" nation, should have Zero Sharia & treat & give EQUALLY, ALL/EVERY/ANY their Citizenary Justice when Due, in Malaysia!

"i" Love Malaysia's Butterfly's! And "i" also once upon a TiME attended a Wedding & they dress & sit like Princes & Prince, not like bride & grooms here.

Hence Your People Going from being CATERPiLLARS [Pre-Apocalyptic System] to realizing they are
simply BUTTERFLY's![Going Apocalyptic]!

Note: All/EVERY/ANY "THEOCRACY & MONORCHY" must be Abolished on Sweet Sweet SPACESHiP Momma/Poppa EARTH, aka S.S. GAiA, S.S. GEOiD, S.S. TELLUSng something, a Planet of Many Many many (not Muslom, Jew, Christs, Hindu nor Buddhists therein for Sure).

But, there is a problem. That in Saying "MUSLiM DEMOCRACY" is not the same as referring to "Jewish
Democracy" or "Christian Democracy" or "Hindu Democracy" or 'Buddhist Democracy" etc..

If ye say "MALAYSiAN DEMOCRACY" (without using the word Islam/Muslim etc, via ye Federation of 13 States..) then that sounds kosher! Ooopsa, sounds like a Hallal!

Otherwise, interesting article.

Shookron (Thanks)!

Originally Posted MARCH 20, 2 008 11:34 AM. And was twice deleted.

Anonymous BE:

One step that Malaysia needs to take if it truly "is interested in exploring a system of politics that does not discriminate based on race or religion" is to stop putting Christians who converted from Islam in reeducation prison camps. See this NY Times article for more background: http://www.nytimes.com/2006/08/24/world/asia/24malaysia.html?_r=1&scp=2&sq=Malaysia+and+Christian&st=nyt&oref=slogin
Freedom to choose one's religion, or none at all, is a basic human right that continues to not be respected in Malaysia.

Syk:

The epicentre of this political tsunami is the full-blown arrogance and corruption in the Barisan Nasional. The shift in the votes is more due to the anger and dismay of the people in power rather than to the efficiency of the opposition. However the aftermath provides a blessing in disguise, for the Malaysian population as a whole, the opposition parties who are now given a chance to prove what they may be capable of and to the present weak government to undo their excesses. Now everyone is trying to prove him/herself, either to be in power or to serve the country well.

Salak:

Please keep writing on Malaysia - the good the bad and the ugly.

If we want just the good news, we can make them ourselves, thank you!

RS:

Although the media was heavily leaning towards the ruling party, it did give the opposition some coverage; much more than Tun Mahathir's time. With regards to Anwar Ibrahim, his formal re-entry to politics at this moment might raise questions on his intentions and whether he is "reformed".

RT:

Please note that most Malaysian Malay usually prefers to be formally addressed by their first name, rather than their last name, since the last name usually the name of their father.

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