Should Malaysia’s fifth prime minister leave office, it won’t be a comfortable ride for whoever takes his place. Decades of sectarian politics gone unchecked may have finally rendered Malaysia almost ungovernable.
– Dr. Farish A. Noor
On Monday, June 23, Malaysia’s political future may be decided permanently. Three months after the elections of March 2008, and in the wake of the most disastrous showing for the ruling National Front coalition led by the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) that has been in power for more than half a century, the Badawi administration is facing yet another challenge that it cannot afford not to take seriously.
Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi came to power in 2004 riding on the biggest mandate ever given to any prime minister in Malaysia’s history. The overwhelming votes cast in favour of his UMNO party and the Barisan coalition it leads should have given him ample opportunity to carry out many of the reforms he had promised the Malaysian electorate.
Badawi had promised to be ‘the Prime Minister of all Malaysians’; to listen to the plight of the racial and religious minorities of the country; to open up the judiciary, police force and government sector to public enquiry; and to create a new mode of governance that was more accountable and transparent.
But in the span of four years, practically none of these reforms were ever achieved. Corruption, abuse of power by the police, nepotism in high places and the rise of religious and communal sectarian politics became the salient features of his first term in office. And his inability to act decisively at a time when the Malaysian public wanted a decisive leader was among the factors behind his untimely downfall.
A significant example would be his poor leadership in handling cases of inter-religious marriages and divorces where time and again non-Muslims felt they were being discriminated against in a country that was moving further to the Right in terms of conservative Islamist politics. Yet again and again, Badawi failed to act as a moderate and balanced statesman who could and should have stepped into the fray to defend the rights of the minorities.
Now it would appear that the costs of his inaction have finally piled up and the bill has been served. Malaysia is divided into East and West Malaysia, with much of the wealth and development of the country on the side of the West. The East Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak, located on the northern coast of Borneo (Kalimantan) continue to lag behind in terms of economic development and political representation at the centre of power in Kuala Lumpur.
Since the elections of March 2008, the parliamentarians of East Malaysia who now play the role of kingmakers in Malaysia’s convoluted racialised politics have been demanding more representation and more power in the face of a beleaguered government that has lost its two-thirds majority in Parliament. Cognisant of the fact that it was the parties of East Malaysia who helped the ruling National Front stay in power, many of the representatives of East Malaysia are now demanding what they feel is due to them.
This week one of the East Malaysian parties — the Progressive Party of Sabah (SAPP) — has come out with a series of demands and the warning that it will table a vote of no confidence in Parliament on Monday, June 23. Such a move is almost without precedent in Malaysian politics, and with Badawi weaker now than ever before there is the small likelihood that a vote of no confidence may actually make it through Parliament.
If such were to happen, it would be the first time that a Malaysian prime minister would be deposed from office in such a manner; the last time anything of the sort was even attempted was in 1969 when the then Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman was deposed from within his own party.
But the crux of the matter is this: history’s verdict on Badawi will be a mixed one for sure. In many ways the virtues of the man are the virtues of default: a soft-spoken individual who rarely loses his temper in public, Badawi has never been a populist but remains the quiet bureaucrat at heart. However, with the entire region teetering on the verge of turmoil due to a global economic crisis precipitated by the collapse in the value of the US dollar, it would take more than a man like Badawi to keep Malaysia’s fragile economy and plural society together.
Likewise the pressure on Badawi now — to placate the demands of practically every single religious, racial, ethnic and cultural constituency in the most plural and heterodox country of the ASEAN region — would put any leader to the test.
While there are those who call for Badawi to step down for his failure to pursue his reforms to the end, there are also those who want him to step down for initiating the reforms in the first place.
Badawi’s political demise may now come sooner than later, but one thing is for certain: should Malaysia’s fifth prime minister leave office and vacate his seat in the coming weeks, that seat will remain the hottest in the country, and it won’t be a comfortable ride for whoever takes his place. Decades of sectarian politics gone unchecked may have finally rendered Malaysia almost ungovernable.
Dr Farish A Noor is Senior Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies; Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.