These are confusing and uncertain days

JUNE 30 — Messy. Uncertain. Gloomy. Pessimistic. This is the Malaysia of today – more than three months after euphoria swept through the country following the Election 2008 and the air was pregnant with talk of reform, change and a maturing democracy.

Now it seems that a controversy or crisis greets every new day. Headlines are dominated by calls for Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi to step down; infighting among Pakatan Rakyat partners; gut-wrenching inflation; economic slowdown; an Umno state assemblywomen making racist remarks about Indians; a former prime minister speaking the language of a Malay nationalist; a ruling party in denial; a Barisan Nasional component party seeking the ouster of the PM through a no-confidence motion; Malays growing increasingly spooked by moves by non-Malays and non-governmental organiSations to put the out of bound markers on sensitive issues; the flip-flops of the Abdullah administration; the near paralysis of MIC and Gerakan…

And now this – an allegation by Saiful Bukhari Azlan that he was sodomised by Opposition leader Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim.

“For a businessman like me, the change in administration (from BN-led to Opposition-led in the state) has had good and bad effects, but, the political scene now is really messing things up,” says Salahuddin Ismail, 36, an agro entrepreneur.

Although his business is not government linked, he has felt the changes. This only underlines the fact that business, however unrelated to politics, is indeed affected. “As it is, a quarter of my profits is gone. I don’t know what will happen later.”

A survey done in recent days by a non-government organisation detects a dark mood in the country. There is great distrust of the BN government and main political players. Not one political leader in Malaysia today commands comfortable support in the country. Not Abdullah. Not Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak. Not Anwar. Not even the man who ruled the country for 22 years, Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad.

Abdullah’s approval rating is strong among Malays but abysmal among Chinese and Indians who think that despite all the fine words of reform that flow from his mouth, he does not have the political will to walk the talk. They also believe that it was during his watch that their rights were eroded the most.

Umno also concluded during the recent supreme council retreat that the waving of the keris by Datuk Hishammuddin Hussein, the temple demolition in Selangor and the incendiary language by speakers during the Umno assembly in 2006 were the main reasons why Chinese and Indians supported the Opposition in Election 2008.

In contrast, Indians and Chinese have greater faith in Anwar than the Malays. They like his inclusive message of Malaysia for all and believe that he has the charisma and vision to put the country on a new trajectory of growth and unity.

Not so older Malays, it seems. They wonder whether Anwar’s agenda of a new Malaysia will come at the expense of Malay political power and special privileges. So quite clearly if Anwar wants to come to power and stay in power, he will have to downplay his vision of equality for all under the Malaysian sun.

“There is an unhealthy trend breeding in the political environment now because people want, in an act of desperation, to capture stronger support for themselves. Some of them actually resort to the use of dangerous allegations, and even accusations,” says political analyst Khoo Kay Peng.

“The two recent cases are very important. Definitely the allegation against Najib’s wife, Rosmah; and secondly, the current sodomy allegation against Anwar Ibrahim. These allegations put the country at very high risk…great risk of losing not only credibility but it could as well descend into…disunity, social anarchy, as my friend says.

“We will have to be very careful about that because the two are very good examples of what people think of as political manoeuvres. And public perception has been formed so precisely that no one party has the majority support of the people. It has never happened before in Malaysia…that support has been so splintered, so fractured.”

The survey also suggests that Malaysians are a pessimistic lot. They are concerned about the direction the country is heading, the state of the economy, the ability of the government to protect the interest and rights of all Malaysians.

This sentiment is not surprising given the sense of drift in Malaysia. Despite his good intentions, Abdullah is still in fire-fighting mode. There is little sense that his administration has a well-conceived plan to tackle the economic and social challenges that Malaysia is facing. Tabling the mid-term review of the Ninth Malaysia Plan and allocating RM30 billion extra has done little to perk up the sentiment of the business community.

There is also little belief on the ground that he will not be in the hot seat long enough for judicial reforms and other changes to be implemented.

He will be replaced by Najib but the consensus is that the deputy prime minister has no appetite for reform and will have to devote a considerable time fighting off allegations by the Opposition.

Troubling for those caught up in the euphoria of the promise of a new Malaysia after March 8 is the realisation that race is still a major factor in Malaysia. This fact was driven home sharply when Sungai Rapat state assemblywoman Hamidah Osman asked State assembly Speaker V Sivakumar if he agreed or disagreed with the fable on whether an Indian or snake should be killed first.

This fact was also driven home when Umno Youth protested when the Public Services Department increased the number of scholarships given to non-Malay students.

Datuk A. Vaithilingam, president of the Hindu Sangam says, “She (Hamidah Osman) must have been out of her mind at that period. Anyone, not just a politician, must be careful when making such remarks about a race, not necessarily Indian, any race. She has apologised but it is very difficult to understand why she made such an outburst.

“As for the Umno Youth protest … I don’t think these people should protest at this time because they are not being deprived themselves, you see. But it doesn’t mean that just because a few people protest that everyone is thinking the same way. Just because some people protest, in my opinion, it doesn’t mean the entire community is protesting.”

Supporters of the new Malaysia say that the messiness is to be expected, it is part of the transformation of the country from a dictatorial-style of government to a democracy. They also argue that there is more accountability now and that change, though unseen, is taking place in Malaysian society. The public no longer is cowed by authority or willing to put up with the excesses of the past.

The painful process of learning to walk again, and to do it right, is necessary. In a few years’ time, Malaysia will be a thriving democracy with strong institutions, they predict.

“I think all this seeming chaos is a result of the open-ness we are all experiencing after March 8. A lot more issues are coming to the surface now and people are airing their views a lot more freely. Just because we disagree with each other does not mean we want to destroy each other. This is democracy in action,” said ceramic artist Mumthaz S.

That’s a comforting perspective but today Malaysia looks like a mess. The Anwar episode just adds a layer of sordidness to this depressing picture.


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