A season of odd and silly events

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zakariaFrancis Loh looks at the silly season in Malaysia, full of odd events such as the Mahathir-Abdullah spat and the Zakaria (pic) mansion fiasco. He discovers that we are stuck between the old politics of ethnicity and patronage and the new democratic politics of accountability and justice.

Something is amiss in Malaysia. Odd and silly incidents seem to be happening one after another. I argue that we are witnessing these incidents because of a push towards a new democratic politics of accountability, transparency and social justice that is still-born on the one hand, while the old politics based on ethnicity and patronage is mounting a rear-guard action on the other.

Mahathir vs Abdullah: The ongoing spat

Of course, one of these silly incidents is the spat between the prime minister Datuk Abdullah Badawi and his predecessor Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad. What a battle royale that is becoming. After several months of criticisms of Abdullah’s administration by Mahathir and his supporters, arrangements were made for the two leaders to meet. This was achieved on the eve of Hari Raya Aidilfitri.

Lo and behold, while the country was in celebratory mood with expectations that the meeting would lead to some common ground, Mahathir launched into yet another public criticism of Abdullah. Some of the criticisms like aborting the ‘crooked bridge’ and not giving special attention to the national car project had been heard before.

But there was also the new accusation that Malaysians were now ‘living in a climate of fear’ as in a ‘police state’. Coming from Mahathir, this accusation is indeed laughable. You do not need to be persuaded by the usual human rights critics like Suaram, Hakam, the Bar Council or Aliran. Listen to the Mentri Besar of Kedah for instance who declared that no one dared to criticise Mahathir when he was prime minister. ‘He used his powers, he used the ISA (Internal Security Act) to arrest people, and now he says the country has turned into a police state.’

Mahathir also claimed that he had left the country with lots of money when he stepped down but that, for the past three years, ‘the economy has not been doing well. People have not been able to get jobs and unemployment is still high. Nothing has been done, really to improve the economy… retail business is not good, contracts are not easy to come by’. According to him, ‘companies are going down the drain… the Chinese business community was very unhappy with the business climate’. It is because of this slowdown, not because of his spat with Abdullah, that his legacy was being chipped away.

Predictably, the MCA leader came out criticising Mahathir for dragging Chinese businessmen into his spat with Abdullah. Indeed, many other BN leaders, who had kowtowed to Mahathir previously, now came to Abdullah’s defence.

Most pathetic of all was perhaps Samy Vellu. Although he had once upon a time declared that his MIC would ‘sink or swim’ with Mahathir, he now resorted to a poem (not really worth quoting though) in Pak Lah’s defence!

Ethnic and patronage politics

Obviously this on-going spat is a major development – though it is only one of the many silly and odd incidents. Abdullah seems to be ushering in something new. But by no means does he represent the new democratic politics. In fact, his administration is similarly characterised by the old ethnic and patronage politics which marked the Mahathir one. Indeed, most of the Umno and BN people who have rallied behind Abdullah were, not so long ago, unquestioning and loyal supporters of Mahathir. Hence, focusing on this spat could be a red herring disorienting and preventing us from understanding more comprehensively what is happening in Malaysia. We need to consider, therefore, several other odd things to help us unravel the underlying causes of our current season of silliness.

The latest silly incident is how 300 Muslims reportedly demonstrated in front of a Catholic church in Silibin, Ipoh on 5 September. Why? Apparently because they had received an SMS which (mis)informed them that Muslim converts were going to be baptised that Sunday morning. As it turned out, it was 98 Catholic youths who were going to receive their First Holy Communion that morning.

Forget the fact, as the Catholic bishop has clarified, that converts to Christianity need to undergo year-long courses and that such conversion celebrations would only occur during a special Easter Vigil occasion. You would not expect Muslims to realise these details. Forget also the fact that, by demonstrating, these Muslims would disrupt Sunday church services and prevent people from going to church. Indeed, forget that they would never tolerate people of other faiths demonstrating in front of their mosque and disrupting their Friday prayers.

But, what is the matter with these 300 people who could have been so easily misled by an SMS? Don’t they think about the contents of messages that they receive? Do they not think through what they read or see or hear? Don’t they think before they act? Isn’t this simply old ethnic and patronage politics of the worst kind wherein we blindly follow such rumour-mongering about how we are being threatened by another ethnic group? We thank God that most Malaysians have not descended to such low depths.

Next, we have the Mentri Besar of Johore who has declared that he is not in favour of creating a Bangsa Malaysia (Malaysian race) – a principal goal enunciated in Dr Mahathir’s Vision 2020, which Abdullah has seconded – apparently because it undermines the notion of a Bangsa Melayu (Malay race). He wishes, too, that we re-look into the policy of meritocracy and using the English language to teach Science and Mathematics, which the government had previously argued was essential for Malaysians to cope with the demands of globalisation.

Imagine the chaos that would result if the current policy of using English, introduced two to three years ago, is to be reversed. Does the globalisation argument no longer hold? What about our 65,000-odd unemployed graduates, the vast majority of whom are Malays who, reportedly, have poor communication skills including command of the English language?

Has the Mentri Besar spared a thought for them? Or is he focusing on his own political fortunes and positioning himself as the new hero and leader of the Malay community in Johore, a particularly tough task considering that there are already three ministers who hail from the state?

Recall how, in the last Umno general assembly, the Umno Youth leader and Education Minister, also from Johore, with keris in hand, attacked the government’s meritocracy policy and called for a New National Agenda based on the old New Economic Policy?  Recall, also, that there was hardly any concern for the 760,000 poor Malay and other bumiputera households who were still involved in agriculture and fisheries.

There was not a mention of widening disparities within the Malay community either. Instead, it simply asserted and equated the interests of the Malay elites as the national interest. Indeed, it was an assembly which reeked of the old ethnic- and patronage-based politics.

Zakaria and the local council fiasco

The case of Datuk Zakaria Mat Deros is also very revealing. Recall, that this issue was first highlighted by theSun, which initially carried a series of articles on the inefficiencies and abuses in the administration of local authority affairs in Selangor. Underlying theSun’s concern was that local authority councillors were political appointees and not elected officials and that there was limited opportunity to make them accountable to the rakyat. It was in this regard that the paper ultimately zeroed into the sordid story of Zakaria.

It is ridiculous that this man has been able to assume the public positions that he has – as State assembly member for Port Klang, as member of the Klang Municipal Council, and as UMNO Klang division strongman – while he was breaking the law, indeed, acting as a law unto himself. He made various claims that were absolutely hilarious, if not pathetic: that he was a decent family man, even a man of the people; that his mansion was to accommodate his large family and the many functions he had to hold; and that he might have given the wrong impression of himself because he was photographed in the media wearing his expensive dark glasses.

The fact is he had become delirious from all that power to the extent that he could not even recognise right from wrong and expected the people to excuse his misdemeanours since he had been a caring wakil rakyat.

Worse, the Selangor Mentri Besar was, for a long while, absolutely protective of Zakaria and the other two assembly members, who were also Council members, who had similarly broken the law by building their own mansions without first obtaining approval from the Klang Municipal Council. It was only after the Sultan of Selangor had required Zakaria to step down that the Mentri Besar changed his tune.

And yet, after all that had happened, the Mentri Besar continued to argue that ‘in the special case of Selangor’ it is imperative that state assembly members be allowed to sit in the local authorities. But, why? Has it to do with the fact that Zakaria and the others are Selangor Umno strongmen and the MB needs their support if he is to continue as the Umno chief in Selangor?

The rakyat’s call for greater transparency and for the reintroduction of local council elections was conveniently sidelined.  In this episode, we see the tensions between the old ethnic and patronage politics being challenged by the new democratic politics of theSun and the Klang opposition politician, Teng Chang Khim, who had first highlighted Zakaria’s maverick ways. The result was the expose of the silly and sordid tale of the Klang Umno strongman.

The Asli report hullabaloo

Next, there is the hullabaloo surrounding the release of the Asian Strategic Leadership Initiative (Asli) report on the Ninth Malaysia Plan. This so-called Asli report was prepared by its Centre for Public Policy Studies headed by the internationally renowned and respected Dr Lim Teck Ghee. Indeed, the Centre’s advisory panel is headed by Tan Sri Ramon Navaratnam, a former top civil servant in the Treasury.

In fact, its report contained several chapters. Apart from the chapter on ‘corporate equity distribution’, there were four other chapters viz: ‘Towards a More Representative and World Class Malaysian Civil Service’; ‘Achieving Higher Performance in Tertiary Education’; ‘Ensuring Effective Targeting of Ethnic Minorities’; and ‘Towards Equity for Bumiputera Minorities’.

Yet the mainstream media chose to highlight only that part of the report on corporate equity distribution which claimed that some 45 per cent of all equity in the public listed companies, including in the government linked corporations (GLCs), was already in bumiputera hands. This contradicted the official Economic Planning Unit (EPU) figures that only 19 per cent of all equity was held by bumiputeras.

Several Umno politicians including ministers lambasted the Asli report, which they claimed was insulting the bumiputeras while some other government-linked researchers claimed that the Asli report was based on spurious statistics. It was argued, for instance, that the GLCs should not have been included as bumiputera-owned. There is merit in this criticism.

But the call by Asli and other members of the public that the EPU should clarify the methodology it used to explain how it concluded that only 19 per cent of equity was held by bumiputeras went unheeded. As matters came to a head, Abdullah ruled that the government’s data was correct, that the issue was ‘sensitive’, and that there should not be further discussion.

Instead, the matter was ‘resolved’ when Asli Foundation chairman Mirzan Mahathir intervened. He withdrew the report and apologised for the ruckus caused, whereupon Lim, who stood by his Report, resigned from his post on a matter of principle.

In this case, it is noteworthy that the merit of the entire Report was judged on the basis of some data pertaining to equity ownership. There was no opportunity for rational debate and transparency and the matter was conveniently swept under the carpet.

In this incident, the tensions between new politics and the demand for transparency collided once again with the old politics of ethnicity and patronage and was ‘resolved’ by fiat, via a silly decision by the ASLI Foundation chairman. (Several weeks later, Deputy Finance Minister Datuk Dr Awang Adek Husin revealed in Parliament that bumiputera equity ownership of 912 listed companies on the main and second boards of the Malaysian stock exchange stood at 36.6 per cent as at 31 December 2005. He also revealed that Malay ownership of all 717,935 companies registered with the Malaysia Companies Commission stood at 24 per cent.)

Swept under the carpet

Finally, we wish to mention several other issues which came to the fore earlier this year which were similarly swept under the carpet because they were deemed ‘sensitive’ or unnecessary. These are:

•    the call for improved public security and the setting up of the Independent Police Complaints and Misconduct Commission, which was recommended by a Royal Commission report and supported by numerous human rights and  public interest groups (see AM, Vol 25 No 5);
•    the call by a multi-ethnic group of Malaysians led by the Bar Council to set up an Inter-Faith Commission (IFC), which would make recommendations on how to enhance inter-faith relations (see AM, Vol 25 No 6). When the prime minister ruled that the time was not appropriate for the establishment of such a body, some other NGOs (including some behind the IFC initiative) calling themselves ‘Article 11’ initiated a series of public discussions to highlight the emerging conflict between two legal jurisdictions – namely civil laws and the syariah – which was undermining constitutional safeguards and threatening ethno-religious understanding. This effort in defence of the Federal Constitution, ironically, was also deemed ‘sensitive’ by the prime minister after an Article 11-Aliran seminar in Penang was aborted due to a demonstration (see AM, Vol 26 No 5-6);
•    the recent call by the Bar Council, several former Supreme Court judges including Tun Salleh Abas, Tan Sri Azmi Kamaruddin and the widow of Tan Sri Wan Suleiman that the government re-investigate the circumstances under which the then Lord President and two other Supreme Court judges were dismissed in 1988 (most recently featured in AM, Vol 26 No 7-8);
•    the call by several groups of Malaysians for further investigation of various cases of mismanagement of funds and projects following Auditor-General’s  recent revelations in his annual report (see AM, Vol 26 No 8); and
•    several other occasions of submissions to government and protests by the rakyat against the privatisation of water; the impending corporatisation of the public health services; the worsening public transport system; and hikes in the petroleum price.

What the above episodes have in common is a clamour and increasing demand for greater government transparency and accountability; in other words, a more meaningful democracy beyond the holding of elections. This clamour has come from various NGOs and civil society groups; opposition party leaders and sometimes BN leaders as well; the alternative media and some parts of the mainstream media; and the rakyat in general.

Socio-economic and political imbalance

In essence, there had developed a disjuncture or an imbalance between the social transformation of Malaysia over the past two to three decades (as a result of rapid economic growth, including industrialisation), which had resulted in numerous new social groups. However, there was very limited change in our political system, which continued to be tightly controlled through coercive laws such as the ISA, an electoral system dominated by a single party, and the old politics based on ethnicity and patronage.

It is this imbalance between rapid socio-economic transformation and the limited changes in our political system that accounts for the occurrence of so many of these silly episodes.

Thanks to the end of Mahathir’s long 22 years in power, and the Abdullah’s takeover, there had occurred some initiatives towards political reform, at least in terms of rhetoric. For instance, Abdullah launched a Royal Commission to look into the performance of the Police. He also called the civil service to serve the rakyat better and the government departments to be more transparent. The media was also allowed to become more critical without threat of closure. And in contrast to Mahathir’s arbitrary proclamation of Malaysia as a Muslim country, Abdullah launched his notion of Islam Hadhari.

These are quite stark differences from the time when Dr Mahathir was in power. Significantly, Dr Mahathir dealt with the opposition harshly as in his Operasi Lalang when he detained 106 people under the ISA in 1987 and again in his treatment of Anwar Ibrahim and the reformasi movement. More recently, in the months before and after Sept 11, Muslim radicals were also detained under the ISA. Several newspapers were also closed during Mahathir’s reign.

Thanks to this opening up of the political system under Abdullah Badawi, the rakyat have dared to make their voices heard, as the government had asked them to do so. Some parts of the mainstream media have also conducted investigative journalism and exposed various wrongdoings involving politicians, the civil service and the police; hence, the demand for greater transparency, more accountability, and protests against the privatisation of water and other injustices.

But these reforms have not been allowed to develop further due to severe structural constraints inherent to the centralised political system first put into place by Mahathir, and not removed in any dramatic fashion by Abdullah. In fact, those who have vested interests in the existing system have resorted to the old politics of ethnicity and patronage to try to prevent the new politics based on issues to develop. Consequently, we continue to be mired in politics of the old Mahathir era, with a new twist. Whereas the old politics of ethnicity and patronage seemed so natural, often tragic, in the Mahathir era, they now appear as farce, as silly and odd incidences today.

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Dr Francis Loh, a pensioner, retired as professor of politics in Universiti Sains Malaysia. He served as honorary secretary of Aliran for 20 years and then president of Aliran for five years from 2011 to 2016. He continues to serve on the Aliran executive committe.
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