Philip Khoo looks back at the general election and surmises that it wasn’t quite a new dawn but it was a liberation all the same. We now need to rise above pursuing mere economic efficiency; we must promote a more holistic understanding of social solidarity to reduce inequalities and enhance capacities.
March 8, 2008 exorcised the demons of May 13, 1969.
At last, the country took the first steps to becoming a normal electoral democracy where governments can change, and be formed with simple majorities. A stifling choke-hold was broken. The country heaved a collective sigh of relief and allowed itself a yelp of joy, despite a small flurry of some worried SMSs.
There was one glaring abnormality, a holdover from the old order – the shared sense that the party which won the most seats had lost.
That was because the party had always, and abnormally so, insisted on gaining a two-thirds majority or better in Parliament, and a sweep of every state. Indeed, some of its leaders had set themselves the autocratic target of zero opposition. In the event, the party was almost relegated to be the opposition, with many believing it would have been so if not for electoral fraud.
Thus, padan muka (‘serves them right’), as many felt, because the March 8 polls exemplified the old adage that elections are not won by oppositions but lost by governing parties.
The quiet euphoria that swept much of the nation, even those who voted for BN, was understandable. We realised how much we had achieved against the odds. And we were proud, not only on the night of March 8 itself, but more so as the transitions in state governments proceeded as smoothly as could be reasonably expected.
It was euphoria that did not wish to be dissipated.
We could feel that when so many were dismayed, even outraged, by the newly triumphant Lim Kit Siang’s threat to boycott the Perak state government’s swearing-in ceremony. Kit Siang was forced to retract the threat; the country was finally coming into maturity, even if it still needed nurturing.
Meluat then and now
In the most developed and prosperous part of the country, in two of its poorest states, and to a lesser extent elsewhere, the people voted in an outpouring of disgust, or meluat – at the sleaze and excesses, the concupiscence and greed, and the arrogance of the incumbent ruling party.
The old order was stood on its head, as if the long-forgotten slogan of a generation ago, “Enough is enough!”, had echoed with re-doubled force (see Table 1).
Table 1: Percentage of votes for opposition* candidates, Parliament, 1995-2008
% opposition 1995
% opposition 1999
% opposition 2004
% opposition 2008
Bread-and-butter issues alone cannot account for the breadth and depth of the revolt.
In 1999, the disgust erupted when Malay cultural sensibility was offended by Anwar Ibrahim’s maltreatment. On March 8, the disgust issued from an offended Malaysian sensibility.
No action, talk only, remember?
It issued from a deep sense of having been misled and betrayed.
There had been soft sweet talk of a gentler, kinder, fairer Malaysia, only the actions pointed to something else.
One Mentri Besar declared there would be no Bangsa Malaysia. The Minister of Education and Pemuda Umno chief raised his keris, not once but twice, and without any rebuke. A son-in-law and wannabe prime minister stoked racial sentiment.
Other incidents followed: the flaunting of evidently ill-gotten wealth, unseemly corpse-snatching, foot-dragging over the crisis of the judiciary, the wounded arrogance of a minister caught with his pants down, the violence meted out to peaceful demonstrators.
There was the pantang dicabar (‘I won’t be challenged’) of one who claimed he was all ears and invited the nation to “work with me, not for me”. And, of course, there was the last-minute indelible ink flip-flop that raised the spectre of electoral fraud.
Rarely has such arrogance and incompetence been seen.
In less than four years, a party that had crushed the opposition in 2004 alienated almost every segment of the population. Stunningly, those in power were not aware of the gulf that had opened up between them and the people. Right until the results shocked them into silence, they had assumed they could count on the old bogeys, and coast on the presumed allegiance of Malays to offset defections by the “others”.
What, if not meluat, was at work?
Take Putrajaya, a cocooned community of loyal government servants who had recently enjoyed a salary rise. One quarter of Putrajaya voted opposition, thereby more than doubling its proportion of the vote.
Translate this across the civil service and imagine: very likely, one in four people you meet in government offices voted opposition!
Even Johor, the dependable stronghold of Umno and MCA, defected in large numbers: the opposition’s share of the vote was 35 per cent. And the opposition narrowly missed taking Negri Sembilan.
Perhaps the best indicator of the March 8 outcome was an item in the Merdeka Centre’s opinion poll of December 2007. Half of those polled declared they did not believe the media reports on Bersih, the campaign for clean and fair elections, thus signalling the loss of trust.
Stuck in spin
But the sycophantic so-called mainstream media – actually an increasingly irrelevant tributary – continued with their spin. They blinded themselves and their political masters to the truth, thus contributing to the crushing dismissal of the Umno-led BN.
The more the so-called mainstream media spun, the more meluat people felt. The culmination was the muntah (vomit) induced by the scorn and dirt they tried to heap on the ‘irrelevant Anwar’ in the last few days of the campaign.
How was it a shared Malaysian sensibility, and not just different sensibilities creating a shock outcome?
Let’s look at Selangor, particularly the Klang Valley. Here is home to the country’s richest (hence also relatively poorest) population and its most mixed constituencies. Here is the site of the demons and bogeys that have haunted us for 40 years.
The BN’s defeat in Penang, while a surprise, was always a possibility. The BN’s dismissal in Selangor was spectacular, and necessary to exorcise the ghosts of our national consciousness.
Different folks, same strokes
We should pause here to take stock of a sensitive but related matter.
We should evaluate the New Economic Policy’s positive contribution to March 8. We must consider the need to surpass it if we are to find a new approach to the continuing – in fact, worsening – inequalities and inequities that mark our nation.
Without the transformations wrought by the NEP, we would probably have pulled in opposite directions while pursuing our separate civil, political and economic rights – exactly as we did 40 years ago.
But on March 8, we ended the curse of being trapped in contrary motion. We moved in the same direction, albeit at different paces.
Thus March 8 revealed the potential, if not quite reality yet, of an even more important transition: the emergence of Pakatan Rakyat, a new, national electoral coalition bearing a multiethnic commitment to a new politics.
For this we have Abdullah Badawi to thank.
In the early 1990s, Mahathir Mohammed cobbled together an electoral coalition that won three elections from 1995 to 2004, including the turbulent polls of 1999. (The high-profile blogger-politician, Jeff Ooi, acknowledged the strength of Mahathir’s coalition by slapping himself twice for having stuck with it!) Within four short years, Abdullah brought that coalition to its demise in the peninsula.
Mahathir’s electoral coalition had once seemed invincible. It was poised to capture even those few seats, such as Kepong, long regarded as lost to DAP.
In 1990, DAP won Kepong with a 38,000 majority. By 1995, DAP could only squeak through with a 5,000 majority that was further whittled to under 2,000 in 1999 and in 2004. Overall, DAP’s average winning majority was slashed from 12,000 votes in 1990 to 5,000 in 1995 and to 3,500 in 1999 before rebounding to 5,500 in 2004.
Conversely, BN’s average winning majority rose from 9,500 in 1990 to 15,000 in 1995, dropped to 8,500 in 1999 but rebounded to 12,500 in 2004 – all comfortable majorities.
It was supreme irony, therefore, that the man who began his political career as a “Malay ultra” should have “turned over” the Chinese and incorporated them into his triumphant coalition.
It is equally ironic that the coalition ruptured under the man of gentle ways who claimed to be “Prime Minister for all”.
And what a rupture! March 8 overturned the pattern of the three previous elections.
Peninsula-wide, DAP’s average majority exceeded 15,000, while BN’s fell to less than 8,000. In the mixed states of Penang, Perak, and Selangor, and the Federal Territory of Kuala Lumpur, BN’s average winning majority was under 4,000 – less than PKR’s 5,000 and PAS’s 6,000.
What was the nature of Mahathir’s electoral coalition? Briefly, it was based on solid support in Malay-majority constituencies (with the unstable exception of Kelantan) and resilient support in mixed constituencies.
The coalition captured well over half the voters of the three major ethnic groups in the peninsula in 1995. It was sufficiently resilient when faced with significant Malay voter defection in the mixed constituencies in 1999.
In short, although it was based on de facto Malay dominance, the coalition drew its sustenance from the dreams of Vision 2020.
Bolehland with a difference?
Critics, social activists and NGOers scoffed at it, but the idea of Malaysia Boleh!, the goal of developed nation status, and the notion of a bangsa Malaysia captured the imagination of the people.
Mahathir was simply the most important public intellectual of the time.
Under him, NEP was muted and reshaped as the National Development Policy (NDP). Thus, NDP and an economic boom that transformed the nation provided the glue that held the nation together. Perhaps for the first time since the run-up to independence, there was a sense of nation and a nationalist sentiment.
One has only to recall the fluttering flags on cars in August 1998 to realize that that sentiment survived the crucible of the 1997 financial crisis. And it survived the 1999 elections, with the Chinese, in particular, cleaving to it despite Mahathir’s blatant use of the old race card in the Suqiu affair.
Therein lies a hope and warning.
It is hope insofar as Mahathir’s electoral coalition appears to have transferred its allegiance to Pakatan Rakyat, the combined opposition that has DAP and PAS holding the two ends, and PKR the middle.
But it is a warning, too. Having broken the taboos of our national life, the electorate will have no qualms turning out the opposition should it not progress towards popular dreams and desires. Those are no less than dreams and desires for a nation we can hold in pride, a negara kebajikan (welfare nation) within a dynamic Malaysian economic agenda, with equal concern for all at its core.
Watch those divisions
We have every right to be euphoric.
Yet we must heed the deep ethnic divisions that are still with us. No one should repeat the BN’s grievous and arrogant error of mistaking their own spin for reality. We want to transcend the damaging race-based politics of yesteryear. But we need to do so in full recognition of the fears that are incessantly fed by the race-based politics.
Thus far, it is fortunate that PAS, in particular, has covered for the faux pas of the DAP with regards to statements on the NEP. Still, all Pakatan Rakyat parties must remember that there are citizens in the ‘Pakatan Rakyat states’ watching their spanking new governments. Six other states wonder whether to follow suit.
In all this, it is performance that counts, not statements. Failure would simply mean a depressing return to the previous race-based and race-divisive electoral coalition.
One way to see the continuing divisions is to match the PR’s combined percentage of vote against the ethnic composition of the electorate. One can do this for each state, using the Malay percentage as a proxy measure of ethnic composition (Table 2).
Table 2: Opposition vote for Parliament by state and ethnic composition of electorate*
Opposition Vote (%)
*Ethnic composition based on total electorate, not turnout
There is obviously a relationship between ethnic composition and the size of support for the opposition, except for Kelantan and Kedah, on the one hand, and Johor, on the other.
However, if we examine the accompanying charts, which illustrate this relationship for every parliamentary seat, we can see why we have good reason for hope without ignoring the warning.
Looking for cross-ethnic support
Chart 1 shows that the opposition received significant cross-ethnic support.
The support was very strong in heavily non-Malay-majority constituencies, but much weaker in heavily Malay-majority constituencies. Moreover, the cross-ethnic support was uncertain in mixed constituencies, especially those that have a 40–60 percent Malay (or Chinese) share of the electorate.
In many of the seats won by the opposition (with 50–55 per cent of the vote), a tiny swing of 2.5 per cent would convert wins into losses. In contrast, the mixed constituencies won by BN, mainly in Johor, are much more secure; there the opposition gained less than 45 per cent.
Strengths and weaknesses
Chart 2 reinforces this picture by matching parliamentary wins with the parties.
Chart 2: Parliament: Opposition percentage by ethnic composition by party, 2008
The chart shows the astounding dismissal of BN and Umno. Yet it would be foolhardy to underestimate UMNO’s retained strength in its core constituencies. Conversely, PKR’s victory was quite comprehensive, but the party largely won with only 50–55 per cent of the vote. That hints at how hard PKR must work to consolidate its support.
Moreover, the opposition’s performances were different in the three mixed states of Penang, Perak and Selangor. These differences warrant special attention because they require the new governments to adopt different approaches and styles of governance.
From Chart 3, one can see that the opposition did less well in seats with more than 60 per cent Malay-majority. Indeed, the higher the Malay majority, the lower was the level of voter discontent, especially in Penang and Perak.
Chart 3: Opposition percentage in state seats by ethnic composition by state, 2008
In Perak (and, to a much lesser degree, Penang), voting followed an ethnic divide. The opposition did well in heavily non-Malay constituencies while BN dominated the heavily Malay-majority areas.
The opposition in Selangor, however, enjoyed the strongest cross-ethnic support. Here, even the BN’s victories in heavily Malay-majority seats were narrow ones.
Grounds for optimism
The overall situation is unmistakable when one matches state seats with the levels of support for each party in the same three states (Chart 4).
Chart 4: Opposition percentage in state seats by ethnic composition by party, 2008
There is the rejection of BN across the board, barring UMNO in the heavily Malay majority seats.
There, too, is the ethnic divide, with a thin and unstable middle ground (mostly within the 40–60 per cent opposition support band).
But there is some ground for optimism here. A majority of UMNO’s seats also falls between the 40 and 50 per cent support lines. This suggests that a little pull and some assurance – and a clean up of postal voting – may just bring them over the 50 per cent opposition support line.
So, where do we go from here?
Many people, understandably tired of the waste from corruption, cronyism, greed and sheer incompetence, insist on economic efficiency as the principal guiding principle of good governance.
That would be a mistake, especially for Perak, but also for Penang.
Think of it this way. Like Margaret Thatcher, think of the nation as a household writ large. But, unlike Thatcher who was obsessed with balanced budgets at all costs and favouring business, we should consider what makes a household more than just an accounting unit.
A household is a household not because it balances its budget and does things with minimum waste and maximum efficiency.
A household stays together because it cares for all its members – old and young, weak and strong, male and female, able and disabled, healthy and sick. Its members care for one another and share burdens. They cover for one another and offset mutual shortcomings beyond a narrow-minded “what’s-in-it-for-me” mentality.
They throw occasional tantrums, no doubt, but, ideally, the household and its members perform their nobler deeds with equity and without discrimination.
New dawn, new nation
In summary, we must rise above economic efficiency alone.
We must have a more holistic accounting of social solidarity that allows us to reduce inequalities by building capacities, enhancing capabilities, and making allowances for differences in abilities and cultures.
And when all else fails, we must support those unable to care for themselves, without dispossessing others out of greed.
By doing so, we will truly build a nation and establish a genuinely national basis for greater economic dynamism and growth.
The new state governments must go some distance in this direction. The opposition MPs must set new standards of social solidarity and consistently challenge BN to live up to them.
Only then will they consolidate the incipient electoral coalition that made its presence felt on March 8. And thus will Pakatan Rakyat lay the ground for a full change of government the next time.
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