The “Badawied” political transition

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 Johan Saravanamuttu discusses the “Badawied” political transition, during which neither Abdullah Badawi nor Mahathir realised that the rakyat have tired of racial politics.  

A hundred days or more after the 8 March 2008 general election has not seen closure to the turbulent terrain of Malaysian politics. Malaysia may have escaped such earthly disasters as cyclones, earthquakes and floods but instead it has been immersed in a seemingly interminable political flux under the troubled leadership of Abdullah Badawi. The joke making its rounds is that “badawi” may soon be accepted as a neologism by Oxford Dictionary to mean “to start something full of promise but end in disappointment, failure and/or disaster”. So, an example of its usage would be “France badawied their Euro 2008 campaign”.

This notwithstanding, it has been a time of great political opening or perestroika in Malaysia. So, let me put a slightly more positive spin to the ‘badawi’ epithet in an alternative submission to Oxford, viz. “beginning a process of change without knowing exactly or anticipating its final outcome”.

In hindsight, one could argue that the badawied political transition began at the close of the Mahathir era. Since then we have seen Malaysian politics move in a trajectory towards a more democratic mould. The current phase should be seen as the extension of the new idiom of politics created by the Reformasi movement of 1998, which gave life to the activism of civil society forces in electoral politics. While the ensuing 1999 election results were a disappointment for the Reformasi forces, Malaysia saw the emergence of an Alternative Front (Barisan Alternatif, BA) and the birth of the multi-ethnic Malaysian Justice Party (PKR). But the BA soon fell to intra-party and inter-party bickering.

Abdullah Badawi’s apparent stellar performance in the 2004 general election could be best explained first, by the BA’s self-destruction without the steadying hand of an Anwar Ibrahim, then languishing in prison, and second, by the debunking of Mahathir by his own party, the United Malays National Organization (Umno). In my view, Mahathir resigned only because he was under great pressure by his party to do so.

With Anwar back in action in 2008, we saw him galvanise a newly minted alternative coalition for the 2008 election, and, along with a revitalised civil society, this proved too insurmountable for the new leader of the ruling coalition. Abdullah failed to deliver the all-important two-thirds majority of seats in Parliament and lost five states. A plethora of scandals, impending rising costs, the spectacular Mongolian murder and trial, and the constant barrage of criticisms from his predecessor augmented Abdullah’s problems.

Debilitating period

The post-election situation has been especially debilitating for Abdullah. He is still faced with internal criticism and challenges from within his own party and faces an open challenge to his leadership from Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah and his own International Trade and Industry Minister, Muhyiddin Yassin. Abdullah’s hand has been forced to agree to hold party elections by December this year, when these challenges will be formally mounted against him. An enviable position, if any!

In the meanwhile, the opposition coalition, the People’s Alliance, has declared through its putative leader Anwar Ibrahim that it will form the new government by Malaysia Day (16 September) from impending crossovers of BN MPs. I recalled that many of us were dubious when Anwar announced two days before the general election that the opposition had definitely crossed the 75-seat barrier of denying the BN a two-thirds majority. We were proved wrong when the opposition swept some 82 seats on 8 March.

Now comes another unprecedented action in Malaysia’s political history, namely the announcement on 18 June by a component of BN, the Sabah Progressive Party (Sapp), that it would move or support a vote of no confidence against Abdullah Badawi in Parliament. While no vote of confidence against Abdullah has so far materialised,  Sapp’s action lends credence to the Anwar claim that defections from the BN could be imminent. With rumours adrift that even members of the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) may cross over to the PR or not support Abdullah, the plausibility of a PR takeover by 16 September cannot be entirely dismissed.

Admittedly, the Sapp move has not delivered the penultimate knock-out punch that some more hopeful PR supporters anticipated. In fact, it has led to a backlash in the form of  Parti Bersatu Sabah (PBS) leader Joseph Pairin calling for Sapp’s explusion from BN.  The lame duck Abdullah, however, has been content to let matters percolate.  Even so, the revival of an ACA investigation on Sapp leader Yong Teck Lee smacks of revanchist tactics that surely makes the government look weaker than it already seems.

Nor does the economic situation favour the embattled Abdullah. If it were a game of golf, he seems to have bogeyed on all holes so far while a double bogey is awaiting him in the final hole. The hiking of the petrol price by 41 per cent and diesel by 63 per cent on June 4, held back during the election period, was a decision which has baffled analysts. His nemesis Anwar swore that, were he prime minister, oil prices would be reduced not increased because of Petronas’ copious profits and Malaysia’s status as a net-exporting oil state.

Malaysia’s pump prices exceed all of the major net oil-producing countries. Abdullah’s action has led to more street protests and a planned mammoth rally on 6 July, to be held by the opposition parties. For now, the Abdullah government survived the oil price hike in a motion in parliament linking it to the doling out of one-off cash subsidies.

The Judiciary and Altantuya

Abdullah’s problems do not end here. The scandal of judicial impropriety (admittedly not of Abdullah’s doing but that of his predecessor) is more palpable after the V K Lingam expose and the Royal Commission’s recommendations of legal action against various protagonists. A Sabah judge’s revelation about a judicial “boot camp” has added grist to the mill. The appointment of Zaid Ibrahim as de facto Law Minister to assuage the legal fraternity and to apparently reconstitute an independent judiciary may still be a tall order, and at best, a long way from fulfilment. The loss of Pulau Batu Puteh /Pedra Branca to Singapore makes another dent on Abdullah’s political image among Malays.

Most problematic would be the manner Abdullah deals with the new ramifications of the Altantuya murder case. Raja Petra Kamaluddin’s sensational allegations in a sworn affidavit that the deputy prime minister’s wife, Rosmah Mansor, was at the scene of the murder together with Rosmah’s aide de camp and her husband, one colonel Aziz Buyong, clearly lands Abdullah’s government into a new quandary. Najib’s denial followed by Abdullah’s is neither here nor there; it is one person’s word against another and the police are still legally bound to investigate Raja Petra’s sworn statement. The police have apparently taken a statement from Rosmah. Should they not also seek sworn statements from Aziz Buyong and wife? Meanwhile the Altantuya trial should enter its second phase where the alleged abetment of Razak Baginda in the murder will be heard.

Malaysia’s political transition will clearly be stalled as long as the symbol of its impasse, Abdullah Badawi, remains at the helm.  The more sanguine have argued that the badawied political process is salutary as it allows for many belated and necessary reforms to the Malaysian political system. In truth, Abdullah’s stymied political hand only allows for tinkering rather than an overhauling of all that is wrong. Thus, if I may explicate further the badawi epithet, it is only a condition that presages a political opening but never its eventual closure on a newer plane of attainment.

Practically speaking, an Abdullah government could hardly debunk the deeply embedded racial politics of Umno and Malay supremacy as its concept. Nor could it bring a genuine institutional transition to a more participatory democracy which is what citizens have indicated they want through the historic 8 March general election.

Moreover, the deeply racial character of Malaysian politics has been roundly jettisoned by citizens but neither Abdullah nor his predecessor Mahathir seem to realise this. Both are hanging on to the already moribund political formula of the BN, where racial parties jockey for political advantage and neglect the larger purposes of national governance.

It is an unfortunate truism for the current prime minister that unless he relinquishes power, the movement to the next stage of Malaysian politics will not happen.

Johan Saravanamuttu is Visiting Senior Researcher, Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore. The views expressed here are personal.

An earlier, shorter version of this article appeared in Opinion Asia (http://www. opinionasia.org) on 19 June 2008.

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