BN after Kuala Terengganu: To reform or not to reform?

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As  the Umno general assembly approaches, Anil Netto suggests that the ruling coalition knows what it needs to do to survive: it has to push through major reforms to wipe our corruption and abuse of power to win back lost support. But is it really capable of such reforms?

As the Umno election and general assembly in March approaches, the party faces a huge dilemma.

It is phasing out a leader (Abdullah Badawi) it feels is not suitable to lead the party following a general election setback last year which saw it lose its coveted two thirds parliamentary majority, while five out of 13 states fell to opposition hands.

Umno is now about to endorse a new leader, Najib Razak, whose own leadership credentials are in tatters following crushing by-election defeats in Permatang Pauh last August and Kuala Terengganu in January.

The irony is that it was the lack of meaningful reforms that led to the BN suffering an erosion of support. But it was Abdullah, more than Najib, who realised the importance of reforms, even though he largely failed to deliver them.

The 17 January by-election may not have changed the balance of power but it has implications that extend far beyond the capital of the resource-rich state of Terengganu. Voters were also sending a signal that the Umno power transition scheme had not impressed them. Many analysts saw it as the voters’ refusal to endorse Najib as the prime minister-to-be.

No one will feel the blow more than Najib, no matter how much the spin-doctors try to put the blame on Abdullah Badawi (who was after all widely perceived by both BN and Pakatan supporters as on his way out), the candidate, or other local issues.

The by-election was a victory not just for Pas but also the Pakatan, whose politicians helped in the campaign.

It was also a victory for People Power, as scores of activists, Muslims and others from as far away as KL and Penang (including Permatang Pauh) turned up to help out in the campaign.

More than that, it was a triumph for the people of Kuala Terengganu, who cast away their fears, doubts and concerted attempts to buy their votes through promises of allocations and projects.

The combined effect proved too much for the BN candidate, despite being backed up the heavy machinery of the state and its resources, including the big guns from Kuala Lumpur. The presence of the Umno big guns from other states was obvious from the number of gleaming, black SUVs swarming around Kuala Terengganu.


The momentum continues

The remarkable win for the Pakatan – and the people – reveals several things.

The ‘east coast monsoon’ by-election showed that the 8 March 2008 ‘political tsunami’ and the Permatang Pauh showdown last August were no aberrations. The impact of March 8 has now been extended to the East Coast and augurs well for the opposition alliance’s future electoral performance.

It showed that Pas cooperating with the PKR and DAP could improve on the performance of a single component party in the alliance. That said, the Pakatan will have to take note of some of the weaknesses in the campaign. Some of their top leaders did not stay for the duration of the campaign and were not even present when the results were announced as a show of solidarity. The cooperation is not as seamless as it could be –  and the Pakatan must do their own post-mortem.

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The by-election has also allowed Pakatan supporters to put aside the disappointment over the failure to capture power on 16 September as predicted by Anwar Ibrahim. In any case, it has shown that consolidating power in the five states and incrementally building on the momentum is probably a wiser alternative than attempting to seize power by defections.

More importantly, the by-election results prove that the days of trying to buy votes whether through announcements of grants and aids or through outright cash disbursements are fast coming to an end. Instead of feeling grateful, more and more people now feel a growing sense of disgust and even outrage at such unethical practices. Pakatan has capitalised on this by telling people to take what is offered but vote for the opposition.

The result showed that the majority of people in Kuala Terengganu refused to allow ‘money politics’ and vote-buying to influence the way they vote. The BN’s traditional money, media and machinery formula tak laku anymore.

Analysts have also pointed out that young voters in Kuala Terengganu were increasingly more likely to vote for the opposition. A few factors could explain this. Younger voters are more likely to be working outside the state and exposed to opposition politics in other states. They are less likely to be carrying the baggage of race- and religion-based politics.

They are also more likely to be IT-savvy than the older generation; even though only a small minority of them use the Internet to catch up on political news, this minority further disseminates dissenting views to a larger audience while the older generation tend to rely on Utusan, Berita Harian and largely pro-BN television news.

Kuala Terengganu also showed that the intimidation of voters is less likely to work among the electorate at large. Residents witnessed a heavy deployment of troops, making it look as if the city was almost under siege. The Police Contingent Headquarters in the city was buzzing with activity, hundreds of traffic police bikes, land-rovers, trucks. A helicopter buzzed above the city constantly until most people got used to the sound as part of the background bustle of the city.

Such reminders and the desire not to rock the boat may have had an effect. The majority of conservative ethnic Chinese voters remained faithful to the BN despite the Pakatan holding on to about 40 per cent of the Chinese votes.

National fervour for change

And yet, the people of Terengganu swung further towards the opposition. In 2004, the BN won with a majority of 1,933. By 2008, its majority had dropped to 628, and in this by-election, the Pas candidate won by 2,631 votes. We saw a similar erosion of support for the BN over the same period in the Permatang Pauh by-election last August.

For the BN, the election performance was disastrous. This was its third electoral setback in a row within ten months. The by-election result allows the opposition to build on its earlier momentum to further erode support for BN.

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Though the reformasi era began a decade ago, civil society groups and trade union activists had already planted the seeds of change way back from the post-war period. But it was only from the late 1990s that the momentum for change started building up. The greater accessibility to alternative views cannot be underestimated. Reformasi in 1998 coincided with the mushrooming of websites and email. Later, blogs and then other networking tools such as Twitter and Facebook began radically changing the face of cyber activism and opening up a whole new world of citizen journalism.

In Kuala Terengganu, the traditional media – television, radio and newspapers – found they had to contend with the Internet. Though the Internet played only a small role in the actual campaign, its role lay outside the state.

Like in Permatang Pauh, the Internet played a key role in highlighting the by-election campaign to a national audience. Fed on a steady diet of more independent news, many Malaysians outside Terengganu were practically willing Kuala Terengganu residents to continue the momentum for change. Facilitated by the Internet, this national fervour for change – and the example set by people of the five states who voted for Pakatan – cannot be underestimated.


Is the BN beyond redemption?

After the by-election campaign, there was some sense in the Umno leadership that drastic changes were needed to reform Umno and the BN-led government rather than mere “re-branding”.

Najib asked BN leaders to move out of their comfort zones and build closer rapport with the people or be punished at the next general election. He said that development projects must be based on
the needs of the people – an admission of sorts that many projects had not been people-oriented in the past. ‘’The BN government cannot afford a disconnection between the people’s aspirations and the government’s direction.”

Umno vice-president Muhyiddin Yassin, for his part, said Najib would have to perform “political surgery”.

But that could be easier said than done. The BN government appears to have learnt little.

Just three days after the by-election, on 20 January, police detainee Kugan Ananthan, 22, died in police custody, his body showing signs of serious injury. It was the latest in a list of custodial deaths over the years. The photographic and video evidence of the injuries sparked a public outcry.

Kugan’s death put into sharp focus the BN’s failure to set up an Independent Police Complaints and Misconduct Commission, a key recommendation of the Royal Commission set up to look into the operations of the police.

Even during the closing stages of the by-election campaign, several regular Abolish ISA vigil were informed that they would be charged in court the following week (23 January) in connection with their participation in a vigil on 9 November 2008.

The 9 November Abolish ISA vigil coincided with the first anniversary commemoration of the Bersih rally. Riot police charged into the crowd and the 23 people were arrested; a couple of  participants sustained injuries in the process. The 23 were later released on police bail and when they later reported to the police station, their bail was not extended and they thought then they were free. But now the authorities are charging them in court.

Further evidence that the BN had not learnt anything from its Kuala Terengganu defeat came in the form of a directive by Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Abdul Zahid Hamidi.

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His directive that federal departments and agencies in Perak should not attend meetings organised by the state government clearly runs against our the spirit of our Constitution and our system of federalism. The  move reportedly was to prevent the state-elected Village Development and Security Committees (JKKKs) from gaining access to federal agencies. The federal agencies were also barred from considering the recommendations put forward by these JKKKs.

It is precisely such actions that have angered and upset many right-thinking Malaysians and spurred them to demand democratic reforms.

Recognising this, Abdullah Badawi seems intent on pushing through three bills as part of his reform agenda before his departure. Already two bills – the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Bill and the Judicial Appointments Bill – have been passed in Parliament. A third on the police force and other enforcement agencies completes his agenda – though he has promised to see through the implementation even after leaving office in March.

But after failing to push through such reforms at the height of his popularity following a landslide general election win in 2004, it remains to be seen whether the BN, particularly a wounded, divided Umno, has the political will and gumption to push through meaningful reforms.

Umno might not have the stomach to do what is necessary, especially when such reforms could bring to a premature end the careers of many party functionaries who have benefited from the system and even loosen the BN’s stranglehold on power.

How can it do away with money politics when business and politics are in a perpetual state of khalwat in Malaysia? How can it do away with race-based politics when that is the only sort of politics it knows? How can it do away with the politics of fear and intimidation when it does not know any other way to rule?

Deep down, the Umno/BN leaders probably know what has to be done. But they find themselves unable to implement the needed reforms because they know the gravy train they and their business cronies have been on board for years will come to a screeching halt.

But then again, the gravy train is hurtling towards a cliff and if they don’t switch tracks in a hurry, they could find themselves crashing into the abyss in the next general election. Even without reforms, the gravy is fast evaporating as the country sinks deeper into an economic slowdown and, as appears increasingly likely, even a recession.

The crisis of credibility in democratic institutions will only undermine public confidence in the BN’s – and Najib’s – ability to govern effectively. Umno’s and the BN’s inability to reform themselves will come back to haunt them.

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