Citizens’ Declaration: A ‘game changer’? A realignment of political forces?

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Rather than turn to opposition parties or former Umno-BN leaders for leadership, civil society leaders ought to steer the direction of politics, even while engaging in creative alliances with them, says Francis Loh.

It has been three weeks since the Citizens Declaration was announced on 4 March 2016.

In our first communication on the matter, Aliran congratulated Dr Mahathir Mohamad and other Umno-BN leaders for working together with opposition party chiefs and a few civil society organisation (CSO) heads to call on Prime Minister Najib Razak to resign in order to save the country.

Aliran highlighted that the development signalled a split in the Umno-BN ruling elite and compared the scenario with the unravelling of the Suharto regime in Indonesia when a group of former generals and prime ministers openly criticised Suharto’s New Order regime for the first time in 1980.

At any rate, the declaration was not a call to rally behind Dr Mahathir and to set aside ongoing CSO work in order to push for Najib’s resignation. See Francis Loh’s ‘Citizens’ Declaration signals split in Umno-BN elite ranks’.

Aliran’s second communication on the declaration highlighted the political impasse Malaysians were facing, what with the opposition in disarray. See Johan Saravanamuttu’s ‘Citizens’ Declaration: Forging alliances in a time of political impasse’.

Provided a minimum common goal is kept in focus by CSOs (ie for Najib’s removal, for initiating institutional reforms and for unseating Umno-BN thereafter), exploiting the Umno-BN split by forging ‘creative alliances’ with them might be the way forward.

This was also Aliran’s response to a few critics that the forging of such an alliance to rid the nation of an individual, rather than the entire repressive, corrupt and discriminatory system wreaked of opportunism, not least because Dr Mahathir was responsible for much of the slide downwards. As such, according to these critics, working with Dr Mahathir betrayed the spirit of reformasi, which had led to popular support of the Opposition in the past two elections.

Critical problem

It is important to remind ourselves of the critical problem at hand. Never before has any Malaysian leader been accused of such alleged widespread corruption.

These allegations are the result of thorough-going investigations by journalists of the Washington-based Wall Street Journal and of the on-line investigative Sarawak Report portal. Partly as a result of these probes and following their own investigations, the US, Swiss, Singaporean and Hong Kong authorities are probing for possible breaches of the financial laws in their respective countries.

These allegations are related to the massive debts that have been accumulated by the sovereign fund 1MDB of which Najib is the advisor; the transfer of up to US$1bn into Najib’s personal accounts, the claims that these transfers were actually ‘donations’ from the Saudi royal family, and that most of these funds have been returned to the donor. Obviously, there have been knock-on consequences for our economy.

Within a few hours of the declaration being released, the prime minister’s office issued a rebuttal reiterating that the prime minister had already explained all and had been cleared by the attorney general of any wrongdoing. A minister even claimed that he had been cleared by the MACC.

Accordingly, Dr Mahathir and the supporters of the declaration were accused of resorting to “undemocratic means” to “topple an elected government”, a theme that the inspector general of police further stressed.

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For the record, it is the right of citizens to call for the removal of a prime minister through peaceful means like a declaration. It is also the rakyat’s right to campaign peacefully for the repeal of coercive laws and policies that violate our fundamental and citizenship rights as enshrined in the Constitution; and for us to assemble peacefully as Bersih did, for “free and fair elections” or for other institutional reforms.

The debate among critics of the Umno-BN government over the declaration has persisted. I want to highlight two recent opinions: one by Bridget Welsh, long-time researcher on Malaysian politics and regular contributor to online dailies, and the other by Lim Teck Ghee, former World Bank analyst and one of Malaysia’s most respected historians.

Game changer? Realignment of forces?

Welsh too welcomes the declaration and the formation of an alliance of former foes, not least because the economy is entering a period of uncertainty and Malaysian politics some “new and rough terrain”, she warns.

For there will follow, after this 1MDB fiasco, Welsh argues, the discrediting of other government-linked companies, a decline in Malaysia’s global standing, and as the need for foreign borrowings increases, new threats perhaps to our national sovereignty.

She also queries how Umno, as it runs out of money, will be able to maintain itself and its supporters. Her suggestion is that there will be growing opposition but also further repression, including “a heavy blow to the local media”.

If the opposition is to consolidate, there must be a willingness to cooperate, to rally behind new younger leaders, and a new common narrative with true reformasi colours must emerge from the common antipathy against Najib. See Welsh’s ‘Citizens’ Declaration a political gamechanger’.

On his part, Lim is critical that so much focus is on ridding ourselves of an individual, rather than the system. Perhaps he overemphasises the declaration as an attempt to pull together the “latest version of an opposition front”. If that be the case, they have then scored “an own goal”. He notes “no fundamental realignment” of political forces. See Lim Teck Ghee’s ‘Citizens’ Declaration: Political Garbage In, Garbage Out, but Najib remains’.

I agree with Lim that the declaration does not signal any fundamental realignment of political forces. Taking a broader and longer view, however, I want to argue that there has occurred a fundamental shift in Malaysian politics; but it has nothing to do with the declaration. The realignment has to do with the arrival of ‘small p politics’ in Malaysia.

‘Big P’ Politics’ and ‘small p’ politics

It is important to distinguish ‘Big P’ formal politics associated with assuming Power in Putrajaya or in the state capitals from ‘small p’ participatory politics, not directly involved in the taking over of Power.

As we all know, prior to GE12 and GE13, Big P formal politics was essentially dominated by Umno-BN. Close contests only took place in the large Malay-majority rural seats and in some 30-plus Chinese-majority urban seats. It was almost like a two-party system wherein the opposition parties could displace the Umno-BN parties in these two types of constituencies.

But a feature of this scenario prior to GE12 and GE13 was that the BN won easily in small Malay-majority and mixed seats in semi-urban small towns, and in Sarawak and Sabah generally. So Umno-BN won the parliamentary contests easily with a two-thirds majority of all seats.

More than that, they also won all state governments, except for Kelantan. The PBS opposition victory in Sabah in the early 1980s was an aberration which was ‘corrected’ when the PBS returned to the BN fold in the early 1990s.

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But, in GE12 and GE13, the popular vote was split down the middle. The BN was denied a two-thirds majority in Parliament on both occasions. And it lost an unprecedented five states in GE12 on 8 March 2008. Although Umno-BN regained the Perak and Kedah governments in 2013, the Opposition strengthened its grip over the states of Penang, Selangor and Kelantan.

In the realignment that occurred, the PR coalition won all the major urban seats. Fierce contests also took place in the rural and even the semi-urban seats. The realignment highlighted the emergence of Sabah and Sarawak as BN-Umno ‘fixed deposits’ too.

Even so, a new development was the increase in the number of ‘marginal seats’ that were won by less than a 5% majority. According to a study by political scientist Mohd Faisal Hazis, there were 63 such marginal seats in GE12 and 81 of the same in GE13.

Liew Chin Tong, a Johore MP and DAP election strategist, has elaborated on the marginal seats in the peninsula in GE13: all in all, there were 39 seats that were won with less than a 10% majority. Ten seats were won by less than a 2% majority; 11 seats by 2-4% majorities; 6 seats by 4-6% majorities; and 12 seats by 6-10% majorities. Yes, these are important shifts in Big Power Politics in Malaysia.

The rise of ‘small p’ politics

Equally important and more dramatic has been the consolidation of ‘small p’ participatory politics. This aspect of our politics is relatively new and was egged on by the arrival of the urban educated middle class, especially the young.

It is a politics that goes beyond the political parties and elections. It can converge with Big P politics but is not necessarily related to it. In fact, it occurs in between elections and is more concerned with specific policies and programmes.

Its scope ranges from concerns about accountability, transparency and good governance; about dismantling corruption and cronyism; about the struggle for minority rights, gender rights, and human rights generally; about sustainable development that prioritises the environment and heritage. Among small p political activists, local government is considered an important site for contestation.

The small p politics types want to be consulted, to be heard and to be involved. They show up at townhall meetings, sign petitions and issue joint statements online. They form loose coalitions from time to time, use the new IT and social media to conduct their political work and distribute videos and recordings using YouTube and WhatsApp.

And yes, they also like to go for long walks and participate in mass rallies like Bersih and the anti-GST protest. In George Town, Penang, they like to show up at the Speakers’ Square.

All these activities are facilitated by the arrival of numerous young graduates. The New Economic Model reports that a total of 425,237 Malaysians were awarded their first degrees from 2002 to 2007.

Information on the digitalisation of Malaysia obtained from data.worldbank.org indicate that fixed broadbank subscriptions have risen from 483,000 in 2005 to 2.4m in 2013; internet users per 100 people have leapt from 48.6 in 2005 to 67 in 2013; and mobile cellular subscriptions per 100 people have risen from 75 in 2005 to 145 in 2013.

Convergence but no change of government

Yes, there has been a convergence of Big P Politics and small p politics when the CSOs whose young activists are IT savvy got involved in the Bersih movement for free and fair elections, in the Green movement, and in smaller groups like Anything But Umno (ABU) and threw their support behind the Opposition to call for “Ini kali lah, Ubah!’ in 2013.

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No, there was no change of government in GE13 although the Opposition polled more voters than Umno-BN did. Thanks to the first-past-the-post system, the gerrymandering, the disproportional distribution of seats between the states and between the urban and rural areas within each state, and the courting of Sabah and Sarawak, which became Umno-BN fixed deposit states, there was no change of government in Putrajaya.

Yes, there was much disappointment because Umno-BN was returned to power in 2013. No doubt, the unravelling of the PR Selangor government in 2014 and the breakup of the PR in 2015 must have been major setbacks for those involved in small p politics who were hoping for a change in Big P Politics to occur.

But these setbacks do not mean that we are back to square one in participatory politics.

Consolidate small p politics

That ferment is still there. In this regard, the Citizens’ Declaration is not a ‘game changer’ . Nor has the declaration led to a realignment of political forces. If anything, the declaration indicates that the Big P Umno-BN elites are split. Perhaps the ferment has crossed over from the small p to Big P politics. And this is what civil society organisations ought to take note of and seize upon.

In a recent seminar – not about the declaration – in Penang featuring two outstanding Malaysian women Marina Mahathir and Zainah Anwar, both emphasised the need for civil society to further consolidate itself in these turbulent times.

Rather than turn to the opposition parties or those former Umno-BN leaders involved in the declaration initiative for leadership, civil society leaders ought to steer the direction of politics, even when they engage with them in creative alliances.

How might we be able to do this?

I like the idea of a People’s Tribunal, which was discussed by Prof Gurdial Singh Nijar in his column ‘When Citizens push for justice’ (theSun, 17 March 2016).

Thus far two such tribunals have been initiated in Malaysia. The first, the KL War Crimes Tribunal, prosecuted Bush and members of his cabinet and his lawyers for war crimes of torture in Guantanamo, Afghanistan and Iraq; and Bush and Blair for waging an illegal war against Iraq.

The second was the People’s Tribunal on GE13 set up by Bersih to inquire into the conduct of the last elections (see Aliran Monthly vol 33 no 2, pp 19-25) wherein Gurdial himself played lead counsel.

Although the outcomes of such tribunals are not binding, they can collate and present complete and powerful documentary evidence and place this in the public domain, which can become the basis for the demand for prosecution later.

Perhaps the CSOs can take the lead over the 1MDB financial fiasco and the scandal involving the donations into the PM’s personal accounts. It will certainly keep the matter alive as the powers that be pronounce, one after another, that the prime minister did not do any wrong in both.

This might prove to be a game changer galvanising CSOs and all, including Dr Mahathir and the 50-odd signatories who are calling for the prime minister’s resignation, in order to save Malaysia.

Perhaps you might want to run this by the panel of speakers at the upcoming ‘Deklarasi Rakyat Mengapa? #selamatkanmalaysia forum that will be held on 23 March 8pm in Dewan Ilmu, Perpustakaan Kominiti Petaling Jaya. Hishamuddin Rais, Maria Chin Abdullah, Ambiga Srenevasan, Cynthis Gabriel, Khairuddin Abdul Hassan, and Lim Kit Siang will be there.

And maybe, CSOs should also call for the public release of the report prepared by Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee immediately.

Dr Francis Loh
Co-editor, Aliran newsletter
23 March 2016

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Hafidz Baharom
Hafidz Baharom

Really need my glasses. Saw it as a realignment of political farces