Malacca polls: PM’s ‘Malaysian family’ branding in tatters

We need fresh ideas and young blood capable of working and struggling for and with the people

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Melaka - BENEDICT LOPEZ

It would be safe to assume that over 90% of the adult population and three quarters of the total population have been fully vaccinated.

Achieving a 90% vaccination rate for adults was one of the main conditions for allowing interstate travel and the opening up of most economic sectors. Covid lockdowns have hurt the livelihoods of many people, and the easing of restrictions aims to help revive the economy.  

But is Malaysia out of the woods yet in facing the threats of the pandemic? Unfortunately, no and neither is the rest of the world.

We still need to follow the usual rules: wearing face masks, avoiding large gatherings, observing physical distancing, washing our hands regularly. Observing these rules is crucial, and people should not let their guard down. Questions over the efficacy of the administered vaccines abound, and the possible need for booster shots is currently a hot topic.

As Malaysia tries to move from a pandemic to an endemic, the need to remain vigilant is even greater. Any major increase in transmissions will again put great pressure on the public health system, jeopardising our chances of returning to some form of normalcy. 

One would expect political leaders to exercise restraint and at least try to work together (for the time being) to avoid situations that may spread Covid infections.

In Sarawak, where a state election is due, a state of emergency has been declared to allow the election to be postponed until the health situation improves.

But in Malacca, on 1 October, four state assembly members declared in a letter they had lost confidence in incumbent Malacca Chief Minister Sulaiman Md Ali and were withdrawing their support. The four were Idris Haron, a former Malacca Chief Minister and Barisan Nasional member for Sungai Udang; Nor Azman Hassan, the BN member for Pantai Kundor; Norhizam Hassan Baktee, an independent for Pengkalan Batu; and Noor Effandi Ahmad, the Bersatu member for Telok Mas.

Prior to their withdrawal, Sulaiman and his team held 17 seats in the 28-seat assembly. With their withdrawal, he was down to 13 – losing his hold on power.

The four who withdrew initially had hoped they could collaborate with the 11 opposition members to arrive at a total of 15 members and thus be invited by the governor to form the next state government.

But this did not happen, and caretaker Chief Minister Sulaiman instead advised the governor to dissolve the state assembly to pave the way for a state election. The Election Commission then announced it would hold the election on 20 November.

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Now, if an anti-defections law had been in place, the four state assembly members would probably not have withdrawn their support; they would have instead waited until a fresh state election was due.

So, they hid behind phrases like “have lost confidence” and “too many flip-flops” as their rationale for withdrawing their support for the chief minister.

The more likely reason for their withdrawal was their naked pursuit of power and ambition. Now, if that is the case, then their move was highly irresponsible and possibly dangerous, given the grave health situation.

Recall the spike in Covid infections after the Sabah state election on 26 September last year. Many are worried that the Malacca state election may trigger another wave of infections. Of course, Malacca is much smaller and its state assembly has just 28 seats compared to Sabah’s 73.

Still, many wish that politicians would genuinely think of the people’s welfare instead of pursuing their self-interest. But this remains a dream. Public scepticism and the trust deficit towards politicians appear to be growing, especially after the Sheraton Move overthrew the duly elected federal Pakatan Harapan government.

With the Malacca state election looming, a major goal of all relevant parties is to take clear steps to reduce the risks of transmissions. The Minister of Health announced a ban on all election-related physical gatherings and social activities from 25 October to 27 November.

But seeing how partisan politics has been dominant in our country, it was no surprise that the DAP’s Lim Guan Eng denounced this ban as a ploy to give the government an unfair advantage.

This is where the Election Commission should quickly come up with new ways to ensure a fair campaign while working to reduce the risk of Covid transmissions.

Bersih 2.0 has come up with some practical suggestions, which the Election Commission should consider seriously. For instance, don’t restrict the period for the nomination of candidates to just one day, but spread it over a week.

For polling, why not stretch it over three days, providing different time slots to various categories of people based on their age or other criteria. This will help prevent overcrowding. There are also proposals for safe campaigning methods. The Election Commission should take the Malacca election as an important learning experience, knowing full well that a general election is due within the next couple of years.

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When Ismail Sabri Yaakob took over as Prime Minister on 21 August, he made a big deal about caring for the large, extended “Malaysian family”. This gave many hope that his administration would try to be inclusive and concerned about the welfare of all regardless of race, religion or ethnicity.

No doubt, many were sceptical from the start: they recall him as the ‘architect’ for Low Yat 2 – the one who promoted a shopping complex catering exclusively for bumiputera entrepreneurs.

Still, some held out a sliver of hope, but recent events and Ismail Sabri’s response, reaction and sometimes inaction tell us we have little to be optimistic about.

Take the case of Nur Sajat, a transgender person who was charged in the Sharia court “for dressing up as a woman”. The religious authorities sought her arrest relentlessly when she failed to turn up in court for her scheduled appearance. At one point, 122 Selangor Islamic Religious Department enforcement officers were tasked with tracking her down.

Nur Sajat found her way to Thailand, and eventually Australia provided her asylum and she has now settled there.

Clearly, the Malaysian family that Ismail Sabri promotes does not include the transgender cohort, who are unfortunately defined as ‘less than human’ and often considered persona non grata in society.

In recent weeks, the name of a spirit, of the intoxicating kind, has hit the headlines, turning many faces red, not necessarily from consuming it. Some elements alleged that the name of a local whisky, Timah (Malay for tin), was short for Fatimah, daughter of Prophet Muhammad. They claimed the name of the whisky and the picture on the bottle of British colonial officer Captain Speedy wearing a skull cap hurt Muslim sensitivities and sparked confusion among believers.

This protest against the whisky’s name was far-fetched and even humorous. But it was no laughing matter as it threatened to drive a wedge between Muslims and people of other faiths at a time when we should be trying to build a united and cohesive Malaysian family.

The drummed-up controversy over the Timah whisky also distracted us from other key issues that we should have tackled and investigated further. Take, for instance, the Pandora Papers – millions of leaked documents that have revealed the offshore accounts of politicians past and present, including presidents and prime ministers.

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Prominent names such as Daim Zainuddin, Finance Minister Tengku Zafrul Aziz, William Leong and Zahid Hamidi are among those mentioned in these papers. The least we can do is investigate why they have these offshore accounts and whether they can account for how the money was accumulated. Opposition Leader Anwar Ibrahim has been pushing for a discussion in Parliament on these papers, but he has been repeatedly denied.

Another disturbing trend that has emerged since Umno’s Ismail Sabri Yaakob became PM is the ‘special treatment’ that some Umno politicians have been receiving. Take Ahmad Maslan, the Pontian MP who had been charged under the anti-money laundering law. His case was dismissed when he agreed to pay a compound fine of RM1.1m. Paying a fine suggests he admits guilt, but in his case he gets to enjoy an acquittal without jeopardising his position as an MP.

Ex-PM Najib Razak, a convicted criminal who is awaiting an appeal on his conviction, applied to court for the release of his passport so that he could travel to Singapore to visit his daughter, who will be delivering a baby there. Najib’s wife Rosmah Mansor, currently under trial for corruption and abuse of power, also applied for the release of her passport. Their applications were duly approved.

Umno president Zahid Hamidi also applied for the release of his passport so he could travel overseas for medical treatment. He, too, received approval. It could be a mere coincidence that all this is happening after Ismail Sabri took over as PM, but the optics don’t look good.

So where does all this lead us to? It has been – and will continue to be – a major uphill battle for justice and true democracy in Malaysia. Many have given up hope on the existing politicians from all sides and justifiably so.

We need fresh ideas and young blood capable and willing to live out the ideals of truly working and struggling for and with the people, especially the poor and the marginalised.

Our hope lies with the young.

Henry Loh
Co-editor, Aliran newsletter
31 October 2021
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