By Kapil Sethi | November 09, 2011
The Malaysian Insider
NOV 9 — So it’s final. No more PPSMI. Over a year of PAGE campaigning, petitioning, protesting and writing letters to the editors have come to naught. As the deputy prime minister remarked, the decision was made by the government in 2009 and it will not bow to the demands of small groups. The only concession is that those already under PPSMI will be allowed to finish their schooling under PPSMI.
So it’s final. No more arguments over amendments to the Employment Act. Three months of the Malaysian Trade Unions Congress (MTUC) campaigning, petitioning and picketing have had no impact on the government. The human resource minister called the picket illegal (November 1, The Malaysian Insider) and insisted “this is a policy issue by the government. If they picket, they are going against the law.”
Both PAGE and MTUC threatened to divert support from Barisan Nasional to the opposition if their demands were not met. The PAGE Facebook protest page garnered approximately 100,000 “Likes” while MTUC has over 800,000 members and counts on the support of 5.7 million workers. Even the Lynas controversy has managed to alienate a substantial portion of Kuantan residents, with no solution offered by the government beyond bare denials.
So it seems either extremely brave or recklessly foolhardy on the part of the ruling coalition to upset such large numbers of voters especially on the eve of a make or break battle in the next general election.
What gives? Beyond the usual politicking by vested groups, lobbyists, nationalists, et cetera, is there an implicit assumption being made about the nature of the Malaysian voter? Does the ruling coalition believe that much like the Auditor-General’s annual report on numerous instances of government mismanagement of finances, come election time all issues are forgotten save one: The safety of the familiar Barisan Nasional over the fear of the untested Pakatan Rakyat?
This belief is premised on a couple of things. One is the lack of access to information of the rural, conservative voter who has been programmed over the decades to give credit to BN for the gradual improvements to her economic status while safeguarding her family from unhealthy modernity.
The other is the fear of the urban minorities of radical political change putting a disparate bunch of parties with considerable ideological differences in power that may put the economic and social stability of the nation at risk.
If so, that may be a very dangerous assumption to make. It ignores the impact of the rising flow of information through alternative media and the ability of the middle class to act as an agent of change. It also implies that for Malaysians, race and religion take precedence over everything else.
When over 60 per cent of the population is connected to the internet, which is seen to be a more credible news source and that news source is primarily concerned with exposing the misdeeds of the parties in power to counter the propaganda of the mainstream press, the impact goes beyond the urban-rural and racial divide. The frustration over the lack of response to such corruption or mismanagement from the authorities enables groups upset with government inaction over different issues to make common cause.
While race and religion are important, bread-and-butter issues will always take precedence. If the future of one’s children or the livelihood of one’s husband is threatened by official apathy and corruption, if every demand is met with a paternalistic “no”, then the conditions are ripe for change, and safety and familiarity begin to look worse than inexperience and naiveté.
While it is true that PAGE and MTUC represent a primarily urban, middle-class audience, they possess extremely strong connections with other segments of the electorate, through either family ties or through business and work.
Misrata and Cairo demonstrated the power of an angry and frustrated urban middle- class to carry the country with them. In Malaysia, that anger is going to have an impact across the country come election time.
IF BN is to turn the tide, it must first begin to follow the fundamental precept that the essence of democracy is compromise. In all three of the issues mentioned above, consultation that leads to an acceptable compromise should be the objective. After all, it is supposed to be a government of “People First.”
For now the rage is impotent. But the election is not far away, and today, issues are not allowed to be forgotten that easily.
Kapil is an advertising strategist based in KL, who likes nothing better than to figure out why people behave the way they do. Naturally this forces him to spend most of his time lounging in coffeeshops and bars. He can be reached at [email protected]