— Tommy Thomas
The Malaysian Insider
January 15, 2013
JAN 15 — Imagine Britain being governed by the same political party, say, Labour, for 55 successive years from 1957. Or the United States by the Republican party for the same continuous, unbroken period.
That has been Malaysia’s fate since Merdeka. The 13th general election, which must be held before June 28, gives Malaysians an opportunity to break free from the monopoly of political power exercised by Umno, first, in the guise of Alliance and subsequently as Barisan Nasional.
The five years between the 12th general election in March 2008 and the 13th have been a watershed period in post-independent Malaysia because of the establishment of a truly functioning two-party system, with a strong opposition capable of forming the next government.
But it took half a century for our nation to accomplish this stage of democratic development. Like many peoples of nations emerging from colonial rule in the Third World, Malaysians were very grateful to the Alliance party, led by Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman, for gaining independence from the British.
The reservoir of goodwill for nationalist independence fighters greatly assisted Umno in the early decades. Race, which the colonial power had exploited in its divide-and-rule policy, became the singular fundamental feature of Malaysian politics since Merdeka, reflected at the centre by the Alliance coalition comprising Umno, the MCA and MIC, each representing a specific race, and expected to pursue the interests of its ethnic constituency.
In the early days, Umno acted as the elder brother, with a semblance of contribution from its junior siblings, the MCA and MIC. But there was never a question of parity. After the National Operations Council (NOC) through its director, Tun Abdul Razak, assumed actual power in the wake of the May 13, 1969 riots, Umno’s ascendency and dominance were never questioned.
Hence, the practical reality since the early 1970s is that Barisan is actually Umno, and major decisions affecting the nation are more often than not taken in the inner recesses of Umno rather than the Cabinet.
Ayatollah Khomeini’s rise to power in the Iranian Revolution of 1979 resulted in an Islamic resurgence across the globe.
It had its influence in Malaysia by the mid-1980s when Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad decided to outflank PAS by taking up Islam as a political idealogy and weapon. Thus, Umno added religion to race, a powerful emotive cocktail in a plural society. Race or religion infects nearly every decision made by Umno, and the state apparatus controlled by it.
It will therefore not be an understatement to describe race and religion as the fundamental elements of modern Malaysian politics.
Perhaps the most unacceptable consequence of a lengthy rule by Umno is its control over all the nation’s public institutions, like the media, the universities, the civil service and the police. Length of governance creates rulers who believe they have a divine right to rule, that, there is no longer any difference between the nation state and the ruling party — they become inseparable. Thus, Umno has behaved as if its interests are identical with that of Malaysia.
When genuine support for Umno ebbed over time, a climate of fear was developed, with the spectre of May 13 repeated time and again to intimidate and frighten the electorate, especially the older generation and non-Malays.
The success of Pakatan in depriving Barisan of the much vaunted two-thirds majority in Parliament, winning 10 out of 11 parliamentary seats in Kuala Lumpur, and capturing power in five states in March 2008 forever demolished the myth of Umno’s invincibility.
Even if ethnic-based politics played a role in securing Merdeka and governing an infant nation, it has long outlived its use, and should be jettisoned. The next stage in Malaysia’s evolving democracy is a change of national government.
As night follows day, it will inevitably happen.
The Deepak Jaikishan saga currently hogging the Internet media, which has for all practical purposes became the mainstream media for millions of Malaysians disgusted with the putrid reporting of newspapers, epitomises the depths to which our public life has descended: only a basket nation like Zimbabwe can provide an adequate parallel.
Here is an absolutely unknown businessman of a minority ethnic group without any known institutional support mocking the prime minister and his wife for over one month without anyone from Umno defending them.
One would have thought that such repeated public criticism of Umno’s president constitutes a direct challenge to the entire party, which in the past was always met with a stinging rebuttal from Umno, and thereafter by the full might of the state. One only needs to recall strident calls just months ago to revoke the citizenship of Ambiga Sreenevasan, also a member of the same minority ethnic group, when she bravely led Bersih’s legitimate struggle for electoral return.
What must be kept in mind about Deepak’s allegations is their gravity: after all it concerns the barbarous murder of a Mongolian mother visiting her alleged lover in Kuala Lumpur, and its cover-up. The critical issue in her murder — who gave the instructions to the two patsies to C-4 her has never been investigated — and the perpetrators have never been charged.
A society that does not allow the most thorough, independent and professional investigation leading to the arrest, prosecution and conviction of Altantuya’s actual murderers forfeits all claim to be a decent, law-abiding society.
It is no coincidence that such brazen conduct takes place in a society where the political leaders have governed for half a century, and have treated the nation and its institutions like their private property, and its electorate with contempt. Accountability, integrity and truth are lost values in our society.
Even the establishment’s response to Deepak’s blackmail has been striking: since his private debt has to be settled, a company which purports to look after the interest of armed forces servicemen has been directed to bail him out. What has been totally disregarded is the corporate governance question: how are the interests of this company, its shareholders and creditors served by this transaction?
Because Umno controls the management of hundreds of companies, the distinction between Umno’s interests and the interests of such companies is blurred. Seldom in history is Lord Acton’s acute comment “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely” more apt than in contemporary Malaysia.
It is often argued by Umno apologists that on a relative basis, Malaysia is prosperous. The response should be: with which country are we being compared to? If we are compared to Myanmar, Nigeria or Columbia, yes, we are flourishing. But surely, any comparison should be with countries with equivalent standing, that is, our peers. South Korea and Malaysia were victims of the 1997 Asian financial crisis. Indeed, South Korea received IMF assistance in 1998. But 15 years later, by every measure, South Korea has surpassed Malaysian by leaps and bounds. Whether in heavy industry, shipbuilding or technology, South Korea is absolutely world class: think Samsung, LG and Hyundai.
Likewise, its democratic traditions.
Hence, the best way to describe the management of Malaysia’s economy is that despite poor and misguided policies that have impinged on business, Malaysia has thrived because of natural resources and the industry, initiative and inherent business skills of its people, especially those in the SMEs. Corruption and nepotism have caused leakages in the billions.
If Tan Siew Sin had remained as Malaysia’s finance minister for these 55 years, his prudent stewardship would have saved, I suggest, at least RM1 trillion.
A nation’s greatest asset is its people: human capital. Umno’s brilliant policies have driven away 1½ million to two million Malaysians with their skills and talents to be enjoyed by other nations, and in return, we have attracted four million to five million immigrants (legal and illegal) to keep our country “cheap” and to depress the wages of our labour. What a great exchange! Just to cite one illustration of the loss to Malaysia and benefit to other nations: if all Malaysian citizens were to immediately leave Singapore, and return to Malaysia, Singapore will be seriously affected.
A Pakatan government?
It is often asked: we accept Umno’s weaknesses, but better the devil you know; can we trust Pakatan to govern better. The short answer is that in a proper functioning two-party system we shall have an opportunity in four to five years to throw them out at the 14th general elections. A nation is always better served when governments alternate regularly: after all, that is the raison d’etre of genuine free and fair general elections.
But the better answer is to consider the actual track record of the five Pakatan state governments from 2008. Even detractors accept Lim Guan Eng has led Penang superbly, and should be entrusted with national leadership. Likewise, Selangor.
Proponents of “big development” criticise the PAS style of leadership in Kelantan and Kedah: what is disregarded in this analysis is that their soft, gentle and slow style receives support from their electorate. Nizar Jamaluddin was a fantastic mentri besar in Perak, and his administration was already making waves in the first year, which resulted in the Umno-orchestrated coup d’etat. Even a cursory consideration of the Pakatan performance as administrators of five states will establish that they are fair, reasonable and, most importantly, not corrupt.
Can the same be said of the other state governments ruled by Umno?
When one also takes into account heavyweight politicians of the standing and experience of Nik Aziz, Hadi Awang, Lim Kit Siang and Karpal Singh being given senior Cabinet positions, the ship of the state will be in very safe and capable hands.
Anwar Ibrahim will be sworn in as Malaysia’s 7th prime minister when Pakatan is elected. In a public life exceeding 30 years, Anwar had had his detractors. But it must be remembered that he was a very successful finance minister for some five years, even earning accolades from Mrs Thatcher. He was equally a very successful deputy prime minister; indeed, so successful that his boss had to remove him in 1998! Being in the political wilderness for 15 years, and having suffered the humility of prosecution, persecution, conviction and a long jail sentence can only have humbled him. Dr Mahathir and Umno have been obsessive, and have used the might of the state to prevent Anwar from assuming power. But the Malaysian electorate is the final arbiter. Malaysians should therefore look forward with confidence to his prime ministership. We hope his government will take race-free, religion-free and colour-blind decisions.
The one person in Malaysia who cannot accept Anwar becoming prime minister is Dr Mahathir, who can only judge people by his (Dr M) own values and standards. Consequently, Dr Mahathir expects an Anwar administration to settle scores, particularly against him and his family. He may be proved wrong. What is to say that rather than wasting the time, energy and resources of the state in investigating and prosecuting Dr Mahathir and his cohorts in what may be perceived as political vendetta, Anwar may appoint a “Truth and Reconciliation” Royal Commission, modelled along Nelson Mandela’s post-apartheid South Africa, with a mandate to discover the truth (rather that punishing wrongdoers) as a means of reconciling the nation, and moving forward to meet fresh challenges.
If the majority of Malaysians accept that a change of government is imperative and cast their ballots in the forthcoming general election, it will happen. Pious people should also seek divine intervention. With God’s blessing, Malaysia should finally leave the yolk of one-party rule by the middle of this year. Millions cannot wait for it to happen soon enough.
* Tommy Thomas is a senior Malaysian lawyer.