In uncharted waters

By Clive Kessler | APRIL 07, 2013
The Malaysian Insider

APRIL 7 ― We are in uncharted political waters.

Parliament has been dissolved, already days ago, but the election has yet to be called.

The dates for nomination of candidates and for “going to the polls” to vote have yet to be declared.

The nation now finds itself stalled. It can do nothing but wait. We are caught in a strange interlude, a moment of suspended political animation.

And we are already in new political territory.

Where exactly we are, and what the political “lie of the land” is, remain unclear.

But we know that we are on new ground.

Just one indicator.

In his April 3 dissolution address, the prime minister most commendably declared that, win or lose at federal or state level, people including those on his own side should accept the result, honour the decision of the democratic electoral process.

Implied in his words was a remarkable concession by the prime minister that, however unlikely he may believe it to be, Umno/BN could conceivably lose not just control of some state governments but even the federal election.

There it was, in broad daylight: The almost shocking admission that his long-ruling party could conceivably lose control of the federal government, and could be ousted from power by popular rejection.

No Malaysian prime minister or Umno leader has ever, in living memory, made any such admission.

None before PM Najib Razak has ever been in the situation where he needed to do so, where there was any such possibility of popular political rejection and loss.

But the prime minister made that statement, that admission of personal and party vulnerability.

Clearly, and to his great credit, he felt that he had to do so.

But it was not an admission that could have “gone down easily” with many in Umno. Many of the old-timers and “hard men” in the organization must surely have considered it an error.

Or even much worse: a sign of weakness, a terrible mistake, a culpable admission of failure on the eve of battle, even before the fight itself had begun.

“Is that bold and courageous leadership?” one can easily imagine them saying, in rage and despair. “Is that the Malay way of exercising power?”

But, remarkably, the prime minister said so, he said exactly that.


Because things, this time, are different.

And different battlefield conditions require a different approach, a different strategy and the deployment of different forces than those customarily employed.

We are beyond the familiar old game of Malaysian elections.

And a different approach ― as many have recognized and remarked ― is now being adopted.

For the first time in this country since 1957, the prime minister and his government are fighting for political survival, for their political lives.

They are in a tough fight, and they know it.

In such circumstances, you have to look at the situation, consider closely the resources available both to your own side and your adversaries, and choose a strategy that maximizes your own situational advantages and an approach that minimizes those of the opposition, one that places them in the greatest uncertainty and under the greatest stress.

That, as we wait for the Election Commission to meet this Wednesday, is what is now happening in Malaysia.

On this new ground, many of us have already been proven wrong.

We are moving from “blitzkrieg” to a war of attrition and positional manoeuvre.

This election will be no “12-day wonder”, no sudden mad rush that will be over in the proverbial blink of an eye.

Instead, one week after Parliament was dissolved, on April 3, the Election Commission will meet.

Then, on April 10, it will presumably announce the date of the nomination of candidates and of the poll itself.

The likeliest possibility at the moment seems to be that April 13 will be nomination day and April 27 will be “D-Day”, Decision Day.

If so, the total election period from nomination to decision will be 17 days, or two and a half weeks ― and from dissolution to decision 24 days, or three and a half weeks.

Nothing less, or shorter, than that seems conceivable.

Something longer than that is possible, but at this stage seems unlikely.

Unless a string of further great surprises is in store…

An election period of between two and three weeks is, in international comparative terms, not very long. Most countries have more protracted and gradual arrangements for conducting a national election.

But for Malaysia this is remarkable.

Remarkable, and in modern times unprecedented.

In 1969 the campaign period went on for five weeks.

The Tunku wanted to give the country a full opportunity to consider the issues and to debate its future.

And then came May 1969.

Five weeks? “Never again!” was the response.

When elections resumed in 1974, the polling schedule was very tight, greatly abbreviated.

And with only minor relaxation, the election “countdown” timing in Malaysia since then has always been very constrained and limited.

In 2008 the then prime minister consented to a 13-day campaign period, two days more than the previous pattern of 11 days.

To this minor relaxation some recent commentators have attributed — quite illogically — the political “tsunami” of that year and the dramatic setbacks which Umno/BN experienced at the GE12 polls.

This year, things will certainly take longer than that.

Clearly, the current prime minister’s strategists do not fear inviting another tsunami of anti-government sentiment by extending even further the campaign period.

On the contrary, they must calculate, or hope, that extra time will be to the prime minister’s and his party’s advantage.

And they are accordingly proceeding to the battlefield with all “deliberate”, meaning unrushed, haste ― “steady as she goes,” “half-speed ahead”, and also sideways.

That’s often the way in Malay politics.

When things get difficult, those in power use their advantage to slow things down, stall, play politics in “slow-motion.”

That way of proceeding stops momentum developing for the other side, to the adversary’s advantage.

More important, for those in charge it increases their own “elbow room”, their “room to manoeuvre or “fudging space.”

And, perhaps most significantly, it also increases their ability to exert and maintain detailed control.

This has often been the way in customary Malay politics.

But in an election context this is quite new, a notable departure from recent practice.

There has been nothing so protracted since 1969, yet this current election process may now be dragged out almost as long.

The prime minister’s strategists seem to have in mind a new kind of political and election campaign.

They evidently want to run an almost “Obama-esque” presidential “progress” or triumphal cavalcade across the nation ― the entire battlefield.

US presidential campaigns are a kind of war of attrition, a protracted siege of the nation by the aspiring presidential candidates, their personal organizations and their party machines.

The US political cycle now covers the full four years, and more.

It’s now the same here, too, in Malaysia, it seems.

That is how long Prime Minister Najib’s campaign for a personal mandate and renewed party and government legitimacy has been running.

But here, with PM Najib rather than President Obama playing the role of the people’s hero, or trying to do so, it could all still misfire badly.

Even for the side that has the power to “call the shots”, there are great risks as well as potential advantages in such a strategy, in the choice to opt for the rigours of protracted warfare.

Time tests all players, not only the weaker and less advantageously placed of them.

We must all wait and see what will be.

At this time, in this strange moment of the pre-battle lull, politics for all but the principal players is very much a waiting game.

* Clive Kessler is Emeritus Professor of Sociology and Anthropology at The University of New South Wales, Sydney.

  1. #1 by Bigjoe on Sunday, 7 April 2013 - 10:32 am

    I am not sure its uncharted – what is happening is just extension of what happened to UMNO under Mahathir – the use of money politics and slander to win…Even with Mahathir’s perversion, he got challenged and nearly toppled 3 times – Musa, Razeleigh, Anwar…He won because he kept pulling another way of cheating out from his hat.

    Its no different, except the one doing the cheating is Najib and he is NOT in the same class as Mahathir, PR is a lot bigger & better than Musa, Razaleigh, old Anwar BN camp and its the stage is not just a few thousand delegates but millions and millions of voters…

  2. #2 by worldpress on Sunday, 7 April 2013 - 10:50 am

    Current UMNO is not the Malaysia 1st Prime Minister UMNO Tunku Abdul Rahman

    Current UMNO is Mama UMNO…UMNO Baru pretend to be UMNO to deceive Malaysian

    This Mama is an enemy of Malaysia 1st Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman

  3. #3 by chengho on Sunday, 7 April 2013 - 11:39 am

    Clive Kessler , check your home grown racist issue with Indian student and Abo

  4. #4 by Bigjoe on Sunday, 7 April 2013 - 12:15 pm

    Najib ask whether they trust Anwar or him. Truth is its WRONG to think it that way. Its whether you trust Najib/Mahathir or Pakatan Rakyat… Unlike UMNO/BN, PR executive power is more broad-base AND largely based on merit. UMNO/BN power is highly feudal, and concentrated at the top..

    But even if he choice is between Najib & Anwar, truth is Anwar, despite his history, is more trustworthy because he has chosen and committed to a more transparent agenda he can’t easily backed out of compared to the hypocrisy agenda that is Najib has no choice in the matter…

  5. #5 by monsterball on Sunday, 7 April 2013 - 2:32 pm

    Parliament is dissolved.
    Najib is still looking for good signs to announce the GE date.
    Meanwhile….his :”I help you. You help me” …tested again…in big big ways.
    It’s low class bribery …with no shame.

  6. #6 by boh-liao on Sunday, 7 April 2013 - 5:07 pm

    It’s Najis’ strategy 2 make d shocking admission dat UmnoB/BN could conceivably lose control of d federal gomen, 2 shock evil, corrupt, racist MMK n Perkosa in2 desperate by hook or by crook actions mah

  7. #7 by Sallang on Sunday, 7 April 2013 - 5:46 pm

    “At this time, in this strange moment of the pre-battle lull,”

    During the great Tsunami of 26th December, the same phenomena took place, A Pre Tsunami LULL, when the sea literally sucks the wave abnormally far away from the beach, only to come back roaring, with meters high waves.

    Another Tsunami coming?

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