Malaysia: Power struggle between ruling National Front (BN) and opposition People’s Alliance (PR)

The needs of the working class and youth are sidelined

Najib Razak became the Prime Minister of Malaysia in April this year. Since then, he has been using two approaches to strengthen his party UMNO (United Malays National Organisation) and the government of the BN (Barisan Nasional or National Front), in which it plays the major role, since they came out of the last General Election considerably weakened. The first is to demonstrate some reforms and to promise some economic ‘goodies’ by using populist rhetoric to regain the support of the voters. The second is to continuously undermine and discredit the opposition PR (Pakatan Rakyat – People’s Coalition) by using allegations of corruption, money politics and other things through the state apparatus such as the police, the courts and the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC).

BN’s two-faced behaviour

With a weaker government after the unprecedented losses in the last General Election, Najib and the BN government are under pressure to make some adjustments in government policies in order to increase his credibility of running the government. This is also to counter the economic agenda of Anwar Ibrahim and the People’s Alliance that is supposedly for “equal distribution of wealth”, by implementing further liberalisation of the economy.

But the question is how far Najib can go in his “reform” which is also linked to how soon Malaysia could recover from the uncertainties in the current global economy. In an export-oriented economy, the external conditions will be the driving factor in Malaysia’s economic outlook, with risks stemming from the duration of the global recession, financial markets and commodity prices.

For the first five months of the year, FDI (Foreign Direct Investment) totaled only RM4.2 billion compared to RM46 billion last year, as foreign companies cut back on capital and other types of investment. In order to be competitive, Najib has no other way than to liberalise financial services. He has also ended some regulations binding companies to 30 percent Malay ownership, partly dismantling a 40 year-old policy introduced by his father, Razak Hussein, the second prime minister of independent Malaysia. These measures are intended to give greater flexibilities for the multinational capitalists to exploit the resources and labour in this country; but for FDI to come in, it still depends on the demands and economic performance of countries such as the US, Japan and China and those in the European Union.

Nevertheless, Najib’s economic “reforms” have not yet dismantled the government patronage system and the protectionist measures that exist to safeguard the national capitalists and GLCs (government linked companies). The patronage practices, such as handing out government contracts to UMNO cronies, go ahead unhindered; because of this there is not much defiance from UMNO members against Najib’s moves. "UMNO has to follow through on the government’s economic liberalisation policy but it still needs to keep its Malay base loyal," said Ibrahim Suffian, director the Merdeka Center, an independent pollster. As well as creating a class of Malay capitalists, government contracts are the lifeblood for more than 30,000 contractors, most of whom are grassroots UMNO officials, whose support is widely sought after by party leaders. Therefore, the Malay capitalists, as well as the GLCs, are still protected under these arrangements of economic liberalisation.

Undoubtedly, behind the scenes, the BN is still practicing “divide and rule” racial politics to uphold the patronage system while cynically propagating the “one Malaysia” concept, articulating that every Malaysian, regardless of race, is equal. Now, Najib’s slogan – “One Malaysia, People First, Performance Now” – has become the mantra that is propagated through every branch of the public media to every government function. This rhetoric is mainly designed to recapture the non-Malays’ support.

On completing his 100 days in office, Najib has also introduced populist measures to regain support by promising that his administration “will give priority to fighting crime, fighting corruption, improving education, upgrading low-income households, upgrading rural basic infrastructure and upgrading urban public transport to ensure everyone benefits”. Such promises are not new and were also made during Abdullah Badawi’s tenure and it led to his political demise by the failure to “walk the talk”.

Other promises of Najib, like introducing laws with real power to reform the judiciary and the police, have not been met and corruption and mismanagement of funds are still prevalent. Meanwhile issues such as the PKFZ (Port Klang Free Zone) RM12 billion Scandal – in which a port development project was awarded without any competitive bid to well-connected political cronies of the UMNO and MCA (Malaysian Chinese Association), the two biggest components of the BN – up to the BN power grab in Perak state, are still unresolved. All these show that Najib’s government is not much different from past administrations – abundant with rhetoric, bankrupt in implementation.

Najib’s ‘One Malaysia’ concept will be more political rhetoric and will not succeed to “distribute the wealth equally regardless of race” as long as there is exploitation and prejudice executed by this pro-capitalist government. The working class and the poor are continually suffering under this profit-oriented system as their needs and rights are being marginalised.

Although, since the last General Election, the PR has won all by-elections in West Malaysia, it has not yet been truly tested in the BN strongholds of states like Johor, Melaka, Pahang and in East Malaysia (Sabah and Sarawak). So, whether the PR is capable of winning the next General Election, is still uncertain as this still depends on factors such as: the economic conditions, the performance of Najib and the BN government in fulfilling some of their promises in the next one or two years and whether PR can solidly build its coalition as an alternative to the BN.

However, the Merdeka Center’s poll in July showed that Najib’s approval rating is 65 percent, a jump up from 42 percent just before he became the country’s sixth prime minister under a cloud of allegations of corruption and murder. The improvement in the approval rating is mainly because the failure of PR to come out with concrete measures to counter Najib’s rhetoric as well as to put forward a clear alternative to challenge the profit-oriented system and raise and safeguard the basic living standards of the ordinary people.

Discrediting PR

Undoubtedly, since Najib came into power, he and the BN have viciously planned to undermine the PR and its leaders by using every possible avenue, including the state apparatus such as the police, courts, laws and other things. The government bringing a second case against the PR leader, Anwar Ibrahim, for sodomy is one example that shows that the Najib government is going all out to discredit Anwar and to suppress his involvement in politics. This is mainly aimed at splitting the PR coalition partners who have bonded together because of the leadership of Anwar.

There are also attempts by the BN government to destabilise PR-controlled state governments by luring some PR state assemblymen towards them. Najib, who has succeeded with this tactic in the state of Perak is now trying to do the same in other PR states like Kedah and Selangor.

The death of Teoh Beng Hock, a 30-year old political aide to a Selangor State Executive Committee member, when he was under investigation by the MACC, has infuriated many and undermined the credibility of MACC and the BN government. The continued persecution of PR politicians shows the vicious attempts of BN to undermine the PR. Contrarily, many UMNO and BN politicians who are blatantly corrupt and abuse power have not been investigated or charged by MACC.

Democratic Rights

This shows that Malaysian politics is not on an even “playing field”, with the ruling parties always having the upper hand over the opposition parties. The BN has been in power more than 50 years and its autocratic rule has been favourable to the desire of national and international capitalists to maximize their profits. In that process, democratic rights and the fundamental needs of ordinary people have been diluted and suppressed. Consequently, most of the time ordinary people have to fight to defend their rights and fulfill their basic needs.

The PR opposition is against the undemocratic actions of the BN government, but consistently supports free market capitalism.

The exploitative nature of the capitalist system encourages governments to use unjust measures to fulfill the needs of the profit system. The state is just a tool for capitalists to fulfill their desire to maximize their profits. Therefore the struggle for democratic rights must be carried out together with the struggle against capitalism.

PR inconsistency

The People’s Alliance (PR) with its rhetoric about ‘People Power’ has no perspective of strengthening the real majority – the working class, youth, students, poor farmers and others – but merely crying foul against the undemocratic persecution of the government against them. At the same time, the social and economic issues that have angered ordinary people, and which were highlighted during the March 2008 election, are continually being ignored.

Anwar Ibrahim and other PR leaders will say, “We will prove that we can be better at governing when we take over at federal level”. Basically they are promoting a two party system to safeguard capitalism as in the US (Democrats and Republicans) and in the UK (Labour and Conservative).

This shows that there are no clear alternatives for the working class and youth. The BN and PR clearly support the free market system of capitalism with just minor differences between them with the latter arguing for more transparency and getting rid of corruption in the government. Nevertheless, the PR state governments, most of the time, end up working towards fulfilling the desires of the profit-mongers – developers and investors – rather than fighting to satisfy the needs of the working and poor people.

The recent issue relating to Buah Pala village in Penang, which is under the rule of a PR state government, is one such case. Lim Guan Eng, the PR chief minister of Penang, has shown himself incapable of safeguarding the ancestral homes of the villagers from demolition by a developer, resulting from the treacherous policies pursued by the previous BN state government. In this dispute Lim is only able to show that he is good as a mediator between the people and the developer, but the negotiation is ultimately more favorable to the developer who is going to reap billions of ringgits profit. Lim and the PR government demonstrate that they have no political will to challenge the developer and the fraud incurred in order to safeguard this centuries-old cultural and historical heritage in favour of the ordinary people.

Contrarily, in relation to a similar issue in Bukit Cina in the 1980s, when Lim was in opposition to the BN Melaka state government, he fought for the rights of the residents until succeeding in saving Bukit Cina from being demolished by BN. At the ‘Save Bukit Cina’ 20th Anniversary Dinner in 2004, Lim said, “It shows the importance of preserving our important cultural and historical heritage over [the interests of] development projects for the sake of private gain. Both the BN and the MCA (Malaysian Chinese Association) saw only ringgit signs when they proposed leveling the oldest Chinese cemetery in Malaysia to build houses, small shops and shopping complexes.”

One of the villagers in Kg. Buah Pala shouted angrily: “When Pakatan (PR) was not in the government it claimed that it was with the people, but when it is in the government it does nothing to safeguard the interests of ordinary people!”. This issue demonstrates the inconsistent role of pro-capitalist parties and those parties who have succumbed to the rule of capitalism when they have come to power. In these circumstances, the ordinary people have no other way than to fight for their rights with their own forces.

Such inconsistent politics on the part of the Pakatan coalition partners could weaken the support base that they gained in the last General Election.

Recently, PAS (the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party) advocated banning the SIS (Sisters in Islam) – an NGO that is fighting for the rights of Muslim women against unjust laws and regulations. But, at the same time, it campaigns against the undemocratic law and policies of the BN government. Even some of its leaders are keen on collaborating with UMNO to strengthen Malay/Muslim political domination, although PAS is formally a member of the People’s Alliance (PR) that is supposed to promote multi-racial politics.

PAS’ slogan, “PAS for All”, is intended to attract non-Muslim voters. But, at certain times, it stirs up issues that are sensitive to Muslims, using them against non-Muslims to maintain its Malay/Muslim base. Such acts create conflicts between PAS and the Democratic Action Party (DAP) who are based on the Chinese community. The internal squabbling between them undermines the credibility of the PR coalition.

This shows why it is crucial for socialists and trade unionists to maintain an independent working class position and to be critical of the populist rhetoric of both the PR and the BN in order to strengthen working class struggles and organisations against hypocritical pro-capitalist parties.

Working class alternative

The bickering between the ruling BN and the opposition PR is leading to personal attacks and this is increasingly frustrating the ordinary people – the working class and youth. They are more concerned with improving their fundamental conditions and rights, but neither the ruling BN nor the opposition PR is representing the needs of this class.

Recently, some leaders of a movement called HINDRAF (Hindu Right Action Force) launched new Indian party after declaring that the PR had failed to fight for the rights of the marginalised Indian people. There is some truth in their claims, but initiating another race-based party is not going to solve the social and economic issues of working class and poor Indians. Most of the issues highlighted by HINDRAF, such as Indians being alienated from mainstream development, are caused by the pro-capitalist policies and neo-liberal agenda of the BN government and the People’s Alliance has failed to address these class issues. Some of the issues also affect the Malay and Chinese working class and youth. In short, the common “enemy” is the same for the whole working class and all youth, regardless of their race or religion. For this reason, an independent working class party to unite workers and youth, regardless of race and religion, is the only way forward.

Some on the Left and also trade union leaders are supporting the People’s Alliance with the hope that when it comes into power, better conditions and rights can be won, as well as there being more democratic space. Some reforms could be won under pressure from below, but this is not guaranteed, since the new government would also be under the domination and pressure of capitalism.

However, growing numbers of youth and workers who have lost hope in the PR with its own pro-capitalist agenda are supporting the ideas of building a working class alternative. This should be armed with socialist ideas and perspectives in order to counter the limitations of capitalism. This is the only way to go towards building a just, democratic and equal society:- a socialist society to fulfill the needs of the majority – the working class and youth – regardless of race and religion.

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August 2009