Malaysia: A year after new prime minister takes over

Political landscape little changed since 2008 ‘tsunami’

On 3 April, Najib Razak celebrated his one year as prime minister after succeeding from Abdullah Badawi. Since taking over, he has been entrusted to save the ’sinking ship’ of UMNO (United Malay National Organisation) and BN (National Front) after the BN government under Abdullah was humiliated when it lost its two thirds majority in parliament for the first time since the 1969 election as well as losing four state governments to Pakatan Rakyat (PR-People’s Coalition) in the 2008 general election.

When Najib came into power, he immediately devised the slogan, “One Malaysia: People First, Performance Now”, to fortify his political standing as well as strengthening UMNO and BN. This slogan was supposed to address the racial inequalities by, “developing respect for one another and to learn to trust one another more…it is a formula for unity in diversity”. Following this, he launched a series of policies of ’reform’ to make “BN relevant to the multiracial society of Malaysia”. Firstly, he introduced ’Key Performance Indicators’ and later a ’Government Transformation Programme’ in order “to improve government services and managements”. Recently he announced the NEM (New Economic Model) “to strengthen the economy from the global economic uncertainty and to make sure Malaysia becomes a developed country”.

A recent survey by the independent pollster, Merdeka Centre, showed that Najib’s popularity rating has improved to 68% from around 40% when he was appointed as prime minister. With that, Najib proclaimed that his ’One Malaysia’ multiracial unity concept and his policies to improve the economy are being supported by the people and the BN has been regaining the support they lost in the last general election. The victory of BN over Pakatan Rakyat in the by-election in the Hulu Selangor parliamentary seat on 25 April has been used as further evidence of increased support for Najib and his policies, especially since there he was “fighting a battle in a state controlled by the opposition”. This shows that the Najib government is going all out to make sure they win comfortably in the next general election in two or three years’ time.

However, the strengthened opposition of the Pakatan Rakyat – the coalitions of PKR (People’s Justice Party), PAS (Malaysian Islamic Party) and DAP (Democratic Action Party) – under the leadership of Anwar Ibrahim is also campaigning to “save Malaysia”, to bring to an end the BN rule that has lasted for more than half a century and to take over the running of the federal government in the next general election to establish a “better Malaysia”.

Hulu Selangor bye-election

The Hulu Selangor by-election, the tenth by-election since the last general election, has been regarded as a referendum for both the BN and the PR. For the BN it was a gauge of the acceptance by people of Najib’s policies over the last one year and for the PR it was to measure the support of the people for the PR-ruled Selangor state government’s policies. Because of that both parties had gone desperately all-out to win the seat to boost their popularity among the masses in general.

This by-election has been labelled by the opposition as the, “dirtiest, [most] corrupt and expensive” by-election in which “character assassination, racism, bribery and brute force” were used by the BN camp to garner votes.

There is an irony in Malaysia that the ordinary people can only get any benefit from their state assemblymen or parliamentarians when he or she dies and causes a by-election. In this one, all types of ’goodies’ and promises were ladled out by both sides to garner votes. However, with the BN having the upper-hand over the ’Three Ms’ – ’Machinery, Media and Money’ – they went all out to win this by-election. Even an unsolved land issue between settlers with the Federal Land Development Authority (FELDA) – the government-linked plantation giant – that had been going on for a decade, was suddenly resolved when the prime minister, Najib, promised to compensate the one hundred settlers affected with RM50,000 each. The opposition accused the BN of having spent RM167million on projects in a 7 day campaigning period to win votes in Hulu Selangor which has around 60,000 inhabitants.

On the other hand, the Selangor’s PR state government had also used its resources as well as its authority to garner votes. But as in the Bagan Pinang by election, people were seeing that the PR politicians’ policies, programmes and approaches were not much different than the BN politicians’. Both parties appeared only sympathetic to the ordinary people during the election and did not care about their welfare and needs all this while. For instance, the plantation workers as well as the ’orang asli’ (the indigenous people) in Hulu Selangor, are living in deplorable conditions, but their economic and social issues and their rights, that are discriminated against by big companies, have not been taken care of. In that case, people, especially the ‘fence sitters’, are keen to lean towards a party that can immediately solve certain problems or give better rewards or promises.

The thin majority of 1,725 gained by the BN in the by-election was not exactly because the people supported the Najib ‘OneMalaysia’ and NEM, but mainly because of the BN aggressively using its control of the ’3Ms’ to win. This victory will be used to boost BN’s image and also to continually damage the reputation of Pakatan Rakyat, such as by triggering more defections from the PR camp into the BN.

Racial politics

This and the previous by-elections have also shown that UMNO and the BN have no other way but utilising their patronage and also racial sentiments to garner votes. Yet it was for this that they were punished in the last general election. This shows that they are incapable of getting rid of their ingrained racial politics that they have have maintained since independence in 1957.

UMNO as the dominant party in BN as usual used the idea of Malay special rights and Malay hegemony to maintain the support of especially the rural Malays while propagating the unity idea of ’OneMalaysia’ among the non-Malays. The multiracial coalition appearance of the BN is still used to make sure it is supported by all races. But almost all its main coalition partners other than UMNO – the MCA (Malaysian Chinese Association), the MIC (Malaysian Indian Congress), Gerakan (Movement) and the PPP (People Progressive Party) – have not been able to regain the respective support of their races since the last general election. In that situation, UMNO has been the dominant player. As can be seen in the Hulu Selangor by-election, Najib himself had to go down to campaign, which is rare in any by-elections, to make sure of victory.

At the same time, since the start of the year, the racial/religious tensions have been heightened by a few politically-linked incidents related to racial/religious sentiments. The conservative and ultra-right wing group, Perkasa, has openly vowed to safeguard Malay rights and hegemony and this group is now backed by former PM, Mahatir Mohammad. It is also tacitly supported by UMNO to cater for the sentiments of some sections of Malays that see their economic rights being taken away by non-Malays. The government’s unwillingness to disband this group, but at the same time propagating ’OneMalaysia’, is seen as hypocritical.

At this juncture, Najib has slightly increased his popularity because of the hopes he has raised about building unity and meeting the needs of all regardless of race. On the other hand, the failure of PR to counter Najib’s policies with clear alternatives has also given some space for Najib to manoeuvre. However, with racial prejudices and hypocrisy prevalent, this could be temporary as people realise that his ‘OneMalaysia’ and NEM are only another kind of political propaganda of the BN and that it cannot meet the social and economic needs of the ordinary people, regardless of race.

Reforms and democracy

Nevertheless the impact of the ‘political tsunami’ of the 2008 general election is still felt, especially among the urban population in West Malaysia. This is comprised of people of the working and middle class as well youth who are hoping for better living standards and to get rid of the impact of the neo-liberal attacks of of the BN government. They are also looking for change and to obtain the democratic rights that are being suppressed by the BN government. The anger and hatred towards the ‘happy-go-lucky’ attitude and the ‘arrogance’ of UMNO and the BN has pushed them to lend support for Pakatan Rakyat.

With the stimulus packages introduced to improve the economy, the Najib government has the advantage of using it to launch his ‘reform’ projects, such as improving infrastructure as well as public services to recapture the support of the people. Programmes such as OneMalaysia Clinics were launched in some areas to demonstrate that the BN government is caring for all people regardless of race and religion. But such reforms are very limited. However, the BN government has shown it is incapable of reforming his administration and its state tools such as the police and legal systems. The corruption and mismanagement of public funds are still rife. Meanwhile, the reforms it has made, such as to the Internal Security Act (ISA) and the University and College Act) (UACA) are very limited and still can be used to suppress the democratic rights of the people.

Recently, a PR leader lamented that, since taking over the government, Najib has been emulating some of the ‘reforms’ and economic agenda of Pakatan Rakyat such as ’freeing’ the economy. After the last general election Anwar and the PR launched their Malaysian Economic Agenda as the alternative to the BN’s economic policies, with the main agenda of “liberalising the economy and distributing wealth equally, regardless of race”. This will be done, they say, by safeguarding the free market system and basically making the government administration better and more transparent. And now under pressure, Najib has had to emulate some of the PR reform agenda. How far he can go will depend on the country’s economic performance in the coming period.

Meanwhile, the Pakatan Rakyat state governments which are propagating transparency and ‘government for the people’ have also introduced some welfare benefits and projects and are making the local councils more efficient to a certain extent than when they were under BN administration.

Although such reforms have benefited certain people, the majority still consider that their living standards have not improved much and even some see their situation getting worst. Issues such as high crime rates, inflation, illegal loans, the increasing cost of living and stagnating wages are continually hounding the ordinary people – the working class, middle class, poor farmers and fishermen as well the youth. This shows that the reforms propagated by both the BN and the PR have not fundamentally addressed the social and economic needs of these ordinary people. They have adjusted their policies to accommodate to the profit-orientation of the ’free’ market system of capitalism.

Fight against capitalism

Although the stimulus packages have cushioned the economy to a certain extent for some periods, this cannot be the permanent solution for the Malaysian economy which is still very much export-oriented with a limited domestic market. The NEM was aimed at developing service and high-tech industries to make Malaysia a high income economy rather than being as currently, a middle income economy mainly based on manufacturing and commodities (oil, palm oil, rubber). This means that in recent times the government has been under pressure when the Foreign Direct Investment is not much coming to Malaysia but going to countries like China, Vietnam, Indonesia and others that offer far cheaper labour costs and reasonably good investment facilities. But, with the continuing global economic uncertainties and high competition for FDI among the region’s countries, this would make the dream of a high income economy not possible.

The truth is that, at present, Malaysia still has to depend on being high income economies such as the US, Europe and Japan to at least maintain its middle income standing. This was clear when, a few weeks ago, Najib met Obama in the USA and also visited Japan to attract more FDI into Malaysia to counter poor investment by foreign companies. In the coming period, if the BN government cannot find ways of improving the economy, this could further provoke more social explosions on issues such as unemployment and inflation, as well as leading to tensions between the races due to an unequal distribution of wealth.

The PR state governments, as well the federal government of BN, are working under the dictates of the free market system of capitalism. Because of that, the reforms promised by the PR and their implementation in some of the state governments have been limited. Sometimes they succumb to the pressure of the business class and investors. Although the BN government says it is working to fulfill the needs of the people, in the background they are propagating the mantra of capitalism – to maximize the profits of national and international capitalists. The plan to introduce a Goods and Service Tax (GST), a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) and to cut subsidies and public spending show the pressure of capitalism to further plunder the resources and labour of the working class and the poor in the country.

Genuine racial unity is not possible as long as the fundamental needs and the cultural and religious rights of all races are not equally fulfilled and respected. This will not be possible as long as the government bases its politics on fulfilling the profit needs of the elites, cronies and capitalists.

Capitalist democracy, as far as it is implemented by the BN, is used to safeguard the power and profit interests of the minority – the elites and capitalists. In a genuine democracy, the majority would participate in all planning and decision-making processes to determine that wealth and resources are equally distributed and shared according to people’s needs. This requires a transformation from the current system to a system based on public ownership of the main industries, banks and land and planning of the economy to be democratically controlled and managed by elected representatives of the the majority – the working class and the ordinary people. In order to achieve this reality, we need an independent working class party that is also supported by youth and other oppressed layers in society. This party has to be clearly against the system of capitalism and armed with socialist policies to fight for democratic rights as well as the cultural, social and economic needs of the majority – the working class and others oppressed by the system – regardless of race and religion.

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