A long five years

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First Published: 1:22pm, Nov 12, 2012
Last Updated: 10:06pm, Nov 12, 2012


by Wong Chin Huat


Bersih supporters walk towards Dataran Merdeka during the Bersih 3.0 rally in KL on April 28, 2012.

“A week is a long time in politics,” as famously put by former British PM Harold Wilson.

The five years since the first Bersih rally on Nov 10, 2007 are certainly a very long time for Malaysia, not least when compared to the 50 years before that day, when 50,000 marched in central Kuala Lumpur demanding electoral reform.

While the crowd was overwhelmingly Malay-Muslims, the call was one national rather than communal. And true to the name of Bersih, the protesters even cleaned up the streets they marched through, completely debunking the myth that protests bring chaos.

Just two months earlier, the Bar Council drew 2000, mostly lawyers, to march in Putrajaya demanding judicial independence.

In 2007, democracy had become the rallying point for Malaysians known for their communal divisions. But few would have imagined, together with the Hindraf rally two weeks later, this would usher in the political tsunami in March 2008 that saw the birth of a two-party system.

For the 50 years from 1957 to 2007, the Federation of Malaya/Malaysia changed its flag once, its border twice but never its ruling coalition.

In fact, some foreigners once told of this joke: “In my country, you know when elections will be held but not the outcome. In Malaysia, you don’t know when elections will be held but you know the outcome.”

We still don’t know the elections will be held. It’s still the Prime Minister’s “prerogative” but it is increasingly not about the office bearer's inspiration or superstition.

And we don't know the outcome of the next election now.

That's how far we have come in the past five years, which have seen the rise of 1Malaysia, two Prime Ministers in office, three Bersih rallies, 14 legislators changing sides, 16 by-elections and, countless new government initiatives and legislations named with some alphabet soups.

It would be dead wrong to think the Bersih 1.0 rally or what we did in the past five years triggered all that.

The past five years is but an exciting episode of history, for which the preparation had been underway for some time.

What we are seeing are two long transition processes: first, from the personal dominance of former PM Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad; second, from the electoral one-party state established in 1969.

Mahathir stepped down only in 2003 after 23 years in power, but the search for or the dynamics to produce a successor and an alternative to him had started much earlier.

In 1981, Mahathir assumed his prime ministership in a joint venture with his equally dynamic deputy, Tun Musa Hitam, dubbed the 2M Government. By 1987, Musa who had resigned a year earlier became the running mate of former Finance Minister Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah who challenged Mahathir's party presidency.

The duo's unsuccessful bid was soon followed by the deregistration of Umno and the subsequent registration of Umno Baru, with power strongly concentrated in the president's hand. Meanwhile, similar concentration of power in the Prime Minister's Department took place in government.

In that sense, Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim, Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, Datuk Seri Najib Razak and perhaps Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin are but contenders to succeed Mahathir, whose reign has unquestionably put Malaysia on the world map but only at a heavy institutional and financial price.

For that price, Mahathirism must eventually be replaced by some alternatives.

Anwar, the heir apparent since 1995, signaled some openness after Mahathir with his talk of Asian Renaissance. However, he was soon purged and jailed in 1998 for unsuccessfully trying to force Mahathir's retirement in the Asian Financial Crisis.

The failure of Anwar's PKR and the opposition coalition Barisan Alternative to end Mahathir's rule in the 1999 elections made the fatherly Abdullah a realistic choice for post-Mahathir reform.

Unfortunately, despite having a 91% parliamentary majority, Abdullah failed to deliver reform to impress the electorate who found rising corruption, crime and racism intolerable.

At the same time, changes associated with Abdullah's son-in-law Khairy Jamalluddin earned Mahathir's wrath and bolstered his intention to terminate his successor’s premiership at all cost.

The 2008 political tsunami practically removed Abdullah and left Anwar and Najib as the contenders.

If the opposition coalition Pakatan Rakyat wins in the next poll, this game will be sealed with Anwar Ibrahim as the victor. Otherwise, it will probably be an open field with new players.

Unless he does better than Abdullah's 140 seats, Najib will likely be challenged by his deputy Muhyiddin with the support of Mahathir, who was not too pleased with Najib's liberalisation moves. And Anwar has pledged to step down if Pakatan loses, hence opening the field wide open.

Najib, Anwar, Muhyiddin or someone else, whoever emerges in this long transition from Mahathir will find himself denied the concentrated power Mahathir enjoyed because a greater transition has taken place at the nation-state level.

Rebuilt in the aftermath of May 13 riots, the Malaysia as we know it was designed by Tun Abdul Razak. He believed in the importance to keep only the form but not the essence of democracy, for a multiethnic country like Malaysia.

Umno was to rule Malaysia like Chinese Communist Party rules China, which explains why the bureaucracy often behaves like an Umno institution. The difference is that the CCP has an easier task without elections.

The two pillars of Umno-BN's electoral one-party state have been Malay ethno-nationalism and the fear of violence and chaos, which were instrumental in delivering the majority and minority votes respectively.

Unfortunately for Umno, the slogan of Malay Unity has been greatly undermined by the two schisms in the party, between Mahathir and Razaleigh and later Anwar.

Umno is now harping on apostasy and lese majeste expressions in the hope of orchestrating a sense of crisis amongst the Malay-Muslims but its efforts seem futile to an increasingly urbanised and modern constituency.

The card of riots and chaos has also largely failed, not least because the “unfulfilled promise” of post-election riot did not happen in 2008 after the ethnic minorities overwhelmingly voted for the opposition.

Then, the ghost of May 13 was finally exorcised on the streets of Kuala Lumpur in the Bersih 2.0 rally on July 9 last year in defiance of police crackdown and the threat of ethnic riot by Perkasa.

When Malays and non-Malays found themselves to be comrades saving each other from police violence, distrust evaporated and solidarity set in.

And authoritarianism suffers functional unemployment when the government is not needed to prevent and arbitrate ethnic conflicts. Corruption and power abuse are no longer the lesser evil one needs to tolerate to avoid riots.

How will the next five years be for Malaysia? No one knows except that history will definitely move much faster than even in the previous five year period.

And they say, history is a bad driver that it does not signal when making a turn.

So, buckle up and be prepared for the adrenaline rush. In a world that has been rapidly democratising since 1973, Malaysia is finally catching up.