Risk Professional: Malaysia's PM proposes political reform

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at gmail.com
Mon Oct 13 18:46:43 UTC 2008

Risk Professional: Malaysia's PM proposes political reform

Monday 13 October 2008

Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi lit a long fuse with his
proposal over the weekend to widen membership of Malsysian politics,
but some sparks have already begun to fly. PM Badawi's suggestion is
that Barasian National, the ruling coalition of a variety of parties,
including UMNO, the United Malay party which is almost exclusively
Malay membership, and which has historically promoted Malay interests
against those of other races, should be widened to become more
"Malaysian" rather than "Malay.". UMNO dominates BN, and therefore has
been seen by some as the organ of Malays' endeavours to have "Malaysia
for the Malays," a cry not endorsed by UNNO's leadership and not
supported by the vast majority of its parliamentary party and members.

In fact, it is the fact that other parties promoted "Malaysia for the
Malays" manifestos that led to radical (by Malaysian standards, which
in global terms is not very radical at all, in most cases) to desert
UMNO in the elections earlier this year. It is not the first time it
has happened: in the late 1990s, Malays deserted UNMO in favour of
Islamist party PAS in two eastern states; but the hard line adopted by
PAS soon chafed and one of those states overturned its previous
decision in the next election and the other reduced its minority
significantly. It was widely said that the decision to switch to PAS
was a widespread protest vote against then Prime Minister Mahathir's
policies as applied in those states. It was those losses that began
the process of Mahathir's retirement.

Therefore it is possible to see the poll earlier this year as a
protest vote. But it is more than that: Abdullah has delivered two
things that Malaysians had been starved of: free and fair elections
and free speech, allowing campaigning in a style not allowed since
Independence. For sure, in recent weeks occasional hard-line action
has given critics the ground to shout that free speech has been eroded
- and relative to before the election there is an element of truth in
that - but the reality is that such enormous change can never be along
a straight-line curve: there will always be several steps forward and
an occasional step back. To recognise that is to recognise the
fundamentals of politics.

For sure, there were isolated incidents that undermined the
credibility of the election but as against the problems in the past,
they were minor. The genuinely independent Electoral Commission which
has been very critical of several past elections had almost nothing to
say about the one this year.
The biggest problem facing Abdullah has been institutionalised
corruption. From junior government employees to the most senior of
ministers, he took over a government where corruption was widespread.
He arrived in office and took instant steps to act against ministerial
and senior civil servant corruption. That has not gone down well.
Underpinning the complaints about him are those whose gravy trains
have been derailed.

He has reduced the opportunities for middle-ranking officers to take
corrupt payments: "commissions" for organising government events in
certain commercial venues were commonplace. He fixed that at a stroke:
government events take place in government buildings which had been
built for the purpose but were woefully under-used.

The biggest challenge, however, was thrown down for him by Mahathir.
The architect of positive discrimination policies in favour of the
Malays, Mahathir announced, just weeks before his pre-announced
retirement took effect, that the pro-Malay policies should be

The policies were, arguably, absolutely right when they were
introduced but, as in all countries that have implemented such
policies including South Africa, they did not include a "sunset
provision." The result is that the policies are seen as a right not a
privilege and because they have no horizon, they do not provide an
imperative to work to provide financial wealth in anticipation of
their end. As such, the full benefits have not materialised.

Surprisingly, PAS in states where it is strong, has sought in recent
months to gain support from non-Malays by indicating a willingness to
remove, in those states, some of the pro-Malay policies. But to a
great extent, it's an idle promise because the laws providing most of
them benefits are federal laws. Underpinning PAS's comments is a
question-mark over its commitment to a Federal Malaysia.

But most of Malaysia's political parties are race-based with the MIC
for Indians and HINDRAF ( for Hindus) and MCA for Chinese. MIC and MCA
have historically been part of BN with UMNO.

But many HINDRAF supporters did not support MIC at the recent
election, prefering instead to support the PKR (Parti Keadilan Rakyat)
led by Anwar Ibrahim.

PKR claims that many previous supporters of MIC and MCA and other
smaller parties are ready to switch their allegiance to a vote-buying
manifesto that included, at the last election, a commitment to
introduce a minimum wage of MYR1,500 per month. Given that across the
country millions work in small businesses for around MYR250 to 400 per
month, that seems attractive to them. The economic consequences of
such a leap in pay were not explained to the electorate.

Mahathir announced that Malaysia was a Muslim country with a Malay
majority but the figures used for that have often been called into
question. Even so, the majority claimed was not substantial. That,
given the widespread observance of other religions, protected in the
constitution, created some resentment - although pragmatists soon
learned that in practice it was not religion but race that were the
basis of the pro-Malay policies.

The policies were needed: regardless of whether just over or just
under half of the population is Malay, the reality is that the wealth
in the country had grown over generations in the hands of the Chinese
who were, primarily, in commerce. This was not something that
particularly concerned most Malays who were primarily engaged in
agriculture either as workers or as smallholders. The measures were
designed to create a more advanced attitude amongst the Malays, and to
turn them into business men. And to assist them in growing wealth,
special savings accounts with higher interest rates than could be
earned by other races, a forced housing development policy that a
percentage of all new developments must be reserved for "bumiputra"
(sons of the earth) and sold to them at a discount, policies that both
private and public companies must have a set percentage owned by
bumiputras and a range of special business opportunities set up by
licensing schemes all provided special opportunity.

It is these that Mahathir set up, and announced should be reviewed,
and it is these that Abdullah appears has in his sights when he talks
about a more egalitarian approach to politics with multi-racial
political parties at its heart.

Abdullah's announcement, then, to provide BN in general and UMNO in
particular with a more "Malaysian" rather than "Malay" voting pattern
is central to what he says is the greatest challenge facing his

As soon as he announced his resignation, the word in Kuala Lumpur was
of businesses assessing the likely result of any handover. Although
his successor has been named as his current deputy, Najib, it is by no
means certain that Najib will follow Abdullah's policies. It is also
by no means certain that he will return to Mahathir's. But the
question most asked was whether he would be in favour of measures to
prefer the Malays.

This is why Abdullah's first statement on the issue after announcing
his retirement was to refer to the challenge of national unity.
Several months ago, his government renamed the national language, a
form of Malay, changing from Bahasa Melayu (Malay's language) to
Bahasa Malaysia (Malaysians' language).

In a statement yesterday, Abdullah made his concerns clear:in local
media he is quoted as making the following points:

"Society has seen an alarming decline in inter-racial and
inter-religious relations and various issues have cropped up which
threaten to tear the very fabric of Malaysian life."

"We should focus on the points that unite us rather than the points
that divide us."

"I have seen this country grow from a small, poor nation into the
modern, prosperous Malaysia that we live in today. "Despite our
successful track record, for the past few years I have firmly believed
that our nation is standing at an historic crossroads."We must reform
some elements of our nation. We must evolve and mature or we risk
losing all that we have gained in over 50 years. Throughout this time
of reform and transformation, we need to be united more than ever


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