Thursday, August 14, 2014

Toxic Political Culture

Malaysian politics is in need of serious fix if we are to get out of a potential disaster. I am writing this in the midst of a political and constitutional crisis affecting the richest and most developed state of Malaysia, Selangor, just an hour away. The chief minister was recently sacked by his party, Keadilan, or the Justice Party, but he refuses to step down. He has sought the consent of the state ruler, the Sultan, who is on good personal terms with him, to stay on. The Sultan holds the final power on who is the chief minister of his state and may not be queried. Yesterday the chief minister sacked six members of his state cabinet or Exco (executive councilors) from Keadilan and the DAP but kept four members from PAS. You need to understand the background of this development.

Keadilan, DAP and PAS had formed a loose coalition called Pakatan Rakyat to challenge the incumbent federal government formed by Barisan Nasional. Pakatan penetrated the entrenched power base of Barisan in the 2008 general election when they won over 1/3 of the total parliamentary seats. This was a crucial turning point as a 2/3 majority was required to amend any federal laws or introduce new laws. Barisan lost the privilege to change the federal constitution or enact new laws when they lost the 2/3 mandate in 2008. In the 2013 general election they again failed to wrestle back the trophied 2/3 majority. The process of government is centered not on delivering promises of their election manifestos but on undermining the opposition parties to destroy their coalition by whatever means. They have the resources and machinery, as well as cooperation from the civil services, police, judiciary and the military to assist as required. Pakatan was and is fighting an uphill battle to offering the citizens an alternative government.

Barisan itself is a coalition of many parties. In 1957 when Malaya received her independence, there were just three founding parties that grouped together called Alliance.

UMNO - Malay based party, founded on protecting the rights and futures of the Malays
MCA - Chinese based party, founded to protect the interest and welfare of the Malayan Chinese citizens
MIC - Indian based party, founded like MCA to look after the welfare of the Malayan Indian citizens.

In 1969 there was a serious race riot that nearly destroyed the delicate harmony among the races. The Malays are the majority, followed by the Chinese then the Indians. The ratio has changed to more Malays and dwindling Chinese and Indian populations today. After 1970 the coalition was expanded to become Barisan Nasional when other minority parties joined both to get recognition as well as funding to operate. These include parties from Sabah and Sarawak which joined Malaya in 1963 to become Malaysia. Most of all parties inside Barisan are race based. Some look after the indigenous people in Sabah and Sarawak. Nothing changed over the past 50 years. This race based politics appeared entrenched forever in Malaysia with the Barisan government dominated by UMNO bent on propagating the interest and privileges of the Malay race more than those of the minorities. Over time all the other coalition parties became subservient to UMNO and depends on its charity and mood to provide aids. Over time the federal cabinet also became more and more Malay centric with unimportant portfolios given as tokens to the non-Malay parties. There was a constant demand for federal representation which resulted in more and more cabinet positions created to appease the minority parties, done to ensure getting electoral support at both state and federal elections. It has now become a politics of patronage to 'king' UMNO which became arrogant and at times unreasonable.

In the meantime the opposition parties fought on their own and never won significant number of seats at state and federal governments to make impact on the lives of the people. Except for PAS which was founded as an Islamic party and secured victory in two east coast states of Trengganu and Kelantan, and in the 2008 election, the northern state of Kedah, which they lost in 2013. PAS was considered a village based political party with poor financial resources. The states they ran are among the poorest states but over time, with global Islamization it became more attractive to the Muslims here.

The queer and I think unusual combination is that the constitution defines Malay as someone who also practices Islam and follow the Malay traditions. That is the major cause of today's political and societal strife when it is Malay versus non-Malays making integration nearly impossible. After 1970 when the government introduced the New Economic Policy or NEP to level the playing fields by giving preferential treatment to the poor, especially the poor Malays, a new breed called the bumiputras came into being. They are Malays who enjoy special privileges, especially economic privileges. They get scholarships, financial aids to start small businesses (which may never get repaid), job opportunities in the civil services, the police forces and the military. The NEP was exploited by powerful and wealthy Malays to enrich themselves further. They worked with wealthy non-Malays to form companies to benefit each other. Cronyism was born in the 1980s under the Mahathir government and is entrenched in the way business with the government gets done today. During his administration privatization of government-owned utilities such as telecommunication, banks, electricity, highways and other modes of transport took place. Selling to individuals identified as cronies, the government received cash (banks were told to provide loans) which they use to fund their political activities. Some went into pockets of powerful individuals. From this era onward the culture of corruption and bribery became a Malaysian identity. From the top, lower level civil servants, police, immigration officers, custom officers, local council employees and even village heads and religious leaders found it inconsistent not to ask and take bribes, often done with great subtelity. It became as natural as expecting tips for services not rendered. Soon it crept into the private sectors dealing with government officials to expedite issue of licenses and permits and dealing with each other. Dirty politics beget dirty culture and dirty lifestyle. Education was not spared. Today the standard is below that of many new emerging economies.

Worrisome development like the above led to more voters siding opposition parties in order to check the excesses committed by the Barisan government. In 1998 when Dr Mahathir sacked Anwar Ibrahim as his deputy and charged him with sodomy, it led to the formation of Keadilan while he was in jail. Keadilan was headed by his wife Dr Wan Azizah. Anwar was charged under a new sodomy charge 6 years ago, acquitted but recharged and convicted early this year and now awaiting sentencing.

The composition of Pakatan led by Anwar Ibrahim is

Keadilan - founded on the principle of justice
DAP - founded on the principle of democracy but started and is viewed as a Chinese-based party
PAS - founded as an Islamic party but comprise of religious and modern secular minded leaders.

The unequally yoked coalition survived 5 years but cracks started appearing when PAS resume the call to introduce hudud laws which was rejected by both Keadilan and DAP. This incensed non-Muslim voters who supported PAS in the 2008 and 2013 elections and now vow never to trust them again.

The problems with Malaysian politics centre on:

1. Race biasness. Invariably each party while publicly declare helping all Malaysians if in power will prioritize aids and preference to its own race.
2. Religion, especially Islam, plays prominent role. Both UMNO and PAS tries to outdo each other to win over the Malay votes by appearing more religious than the other, in the process create a society bent towards an Islamic state which the more secular UMNO privately do not wish it to happen. Malaysia is secular by the way the constitution is crafted and how the society live and business done.
3. Malays closing rank when they are threatened. UMNO and PAS are quite willing to forgo their ideological and political differences to unite against other non-Islamic and non-Malay parties, even Keadilan which is basically a Malay party that is inclusive of non-Malays. As they saying goes, blood is thicker than water.

Malaysia is being crippled by the kind of political system and culture that is at a deadlock. We cannot compete globally when our system is pro Malay race at all cost, even at the expense of becoming mediocre. Majority of the Malays don't care. So long as the Barisan government give them aids, education and employment opportunities that's all they care and will continue supporting them. They live for the day and trust their future to this government which is the only one they know. Pakatan is a new kid on the block, selling a vision and hope that the more urban and educated voters including Malays will accept but they are in the minority. Barisan is careful to keep the rural voters in the dark, isolated and dependent on periodic government cash aids and development projects usually pre-election. Most of them never heard of Pakatan and don't know how to trust them. The UMNO strategists and advisers had done a fantastic job of keeping their vote bank intact. Recently the use of cash bribes to those earning below a certain income help retain these poor voters loyal to Barisan whom they consider as savior of the day. They are unable to think of the future for their children.

Is it possible for Malaysia to wrench out of the Barisan gridlock? Unlikely as most Malaysians are indifferent and not overly concerned about their future. Those who are have mostly left the country. The older ones who cannot adapt or have no resources choose to stay back. It may take another race crisis to wake up the nation but sadly the subsidy mentality is too ingrained in the minds of yound Malays to even consider willing to give up. Plus the propaganda on Malay supremacy is gaining momentum among young Malays who think the country belongs to them and all others are aliens.

Coming back to the Selangor crisis. It reminds me of the Perak crisis in 2009 when the Pakatan led state government was stolen by UMNO when they engineered the switch of 3 state assembly persons out of Pakatan forcing the latter to lose the slim majority in the state government. With the consent of the ruler (who is more familiar with the workings of UMNO culture than Pakatan) an UMNO chief minister was installed illegally. This power grab has gone down our history as an infamous attempt by the prime minister Najib Razak to exert his power over his opposition and win support from his party. In the Selangor instance the game plan is different. It is popularly speculated that the chief minister compromised Pakatan's state  interest by negotiating a personal debt settlement deal with UMNO to favor state decisions towards UMNO and the Barisan government. When Keadilan which appointed him to the chief minister office in 2008 and again in 2013 got wind of his betrayal they sought his resignation from office. When he refused a move was launch to replace him by getting a senior Keadilan leader to be elected into the Selangor state assembly. That person was none other than Anwar Ibrahim who had earlier been acquitted by the high court of sodomy II charges and was confident of being elected in to replace the incumbent chief minister. But UMNO checkmated him, swiftly appealed the acquittal and had the attorney general recharge him. A UMNO friendly bench took just hours to convict Anwar. With the plan upset a replacement candidate who is above reproach is identified. That person was none other than Anwar's wife, Dr Wan Azizah, a former medical professional turned unwilling politician due to the incaceration of her husband for 6 years in jail. She won the by election comfortably but in conservative Malay society it is hard to accept a woman leader in very high positions. Her choice to replace the incumbent chief minister was hotly debated and rejected by the religious leaders of PAS although she is acceptable to the progressive secularly orientated PAS leaders. As of now there is disunity among PAS leaders towards the handling of the chief minister issue. The religious faction favors retaining him while the secular faction side with Keadilan and DAP. The unfortunate thing is the number of seats held by the 3 parties is creating a hung situation with no clear cut victory for either side. The chief minister is exploiting the impasse and is seeking support of neutral minded assembly persons from PAS and even Keadilan to support him. He has already won over the sultan who refused to grant an audience to Dr Wan Azizah who should be heard as the potential state leader.

The coming days will see if the chief minister can garner enough support to split Keadilan and get all the PAS members of his embattled government to his side. He is currently without a party. Or will there be an internal revolt among PAS assembly persons in the state, who are in favor of removing the chief minister, to swing their support to Keadilan and DAP. The meeting of the supreme Syura council of PAS on August 17 will seal the fate of either the chief minister, denying him majority support and forcing him to resign, or Keadilan (as well as Pakatan) who will lose the state to a likely unity government to be formed by PAS and UMNO. Should this happen the losers will be the people of Selangor. This is not the government they had voted for in May 2013. But then many are disillusioned and angry at the internal strife in Keadilan which have gone awry. Some put the blame on Anwar and on his strategist Rafizi Ramli for mishandling the replacement move. Keadilan is caught in a catch 22 situation and neither option is popular but crucial to arrest the moral decline in the only state they won and govern. Others accused Anwar of nepotism by putting his wife forward, however, it was a collective council decision.

One man is able to destroy what thousand try to right. This man is being investigated by the anti-corruption agency but the investigation is not speeded up for obvious reasons. The agency would like to await the outcome of the PAS council meeting to sense which direction the wind blows. In the meantime the seasoned ex-corporate CEO turned chief minister is using his experience to entrench his position with support from UMNO which has openly supported him, and PAS religious leaders. Should he loses he will be left in the cold by both UMNO and PAS to resolve his personal problem with the anti-corruption agency. For reasons best known to the chief minister he is aware of his precarious situation. One slip he falls. UMNO loses nothing, they are just exploiting him. He is of no use joining UMNO. He is just a mole. And PAS is using him to strengthen their position within Pakatan. They will not take him in too as he is now tainted. In short the chief minister is going to have a very short tenure and he will not have any platform to stand after his term ends in 2018, that is if he can last that long. The big question is whether it is all worth it, losing his credibility, his image, his trustworthy and his legacy. In the process damaging the Pakatan coalition and the hope of a new government in 2018. From his point of view he may be just surviving a bankruptcy suit. That is his personal matter which should not affect the way the state is run under his watch.

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