Malaysia Demos: Sound and Fury, Signifying Little

Photos from Malaysia Today

Now that the biggest demonstrations in 10 years in Malaysia are over and the wounds are being bound up, clearly the big loser is Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, the winners are the opposition parties, and the most astute players in the drama are the country’s nine sultans.

The police put the demonstrators at 10,000, but pictures published by such websites as Malaysia Today showed numbers far in excess of that. The protesters put the figure at closer to 40,000. The protesters, headed by the leaders of the three opposition parties, defied government orders to march to the palace of the Yang di-pertuan Agong, Malaysia’s king, to deliver a petition asking for clean and fair elections.

Abdullah Badawi had denounced the protests and vowed to stop them. He was clearly too weak to do that, raising questions of how strong he is in his own party, the United Malays National Organization, the ethnic Malay party that leads the Barisan Nasional, the ruling national coalition.

“I would think that the opposition has managed to embarrass the prime minister,” says a Kuala Lumpur-based political analyst. “Pak Lah’s (Abdullah Badawi’s) grip on power is not as strong as Mahathir’s but he still has control.” Mahathir Mohamad, Badawi’s predecessor, was prime minister from 1981 to 2003.

Nonetheless, during the UMNO general assembly that ended last Friday – a day before the demonstration – one delegate lodged a police report against Abdullah Badawi for blocking Mahathir from attending the 2006 UMNO Supreme Council meeting, a clear sign of the prime minister’s weakness.

The sultans, hereditary leaders of the country left over as a colonial vestige with little governmental clout, came alive this year to exercise the only power they retained after they were largely eviscerated politically by Mahathir in the mid-1980s. Sensing the prime minister’s weakness, they refused to ratify the appointment of a federal court chief judge, meaning the position has remained vacant for months.

When the good-government organization Bersih, or “Clean,” organized the rally last Saturday, it appeared to have been hijacked by the four main opposition parties and led by former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim, who in effect heads Parti Keadilan Rakyat. The decision to march to the Istana Negara, or king’s palace, put the king in a precarious position. As the country’s constitutional monarch, he could not be seen to be siding with the opposition despite the momentum for reform.

Consequently, when the government was using water cannons and tear gas on the marchers, the palace let it be known that he would accept the petition – which indeed was accepted at the Istana but not by the king, Mizan Zainal Abidin, the Sultan of Terengganu, who took the five-year rotating kingship last December.

“What’s important to remember is that the king was not in the palace at the time the memo was handed over,” says the analyst. “It was given to an official of the palace. That means the king, who knew well in advance of the march, was intentionally away.” Nonetheless, despite the fact that he was away, the petition is in the hands of the royals. It wasn't rejected.

Abdullah Badawi and UMNO wasted no time putting the blame on the opposition parties, calling the delivery of the petition an attempt to force the king into taking sides and accusing the opposition of attempting to create propaganda in advance of elections expected to be called some time next year, perhaps in March. It is undeniable, however, that a significant percentage of the yellow-clad demonstrators were ethnic Malays, who traditionally have not been a part of the opposition.

“Obviously, the action was tantamount to dragging the institution of the monarchy, and the king, into politics,” Abdullah Badawi told a press conference Monday, ignoring the fact that the monarchy had dragged itself into politics by refusing to ratify the prime minister’s choice for federal court judge.

Two weeks ago, the highly respected Sultan Azlan Shah of Perak, former lord president of the Supreme Court, in an unprecedented speech referred to a loss of confidence in the judiciary as a result of questionable appointments and judgments perceived to be driven by politics and money.

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Abdullah Badawi has been under almost unremitting attack from Mahathir for months, the attacks abating only while the 81-year-old former premier checked into the hospital for a heart procedure. He is now on his feet again and, the political analyst says, “the speculation is that Mahathir will go for one last heavy salvo against Abdullah once he has gained sufficient strength closer to the elections. That I think scares the PM at this stage.”

Nonetheless, as has always been true in Malaysian politics, the elections inside UMNO for control of the party are probably more important than the national elections, given the fact that UMNO is the 800-pound gorilla in the coalition. And UMNO elections, at which Abdullah Badawi could possibly lose his premiership, are two years away.

At the moment, all efforts are on the national elections, the analyst says, at which the Barisan will probably retain its two-thirds majority, “with perhaps some cities and key Chinese areas lost. Maybe Penang. There will be reduced votes all around, but the Barisan will still win.”

The Malays in the kampungs, or rural villages, despite their affections for the nine sultans, remain largely unaffected by the political scene in Kuala Lumpur and tend to vote with the ruling parties, which have delivered decades of economic progress despite the widespread allegations of corruption. So despite the numbers Malays in the crowd on Saturday, they were largely from the Islamic party, Parti sa-Islam Malaysia, or PAS, and from Anwar’s party. The important split among the Malays is the one inside UMNO – not the one on the streets, despite the enrichment of a small Malay elite at the expense of the lower-income Malays.