Malaysia’s Opposition Pulls Up Lame

With the powerful United Malays National Organisation faced with the spectacle of a sensational murder trial inching closer and closer to Deputy Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak, this would seem an opportune time for Malaysia’s perpetually stunted opposition politicians to capitalize on disarray in the ruling ranks.

It isn’t working out that way. The headline-grabbing courtroom drama featuring well-connected political analyst Abdul Razak Baginda, who is on trial for the murder of his jilted Mongolian lover, has led to embarrassing questions for Najib, two of whose bodyguards are charged with carrying out the killing and whose name has surfaced as an acquaintance of the victim. Politically, however, the opposition seems unable to capitalize on the sordid spectacle because it is caught up in its own troubles.

The departure of Ezam Mohd Noor from the Parti Keadilan Rakyat (Justice Party) in late June was an untimely setback for the opposition. The party’s former youth chief severed his ties with the party amid speculation that Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi may call general elections before year’s end.

Ezam didn't go quietly. He unleashed a stinging attack on party advisor Anwar Ibrahim, accusing the former UMNO deputy prime minister of dictatorial policies. He also charged Party Vice President Azmin Ali of “scheming” to control Anwar. Ezam’s break follows other high-level departures and is sure to add to perceptions of factionalism at a time when the party has been blessed with a golden opportunity to win the public trust.

Others who have taken their leave include former Vice President Saifuddin Nasution Ismail, Secretary General Anuar Tahir, Supreme Council member Saari Sungib and deputy president Abdul Rahman Othman.

Ezam, along with Azmin, was one of Anwar’s top protégés. They both left UMNO with Anwar when the latter was ignominiously sacked by a decade ago when Anwar’s popularity and reform agenda challenged former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad.

When Anwar was jailed on charges of sodomy and corruption brought by Mahathir, the result was the reformasi movement, which Keadilan grew out of. The party won five parliamentary seats in 1999 but just one in 2004 elections.

Party leaders concede that the departures may harm the party’s image but, they say, not its long-term prospects. “We are facing some negative reporting and I have to admit it will damage us a little,” said Keadilan Information Chief and social activist Tian Chua. “Having said that, we are quite prepared for these developments as elections near.”

Indeed UMNO has a history of trying to destabilize opposition parties. (Ezam says UMNO has not courted him and in no way influenced his departure.)

Seemingly the time has never been riper for an opposition party to make inroads on the long-serving Barisan Nasional, the ruling coalition of ethnic parties. Badawi’s anti-graft pledge has shown few if any tangible results. Najib is entangled, however peripherally, in the most sensational murder trial in decades and the long-ruling government’s track record of mismanagement, money politics, xenophobia, and human rights abuses continues unabated.

“Many people are quite unhappy but their main question is, ‘What is the alternative?’” asked Dr. Abdul Rahman Embong, a professor of sociology at the National University of Malaysia.

Keadilan would seem to have the moral high ground. It is Malaysia’s only major multi-racial party and is dedicated to democratic principles and advocacy for judicial and electoral reform, press freedom and the right to free assembly. It is also in favor of scrapping the controversial affirmative action program catering to the Malay majority.

Recently Ambassador Thierry Rommel, the head of the European Commission Delegation to Malaysia, attacked the New Economic Policy, as the affirmative action program is known, saying that it is hindering progress and foreign direct investment in the country. Keadilan favors a policy that would help the needy regardless of race and stop giving extra benefits to already wealthy Malays on the basis of their ethnicity.

But the party has failed to convince the public it is a viable alternative to the ruling coalition. Part of the problem lies in media access. All major media in Malaysia are controlled by the ruling coalition, but even when Keadilan and other opposition parties gain access, they have often failed to convey their pitch for change. There has also been a tendency by Keadilan to dwell on past corruption and abuses when most people are more concerned with the present and the future. For instance, at several recent gatherings, Anwar explained at length the differences between his economic policies and those of Mahathir Mohamed during the Asian economic crisis 10 years ago.

“I don’t think [Keadilan] has major flaws in its policies,” Ezam said in an interview. “I think they have great policies for reform. But [the party] lacks the resolve to be focused, and not get drawn into petty politicking.”

“We are reaching out more and broadening our platform,” insisted party spokesman Chua. “The public is more concerned with the acquittal of Eric Chia than Ezam’s departure.”

Chia was the single big fish that Badawi’s corruption drive netted. But there was a hole in the net. Two weeks ago, the former steel tycoon and Mahathir crony was acquitted of criminal breach of trust for allegedly embezzling RM76.4 million from the failed Perwaja national steel company. This has added to perceptions that the ruling government is incapable of bringing about significant reform.

In a word Keadilan has been handed rope and shovel to climb out of the grave it fell into after UMNO’s landslide election victory in 2004 amid Abdullah’s pledges to curb graft. To an extent it has dusted itself off pretty nicely. The surest sign of this came in April during the by-election in the small constituency of Ijok, where the ruling coalition invested nearly RM100 million to narrowly defeat the party.

Although Keadilan wants to build on that momentum, the departures don’t help. Nor do squabbles with the other two main opposition parties, the largely Chinese Democratic Action Party (DAP) and the ultra-conservative Islamic Party (PAS). In 2004 the three parties won 40 percent of votes cast.

The multi-racial Keadilan is the glue that binds the fragile opposition coalition, but DAP leaders are concerned that Anwar has not spoken out sternly enough against the creeping Islamization threatening national unity. “He’s been ambivalent and ambiguous” on the issue, said DAP Secretary General Lim Guan Eng, who has urged Anwar “to review his and Parti Keadilan Rakyat's support for the Federal Court decision on Lina Joy as well as oppose any attempt to criminalise apostasy.” Lim said Anwar has been silent on the controversial ruling in which a federal high court denied a woman’s wish to be legally acknowledged as a Christian, in effect saying it was a matter to be handled by sharia courts.

Lim says DAP’s concern, however, does not suggest a souring of relations between the two parties. While the DAP refuses to draw closer to PAS until it unequivocally withdraws calls for an Islamic State, relations with Keadilan remain good, “with mutual trust on both sides,” said Lim.

Despite the ostensible fissures, said Chua, the opposition will prevail. “If not Keadilan another party will fill the void, because the need for change is clear,” he said. “Anwar can come and go but someone must fill the gap to fix the corruption and mismanagement of this country.”

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