Malaysia’s Prime Minister Under Fire

Almost a month after Malaysia’s national election, the political battleground is getting bloodier inside the Barisan Nasional, the national governing coalition, particularly inside the United Malays National Organisation, the leading ethnic party in the coalition.

After the unexpected loss of its two-thirds parliamentary majority and of five state governments, UMNO is actually scrambling to survive, a stunning development after 50 years of nearly unchallenged dominance of Malaysian politics. Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi has been faced with a series of brushfire problems all over the place, including the refusal by two state sultans to seat his choice for menteri besar, or chief minister.

Probably the most important thing keeping Badawi in place is the relative weakness of his challengers, which may well keep him where he is until at least party elections in August or September. The contender getting most of the ink is Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah, 70, the onetime finance minister and perennial challenger to former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. The party’s other most prominent possible challenger, Deputy Prime Minister and Defense Minister Najib Tun Abdul Razak, has agreed to back Badawi, at least for now.

Nonetheless, sensing Badawi’s vulnerability, his enemies within the party are going after him. Usually subservient party lieutenants are speaking up. Some have begun blogging after a survey showed that the Internet influenced about 80 percent of voters aged 20 to 40. More and more often the phrase “listen to the people/grassroots/voters” is being bandied.

At a meeting with what were described as the “grassroots” of UMNO in Kuala Lumpur Sunday, Badawi lashed out at members of his own party, particularly former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, the septuagenarian former prime minister, who has publicly called for his resignation and whose criticism and refusal to take part in the electoral process in February and March are considered to have been factors in the magnitude of the electoral loss.

Badawi pointed out Mahathir's role in the draconian arrests of political dissidents in 1987 using the Internal Security Act, which allows for detention without trial, and Malaysia’s scandal-ridden judiciary. In 1988, after the Supreme Court outlawed UMNO following a power struggle in the party over the presidency, Salleh Abbas, the then Lord President, was sacked by a tribunal consisting of judges loyal to Mahathir. That act wiped out the independence of Malaysia’s courts and has led to a long deterioration in the quality of the judicial institution.

Badawi also went after Razaleigh, who has called for an emergency general meeting of the party and who is expected to challenge Badawi for the premiership, for his previous alliance with the Islamic Party of Malaysia (PAS), charging that that Razaleigh was "the reason Barisan lost Kelantan to PAS in the first place. The Kelantan leader, who rejoined UMNO, has done nothing to win back the state for Barisan."

Razaleigh in a speech last Saturday called for a “revival of Malay power,” criticizing the influence of foreigners – read ethnic Chinese and Indians – in the country.

Despite the fact that Razaleigh had been a perennial challenger to Mahathir, the two now appear to be getting ready to make common cause against Badawi. Although he has not openly backed Razaleigh’s challenge, Mahathir seems to be saying that he doesn’t mind that it goes forward. Mahathir’s youngest son, Mukhriz, who was elected to parliament as an UMNO member by a wide margin on March 9, has written a letter demanding that Badawi step down. He wasn’t punished for his disobedience, another indication of Badawi’s loss of power in his own party

In the grassroots meeting, Badawi went on to blame sabotage by UMNO members for the loss of two states. "The act of sabotage has already taken place. If not for it, we would not have lost the two-thirds majority and two state governments. We would not have lost Perak and Kedah if not for the act by our own party members," he said.

As yet another an indication of Badawi’s relative lack of power, his first major attempt at judicial reform was rejected outright when Zaid Ibrahim, whom Badawi appointed a minister in his cabinet, vainly proposed to apologize to Salleh and other judges sacked along with him. However, the second and third-highest UMNO figures, Deputy Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak and International Trade and Industry Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, both refused to go along with the proposal and it was shelved.

Allegiances have become more fluid within the party, with concern rising that as many as 30 newly elected members of the Dewan Rakyat, or Parliament, might jump ship and go to the opposition. Although party members have remained relatively static in peninsular Malaysia, they have often changed affiliation in Sabah and Sarawak in East Malaysia for the promise of cabinet positions or other perks.

Previously seen as a Mahathir man, Najib Tun Abdul Razak, the deputy prime minister and defense minister, has pledged his loyalty to Badawi. Senior political observers say that Najib’s decision not to seek to oust Badawi may be due to his own overflowing closet of skeletons. His closest friend, Abdul Razak Baginda, and two of his bodyguards are being tried for the gruesome murder of a Mongolian translator who shot in the end and then blown up with military-grade explosives. He has also been criticized widely for a series of questionable purchases by the Malaysian military as he is also defense minister.

Perhaps in desperate times, desperate measures are needed. But in Malaysia, desperate politicians resurface. This is at least the third time that Razaleigh has sought to contest the party presidency. In 1987, thwarted by Mahathir, Razaleigh led a faction out of UMNO but eventually he returned. In 2004, he wanted go after Badawi but only received one nomination – from his own division. In line with the “quota system” introduced by Mahathir, Razaleigh needs 30 percent of the total nominations from 193 divisions or roughly 60 nominations. Mahathir now is asking for the system to be abolished in the name of democracy.

Razaleigh was Finance Minister in the late 1970s and early 1980s. He was also a former chairman of the scandal-scarred Bank Bumiputra. Among Malaysians, he is remembered for setting up Petronas, the national oil and gas company, and other Malay nationalistic achievements like seizing ownership and control of British companies. Till today, the “dawn raid” of Guthrie, a British plantation giant, in 1971 is still recalled warmly by ethnic Malays. Yet, little mentioned is the heartless implementation of Malay cultural supremacy and hegemony over this period that marginalized many non-Malays.

These are still early days as the party election is in December. At the moment, the anti-Badawi camp is banking on Razaleigh as the viable alternative but they are still looking for a running mate to contest the deputy presidency. Meanwhile, other contenders may pop up when things calm down a bit.

That’s not likely to happen anytime soon as Anwar, who was barred from politics after being convicted on what were widely regarded as trumped-up charges of sexual deviation and corruption, will be eligible to stand in a by-election on April 14. At that point, one of the winning candidates from Parti Keadilan Rakyat, the People’s Justice Party –possibly Anwar’s wife – will stand down from politics to allow Anwar to run. As head of the unlikely three-party coalition of Keadilan, which is dominated by urban Malays, the largely socialist and Chinese-dominated Democratic Action Party and PAS, the fundamentalist Islamic Party, Anwar will be in parliament with the renewed power to make trouble for the ruling coalition.

Comment:

PRU12 Is Not Over Yet ?

I am in a serious state of confusion today. Reading Asia Sentinel and ironically mainstream papers makes me feel as if there will be a gigantic national election coming soon. Probably, these are the campaigning days "prior to the election".

Wait a minute. The national election (Pilihanraya Umum 12) or synonymously named in its abbreviated form PRU12 was held exactly one month ago. Today is 8th April and it was on 8th March 2008.

It is not exactly the fault or any form of mis-reporting on the part of presses and publications that caused such confusion. Generally, the local news segments are full with articles emanating vibes of election. Finger-pointing , dissing out personalities , amassing supporters to organise gatherings , little street demonstrations , alleged saboteurs and megaphone diplomacy made it. The media is merely reporting what is happening in reality.

As a concerned citizen, I was really looking forward to reading development plans for Malaysia 4 to 5 years down to road. With the onset of a serious economic crisis in the United States, I think it is really time for the chosen government to actually formulate strategies to safeguard the local interests. Any form of inflation will affect the citizens by-and-large. These should be the priority instead. Regretably, "election-style" politicking seems to overtake these issues.

I hope there are people from Barisan Nasional component parties that will read this page and do something useful to the nation. Yes, BN lost its two-third majority and five states in PRU12 for the very first time in the 50 years of Malaysia. Yes, it is BN's worst defeat to date. Yes, it is alarming but it should be known that BN still has the simple majority. BN is still the federal government.

The internal bickering is not doing any good to the image and structure of the ruling coalition. Being denied two-third is not the end of the world. However, it will be the end of the world for everyone in Malaysia, be it commoners like me, opposing parties and BN if the economy crumbles in the midst of all these continual sensational drama. Believe me, PRU12 is nothing compared to the economic problems potentially reaching our shores as a side effect of the globalised economy centering on USA.

If one thinks PRU12 shook BN hard, imagine the damage an economic crisis may do to the foundations of a coalition. Think long and hard from the "confidence" perspective of a common Malaysian towards a political party. Would one choose to bicker first, cushion the effects later or the opposite?

As for me, I would choose the latter. If the economy is sustained, at least it will generate a certain amount of positive vibes in "confidence".

On the other hand, internal dispute is not only the problem of Barisan Nasional. Pakatan Rakyat has its share of megaphone diplomacy. Did anyone read about the latest DAP-PAS fiasco on an old issue of Islamic state versus Secular state? It is not really wise to hang dirty linens in public. It is high time to sit down , iron out the issue once and for all, prepare a detailed blueprint on "How to govern Malaysia : Muslims and Non-Muslims".

The PR political parties should not avoid this issue any longer. Even as I speak, the supporters of both parties have started less than pleasant comments that may put the collaboration at risk. As a Malaysian, it is my dream to see them work together as one. It should be tighter and more synchronised than the cooperation that was witnessed in PRU12. PKR must be in the picture as well.

Pakatan Rakyat has to know that it came into being with the support of Malaysians particularly through the Barisan Rakyat civil movement iniative. It is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that should be appreciated. Time to ride on the wind rather than let it pass through without capitalising properly on the given chance.

By Sagaladoola