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Wednesday, March 12, 2008

No more politics as usual in Malaysia

March 12, 2008
No more politics as usual in Malaysia
By K Kesavapany
IN A confounding repudiation of pundits who had predicted otherwise, Malaysia's ruling coalition, the Barisan Nasional (BN), failed to secure a two-thirds majority in the country's 12th general election. Although the BN's simple majority enables it to form the next federal government, its loss of the two-thirds majority portends fundamental changes in the way in which it manages the political system.
The ruling coalition can no longer push through its policies and programmes in Parliament by itself, but will have to accommodate the opposition and proceed through compromise. The government will have to take into account the opposition's calls for better governance, greater transparency and stricter adherence to the rule of law in the political process.

On the economic front, accommodation will mean that the government will have to take seriously opposition calls for fairness in the distribution of the economic cake. On the social front, the ruling coalition will have to pay attention to racial and religious minorities' complaints of discrimination.

In the immediate future, the BN will have to rectify a mistake in its campaign strategy: Its focus on development in the macro sense. Though Malaysians want development, they responded to the opposition's emphasis on mundane but real 'bread and butter' issues such as the rising cost of living and increasing crime.

The election represents a monumental achievement for the opposition. The BN's inability to wrest back Kelantan was not unexpected, given the extent to which the Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS) is entrenched in that state. What was unexpected was the Democratic Action Party achieving at last its goal of taking over Penang, the BN's astonishing loss of Kedah, the home state of former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, and the loss of Perak and Selangor.

Two consequences follow from these results. First, the ruling coalition will now have to pay close attention to the management of centre-state relations. The old formula, of the BN being in control of both the federal government and an overwhelming number of state governments, will no longer apply in five key states.

IN A confounding repudiation of pundits who had predicted otherwise, Malaysia's ruling coalition, the Barisan Nasional (BN), failed to secure a two-thirds majority in the country's 12th general election. Although the BN's simple majority enables it to form the next federal government, its loss of the two-thirds majority portends fundamental changes in the way in which it manages the political system.
The ruling coalition can no longer push through its policies and programmes in Parliament by itself, but will have to accommodate the opposition and proceed through compromise. The government will have to take into account the opposition's calls for better governance, greater transparency and stricter adherence to the rule of law in the political process.

On the economic front, accommodation will mean that the government will have to take seriously opposition calls for fairness in the distribution of the economic cake. On the social front, the ruling coalition will have to pay attention to racial and religious minorities' complaints of discrimination.

In the immediate future, the BN will have to rectify a mistake in its campaign strategy: Its focus on development in the macro sense. Though Malaysians want development, they responded to the opposition's emphasis on mundane but real 'bread and butter' issues such as the rising cost of living and increasing crime.

The election represents a monumental achievement for the opposition. The BN's inability to wrest back Kelantan was not unexpected, given the extent to which the Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS) is entrenched in that state. What was unexpected was the Democratic Action Party achieving at last its goal of taking over Penang, the BN's astonishing loss of Kedah, the home state of former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, and the loss of Perak and Selangor.
Second, and more importantly, this development points to a fundamental possibility of change in Malaysian politics. The results show that a sizeable number of Malays in Kedah, Perak and Selangor, who were disenchanted with the BN's record of performance, have put that dissatisfaction ahead of racial considerations and made common cause with Chinese and Indians in voting for the opposition. Should the BN read this development correctly, it might lead to a less race-based polity.

The opposition, too, has work to do. The overarching question is where Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim fits into the emerging scenario. Come April, he will be eligible to contest an election. Should he make it into Parliament, he would be able to coalesce the opposition forces and better present them as an alternative to BN. An alternative to the ruling coalition is a prospect that Malaysia has never faced before.

The prospect has already created economic uncertainties, as reflected in Monday's steep stock market decline. For example, most of the northern states in the Northern Economic Corridor Region (NCER) are now under opposition control. This raises doubts about the future of the NCER project.

Another interesting development is the statement by the prospective Menteri Besar of Selangor, Tan Sri Abdul Khalid Ibrahim, that the pro-bumiputera National Economic Policy (NEP) will be abolished in his state. Whether this will be accepted by the other opposition parties, especially PAS, remains to be seen. However, if this were to become a reality, then the political economy of the richest state in the federation will be transformed with concomitant implications for investments.

For the time being, the opposition will have to consolidate its gains. That means allocating portfolios commensurate with each party's contribution to the overall opposition success.

Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi will have to inject fresh blood into the ruling coalition to make up for the loss of four heavyweight ministers. The near-complete rout of Gerakan and the heavy losses suffered by the Malaysian Indian Congress, including the defeat of its president, Datuk Seri S. Samy Vellu, reiterate the need for a fresh and bold approach to Cabinet formation.

For the international community, it is reassuring that Malaysia has gone through this political sea change without its social system coming under undue stress. Kuala Lumpur should continue to be able to discharge its regional and international obligations. What is unclear is whether the election results will affect Malaysia's longer-term economic development. Well-wishers of Malaysia will hope not.

The writer, director of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, is a former Singapore high commissioner to Malaysia. These are his personal views. A previous version of this article appeared in Business Times on Monday.

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