SIX months ago, when Datuk Seri Najib Razak first took over as prime minister in April 2009, no one would have expected him to be able to draw a mass rally numbering between 30,000 and 50,000 people in Perak. Indeed, he even avoided the campaign in the Bukit Gantang by-election a few days after his swearing-in, in an obvious calculation not to provoke voters’ anger and embarrass himself.
So it is impressive that Najib drew such a rally at the Perak Stadium in Ipoh on 18 Oct 2009 when he launched his 1Malaysia project. Even if the allegation is true that people were paid RM30 for turning up, the rally itself speaks volumes of a tremendous shift towards Najib within 200 days of his premiership. Like the 11 Oct Bagan Pinang by-election, this should be a wake-up call for the Pakatan Rakyat (PR) and Malaysians who long for democratisation.
(Applause by Pryam Carter / sxc.hu)
Odds are, come 5 Nov 2009, the Federal Court will likely overturn the High Court decision and denounce the claim by the PR’s Datuk Seri Mohammad Nizar Jamaluddin to be named the rightful Perak menteri besar. Looking at the current mood, many may just call for the PR to accept the verdict and wait for the next elections. And by the next elections, the Barisan Nasional (BN) may be returned with an even larger majority than it enjoys now, thanks to the defection of the three former PR lawmakers.
What has brought about this shift in the public’s mood? I would credit Najib’s 1Malaysia campaign. Whatever its detractors may say, the campaign appeals to conservative Malaysians on two counts.
Firstly, it has been copying or stealing many centrist ideas from the PR, from the gradual dismantling of Bumiputera-ism to the announcement of 16 Sept as a national holiday. And the BN appears superior compared with the PR, which lacks either power or political will to implement such changes. After all, for the politically conservative, the government’s ability to deliver matters more than anything else.
Secondly, the 1Malaysia idea is apolitical to the core. It stresses unity and harmony, smartly painting political competition and power struggle in negative light. Indeed, it is no coincidence that there is political fatigue in the reports of the mainstream media and even in blogosphere.
As political scientist Harold Lasswell aptly characterised, politics is competition for power and resources; it’s about “Who Gets What, When, How”. Just as in business, politics does not necessarily encourage proof or demonstration of a person’s virtues. What matters is whether a politician is able to deliver the goods.
Just like well-functioning economic markets, a politician’s self-interest can be channelled to produce socially desirable outcomes if the only way to win power is through better serving of citizens’ interests. This, then, is what democracy is all about.
But to go beyond the cynicism of, and to instead appreciate, “dirty political struggles” requires a substantial degree of sophistication. Most would prefer “political fairy tales”, where good politicians, guided by love for the nation and equipped with political shrewdness, serve the people’s best interests. US President Barack Obama is a good example of this “political fairy tale”, and Najib is no different in wanting to spin his own.
With such “good” politicians and, by extension, a good government, politics — the contestation for power and resources — becomes redundant. In the hands of such good politicians, politics would be reduced to administrative matters where the authorities can be relied on to sort out problems and arbitrate conflicts.
The “good government” fairy tale sells especially well after political unrest and volatility. In the aftermath of 13 May 1969, Prime Minister Tun Abdul Razak co-opted opposition parties such as Gerakan and built his BN new order. He was able to pull this off because of the population’s fatigue from and fear of political turmoil following the racial clashes of 13 May.
It seems that Najib is following in his father’s footstep. The rejection of excessive politicking is now slowly ushering in a new centrist authoritarianism under the packaging of 1Malaysia.
But even though politicians and official organs like Utusan Malaysia have currently toned down their ethno-nationalist rhetoric, federal opposition parties are clearly not the beneficiary of 1Malaysia’s inclusiveness. The PR government in Selangor, for example, was fiercely attacked for “selling out” Malay Malaysians in the campaigning for the Bagan Pinang by-election. At the same time, Umno delegates at the party’s 60th annual general assembly want federal resources to be allocated in a more partisan manner.
The PR’s response
Has the PR been able to respond to this new rhetoric?
In Perak, many voters cannot see the benefit of the PR’s ongoing challenges against the BN regime, because the chaos in the Perak legislative assembly was all about lawmakers and their business. The chaos and its political implications are remote for most citizens.
From left: Sivakumar, Nizar, the BN’s Menteri Besar Datuk Seri Dr Zambry Abdul
Kadir, and the BN’s Perak Speaker Datuk R Ganesan
While V Sivakumar religiously holds on to his power as embattled Perak speaker, Nizar’s state executive council has long given up their official roles — they haven’t held exco meetings for months. In the next state assembly sitting on 28 Oct, PR will not even be tabling its proposed budget for the state even though PR assemblypersons will be attending the sitting.
In the meantime, the two seats left vacant by former PR assemblypersons, Jamaluddin Mohd Radzi (Behrang) and Mohd Osman Mohd Jailu (Changkat Jering) in the PR’s state exco, have to date not been filled up after eight months.
In short, the PR frontbenchers have not been able to function as a government in exile. If they cannot function as a shadow government should the Federal Court rule against them, can they blame Perakians for getting tired? In contrast, 1Malaysia and Najib’s new rhetoric at Umno’s 60th general assembly are much easier to embrace because they have the advantage of the incumbent, and seem far less abrasive.
More than Perak
I have argued before in this column that if the BN is not punished by public opinion now and in the next elections for the Perak coup, such legitimisation of abuse of power and state agencies will have national implications.
Indeed, the crowd who cheered for Najib in Ipoh were actually saying: “We don’t care. We don’t mind a coup. We love you.” Distressing though that may be, not just for Perak but for the future of democracy in Malaysia, the fact is this: if the PR cannot demonstrate that “politicking” is good for the public interest, it is likely to lose more than just Perak in the years to come.
A political scientist by training and a journalism lecturer by trade, Wong Chin Huat is based in Monash University Sunway Campus. He believes denouncing political fairy tales of authoritarianism is fundamental for Malaysia’s democratisation.
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