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Change Is Inevitable

March 8 marks the first anniversary of Malaysia's epoch-making polls. The past twelve months have been an 'annus horibilis' for the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition as they lost heavily both in the national and state legislatures.

Still, 2009 looks to be an even more brutal year because the global recession will tighten the noose on the region's export-driven economies, adding even greater pressure to the existing political uncertainty.

While Malaysia is not alone in facing these squalls, some countries - most notably Indonesia - having undergone massive socio-political changes in recent years will weather the storms better. From my current vantage-point in Jakarta where I'm covering the Republic's third post-Reformasi polls, it's become increasingly clear that Indonesia's political maturity (notwithstanding its chaotic quality) far outstrips that of my own homeland.

Why? In the aftermath of Soeharto's fall back in '98, Indonesia went through a remarkable process of unwinding the strong-man's political legacy. As such power has been diffused and the grip of the Jakarta elite loosened. At the same time there's also been a dramatic expansion of civil liberties, thereby cementing the gains and allowing the population a real sense of participation and engagement in public life.

"Its competitors for the Malay vote, the Islamist PAS and the more moderate, racially-inclusive PKR are gaining ground."

Whilst the process has been disruptive and at times exasperating, the changes have led to the emergence of diverse centres of authority, thereby lessening the zero-sum nature of Indonesian political life. As a result, the level of political risk in Malaysia has for the first time in recent history exceeded that of Indonesia.

Malaysia (much like its neighbours, Singapore and Thailand) is still locked in the past. Power remains centralized: the winners are lauded and can do no wrong while the losers’ are vilified.

Moreover such is the disregard for democracy and the 'spirit' of the nation’s respective Constitutions, that even genuine electoral results are suborned and reversed - the ouster of the pro-Thaksin administration in Thailand last year and the depressing sequence of events in Perak. With the economic downturn adding a layer of complexity, the legitimacy and survivability of current systems of governance is questionable.

If we cast a glance to the north, we can observe an aging monarch - King Bhumibol - long the sole protector of his Kingdom's social and political stability who now lives out his days in the sequestered confines of his beloved Hua Hin palace as red- and yellow-shirted partisans clash in the streets of Bangkok - essentially fighting over the legacy of his Chakri dynasty.

To the south and amidst the detritus of the credit crunch, Singapore's ruling party, the PAP is reeling from a sustained assault on its hard-won credibility as savvy and principled managers of the city-state's fortunes. At the same juncture, the infallibility of the Lee family is also experiencing unexpected tests as the GDP contracts by over 10% and prominent sovereign wealth funds disclose gargantuan losses. Exhortations to the Republic’s hard-working population for further belt-tightening ring hollow in such circumstances.

As I said, there's no guarantee that the present political systems in the region or, perhaps more importantly, the elites they've engendered will survive history's depredations.

Returning to events in Malaysia, it's clear that the dominant political party, Umno cannot remain idle. Its competitors for the Malay vote, the Islamist PAS and the more moderate, racially-inclusive PKR are gaining ground.

Umno is fast discovering that the politics of development is no longer sufficient. Voter expectations have risen. People want improved public services, cheaper utilities and a more caring leadership, all of which are an anathema to a political and administrative machine that's unused to dialogue and focused almost entirely on the provision of infrastructural hardware. In short, Umno tells the people what they need. It rarely listens or consults beyond the privileged circle of party activists.

Umno must come to terms with reality - popular sentiment is dynamic and unforgiving. Moreover political parties are neither destined nor fated to lead. Past achievements and former glories amount to very little in the face of mounting expectations from increasingly well-educated and demanding voters - especially during periods of economic uncertainty.

Sadly, over the past twelve months Umno has not shown itself either ready or willing to face up to its myriad challenges. Indeed the party's substandard performance in the two by-elections - Permatang Pauh and Kuala Terengganu - reinforces a growing sense that Umno is leaderless and adrift.

The party appears to have failed to grasp the basic fact of contemporary political life that the voter is king. Perhaps what Umno’s leadership needs is not so much new thinking but rather some simple common sense.

The grand old party of Merdeka with its noble traditions and genuine service culture has simply lost steam. Carpet-baggers, thugs and jokers now throng the party's ranks. Moreover, they (and their families) are deliberately excluding many thousands of professional and educated Malays who want to get involved in public life, forcing the latter to turn to the welcoming embrace of Pas and PKR. As one former Umno leader explained, "Karim, they've lost faith in themselves."

The impending departure of Abdullah Badawi has become a convenient fig leaf for the party's leadership who now blame the outgoing premier for all failings. Whilst there is some truth in their arguments - Abdullah's 'laissez fair' leadership did indeed expose Umno's weaknesses- the continuing refusal of the party's leadership to acknowledge their own complicity is worrying.

At the same time, there has also been a sense that the nation's character has altered. Voting patterns have changed. Neat racial stereotypes have been rejected - witness the way non-Malays swung behind PAS and countless urban Malays deserted Umno by voting for PKR and even the predominantly ethnic Chinese DAP - perhaps forever.

In the final analysis Umno has two options. Firstly, it can endeavour to turn the clock back on events and deny the growing demands for greater social and political freedoms as well as the attendant push for greater transparency and accountability. This strategy could well succeed for a certain period of time - however it will definitely lead to a tremendous backlash that will in turn destroy the very fabric of our fragile multi-racial society. Let us not forget that 2009 also represents the 30th anniversary of the downfall of the Shah of Iran and the ascension of the Ayatollah Khomeni.

Instead of an atavistic return to the Mahathir-era, Umno must reform both itself and the government before it is too late. The party is worth saving and must be saved. Cool heads must prevail in this unavoidable process.

Change is inevitable and as I've said, we are not alone in facing these challenges. After decades of real peace and prosperity the current Malaysian elite must face up to these demands unless they wish to be swept away by the inexorable tide of history. (By KARIM RASLAN/ MySinchew)

MySinchew 2009.03.15


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