Friday, January 21, 2011

Does Malaysia’s New Opposition Party Stand a Chance to Change the Country?

The people of Malaysia’s Borneo states, who have provided a “fixed deposit” for Barisan in terms of politicians for decades, should stop voting “for a regime that has denied them for the best part of our independent years.”

Introduced not only by the country’s national anthem, but also to the strains of the Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” Malaysia’s newest political party was officially launched at the Sime Darby Convention Center in Kuala Lumpur on Wednesday.

Kita, the People’s Welfare Party, aims “to bring back the politics of goodwill and compromise that started this nation 54 years ago … so that politics and public service can be made honorable once again,” said its president, Zaid Ibrahim.

Neither of the current alternatives would do, he said.

The governing Barisan Nasional coalition “will always be autocratic and authoritarian,” while the opposition led by Anwar Ibrahim “says and does whatever it takes for the sake of winning elections.”

There was grand, idealistic talk of defending the secular nature of the 1957 constitution, ending discrimination, fighting ideas of “superiority and hegemony” (a reference to the Malay supremacists who would consign the country’s Chinese and Indian citizens to permanent second-class status) and ensuring “equal opportunities for all.”

Big words indeed for a new party, however laudable — especially given that Barisan and its predecessor, the Alliance, centered around three parties representing the country’s main races, the Malays, Chinese and Indians, have won every national election since independence.

Many would ask, too, why Zaid needs to start another party.

Doesn’t the opposition coalition, Pakatan Rakyat, stand for more or less the same program as Kita?

Moreover, Pakatan’s success at the 2008 general elections, when it won control of five of Malaysia’s 13 states and denied Barisan a two-thirds majority in Parliament that had allowed it to amend the constitution, is in the past.

Now that the political tsunami has receded, there is much debris left behind for Pakatan to deal with. In February 2009, it lost one state, Perak, back to the Barisan.

There have been constant disagreements and bickering over the demands of one of its constituent parties, the Islamist PAS, for Islamic hudud laws and an Islamic state to be implemented if they came to power — anathema to its left-leaning coalition partner, the mainly Chinese Democratic Action Party.

Meanwhile, Anwar, the leader of Pakatan’s other member, Parti Keadilan Rakyat, and of the opposition overall, remains bogged down in his sodomy trial, which has been ongoing for almost a year.

Shouldn’t Zaid be doing all he can to help Pakatan Rakyat rather than setting up a new party that will appeal to the same constituency, thereby risking splitting precious opposition votes?

It would be fair to say that Zaid divides opinion.

The founder of the country’s biggest law firm and renowned for his outspoken defense of human rights, Zaid was hailed as proof that Barisan was serious about reform when he was appointed by then Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi as Law Minister in March 2008.

He resigned after six months over the continued use of Malaysia’s draconian Internal Security Act, and was welcomed into the ranks of Anwar’s PKR the following June.

Last month, however, he quit PKR as well in a row over internal party elections.

While standing for the deputy presidency in November, Zaid alleged serious irregularities with the voting process and turned angrily on Anwar.

The election was being rigged and PKR had become a vehicle for its leader and his cronies, he said, adding that the current accusations of sodomy against him were undermining the opposition’s cause.

As if that wasn’t enough, Zaid told me in an interview after his resignation that he thought Anwar was “guilty as hell” in any case.

Some have accused Zaid of arrogance and poor judgment. PKR didn’t end up looking like furthering his own ambitions, goes the argument, so he has set up a party (technically, relaunched and renamed a tiny previous grouping) that will.

On the other hand, PKR’s whiter-than-white reformasi mantle is now beginning to appear striped with dynastic purple now that the party is led by Anwar — its president is his wife and one of its new vice presidents his daughter.

And Zaid’s ruthlessly honest analysis of Malaysia’s problems, particularly the need for a re-evaluation of the position of the Malays, his calls for an end to rent-seeking and for the building of a new meritocracy that does not unduly stress race or religion, is almost unmatched.

Perhaps the only other Malay politician to advance something similar convincingly is Razaleigh Hamzah, the veteran finance minister who is fondly regarded and admired across the spectrum.

Significantly, he wrote the preface to Zaid’s book “I, too, am Malay.”

What are its chances?

Kita has already been dismissed as a “mosquito” party — a minor irritant, but whose bite has no significant impact.

Asked what effect it would be likely to have, one leading politician said it would have none, apart from appealing “to a few people in Bangsar” — a reference to the Kuala Lumpur enclave with a long and occasionally notorious reputation for liberalism and permissiveness.

If that is brave talk from Barisan, the opposition coalition may have more worries.

Even if Kita does not field many candidates in the next general elections — its ambition in that field is so small that Zaid admitted to me that they may not win “any seats at all” — in peninsular Malaysia, it could still cost Pakatan.

The key industrial state of Selangor, for instance, is already on a knife edge.

The Pakatan state government has dealt poorly with a number of issues, appearing divided and handing Barisan propaganda victories. It is not implausible that a few swing votes to Kita could lose Pakatan its proudest gain of the 2008 elections.

Zaid’s goal, however, is both more modest and yet more ambitious than insults suggest. His “moderate, democratic and liberal” party, he conceded, was not about to try to win the next general elections.

“We are in this for the long haul,” he said. “Kita is not just a political party — it’s a movement, it’s an ethos to be handed down to future generations. This is about real change in the way we do business. Because what we have now just isn’t working.”

And he does have a plan. “The answer is the middle class here,” he told me during our interview. Well, that’s Bangsar at least.

For a more imminent change, he said, look east. “The answer is Sarawak and Sabah.”

The people of Malaysia’s Borneo states, who have provided a “fixed deposit” for Barisan in terms of politicians for decades, should stop voting “for a regime that has denied them for the best part of our independent years.”

Far more non-Malay and non-Muslim than the peninsula, but with considerable numbers of the indigenous peoples who are legally privileged along with the Malays as bumiputras — sons of the soil, they can be “the linchpin of change,” Zaid said.

“They can determine if Malaysia is to remain a cosmopolitan multiethnic democracy or be ruled by the politics of hegemony. They can determine if Malaysia is to remain a free, secular democracy or a tyranny of the majority.”

Zaid not only has a plan, but an ally in the person of Jeffrey Kitingan, a former PKR vice president who announced the formation of the United Borneo Front to campaign for a better deal for Sarawak and Sabah on the same day Zaid unveiled news of Kita last month.

As Kitingan pointed out recently: “West Malaysians take up 166 seats in Parliament, which are fragmented almost 50/50 after the 2008 elections. If all 56 Sabah and Sarawak MPs amalgamated and had the Borneo Agenda at the forefront of their hearts and their minds, they will be able to have a greater say in Parliament.”

Zaid talked a lot on Wednesday about the country’s founding prime minister — the genial, tolerant Tunku Abdul Rahman.

Actually, he is going further than the Tunku would ever have dared in terms of urging a unity that does not overprivilege one section of society, or its faith, over another.

It sounded, in fact, rather a lot like a new Malaysia. Were it not already the title of someone else’s policy, he could even have called it a One Malaysia.

Now there’s a thought.

By Sholto Byrnes contributing editor of the New Statesman (Britain) and divides his time between London and Kuala Lumpur. Asia Sentinel

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