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8 March &mdash just a fluke?

Nine months have passed since Malaysia’s sea-changing March elections (pic by Lainie Yeoh)

MONDAY, 8 Dec 2008, will mark nine months after the supposedly sea-changing 8 March elections. This author, however, is getting increasingly confused in his interactions with opposition leaders and supporters.

This is the confusion: was the general election an indicator of the rakyat’s irreversible political maturity? The same way that you normally don’t revert to your childhood once you become an adult? Or did Malaysians just get lucky on 8 March, meaning that the process of democratisation can well be reversed by or even before the next elections?

These two opposing views have vastly different implications.

Malaysians have matured

The thrust of this view is that Malaysians have come of age after 51 years of one-party predominance. We have woken up. We are sick of the Big Brother who talks in an “I-know-what’s-best-for-you” manner and reaps the best of the nation’s resources for himself.

The rejection of the Barisan Nasional’s (BN) authoritarian rule by the various ethnic communities has happened in gradual stages and is now coming to a resolution. In the late 1980s, the majority of Chinese Malaysians could not wait to vote out the BN; the majority of Malay and Indian Malaysians, however, stayed put. In the late 1990s, the majority of Malay Malaysians turned against the Umno-led BN but significant numbers of Chinese and Indian Malaysians came to its rescue.

In the last couple of years, Indian Malaysians have taken the lead in wanting an end to Umno-BN rule. This time, sufficient numbers of Malay and Chinese Malaysians shared this aspiration on 8 March. This resulted in BN winning only 49% of the popular vote in the peninsula.

Why is the BN still in power? Because East Malaysians have stayed put. So, if the Sabahans and Sarawakians arise and join the anti-BN league of Chinese, Malay and Indian Malaysians, we can expect a stronger opposition even if the BN is not successfully unseated.

ISA candlelight vigil
Protesters at 13 Sept 2008 anti-ISA candlelight vigil
(pic by Lainie Yeoh)
What about the resurgent Mahathirism accompanying the ascendance of Datuk Seri Najib Razak and his lieutenants? They may want to rebuild former Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s authoritarian system, but will the people take it lying down? They may want to resort to the Internal Security Act (ISA), but can we expect the people not to protest?

Now, if we believe that Malaysians have matured politically, they will not accept an outright assault on the project of democratisation.

Even the ISA has lost its legitimacy among the different communities. The circle of detainees has grown wider, from mainly Chinese Malaysians up to the 1987 Operasi Lalang, to Malay Malaysians after 1998′s Reformasi, and finally to Indian Malaysians after 2007′s Hindraf.

Even the police have had to reluctantly concede to citizens’ demands for peaceful assembly. After the police charged at citizens singing the national anthem on 9 Nov 2008 in Petaling Jaya, the Selangor police force had to allow, albeit in a roundabout manner, the weekly anti-ISA protests there. Nevertheless, the force also set some ridiculous restrictions which only ended up being broken.

Like it or not, the impending Najib government has to know this new political reality and be more sophisticated in playing its game.

Let’s take a worst-case scenario — the ruling clique decides to send half of the Pakatan Rakyat parliamentarians to Kamunting or declare emergency rule in Penang or Selangor. The ruling elite might then have to resort to martial law to crush widespread civil disobedience. In that case, the Malaysian prime minister would join the likes of Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe and Myanmar’s military junta.

And the moment a fresh election is called, it is unlikely that the reactionary forces can emerge victorious. When the vast majority of the nation wants change, no amount of rigging is enough to steal an election.

Crowd at Kelana Jaya Stadium on 16 Sept
Crowd of Pakatan Rakyat supporters at Kelana Jaya Stadium, 15 Sept 2008

In a nutshell, if Malaysians have indeed matured politically since 8 March, such maturity will be a good defence of democracy. The rakyat’s maturity will deter any anti-democratic force from taking a self-destructive path. In the face of inevitable defeat, the best response for the Umno elites is to negotiate an exit option to avoid political annihilation, rather than to incite a military coup or ethnic riots.

One flaw in the popular analysis among many opposition sympathisers is that the ruling elite are equivalent to a unitary actor with undifferentiated interests. This clearly contradicts the 16 Sept federal takeover scheme which operated on the assumption that the ruling elites are divisible. Interestingly, few opposition sympathisers seem to notice or be bothered with such a contradiction.

The direct implication of such an assured future of democratisation is that we can legitimately expect the opposition to perform, as would be expected in a normal democracy. But we need to be clear that democratisation might not necessarily consolidate a two-party system — the BN may collapse into a permanent opposition, as I have warned elsewhere.

Phrased differently, the opposition could force the BN under Najib to compete democratically. Democratic practices can be a weapon to develop democratisation, rather than merely a prize to be claimed after democratisation.

Malaysians just got lucky

The alternative view is that Malaysians have not attained sufficient political maturity to ensure democratisation.

Were Malaysians just lucky? (© Rodolfo Clix /

We merely got lucky like a gambler with a good hand in the casino; or an unemployed person who struck at the lottery; or a poor student who scored a distinction partly by chance after failing the same subject twice.

We were lucky because Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi was a weak ruler who inherited an authoritarian regime. This favourable condition will probably be gone by March 2009 when Najib succeeds Abdullah. We were lucky because there were enough protest votes for the opposition. This is another favourable condition that is unsustainable because protest votes are temporary and the Pakatan Rakyat cannot convert all these into support votes.

In a nutshell, Malaysians who have yet to mature politically do not deserve the democratising changes following 8 March. We are not strong enough to defend our budding democracy and not determined enough to want a regime change.

If things go back to business as usual, the Pakatan Rakyat’s victory will be rolled back by the next elections.

If you didn’t deserve to win a pseudo-democratic game, such as elections under the BN government, how would you keep your prize — a strong opposition with five state governments? How would you aim for the higher prize — federal government?

The obvious answer then is to find alternatives to the pseudo-democratic elections. Demanding for electoral reforms? That takes too much time and energy. More importantly, if Malaysians are not mature enough to choose multiethnic politics over ethno-religious bigotry, can the Pakatan Rakyat be sure that clean and fair elections are good for it as a coalition?

So, an egalitarian democracy will have to be imposed upon a largely bigoted population by some benevolent elite. 

The public cannot know details behind the
deals (© Bethany Carlson/

The alternatives for the Pakatan Rakyat would then have to be schemes to court BN warlords with ministerial positions and the royals with immunity.  Also, to maintain the credibility of a parliamentary coup, the opposition coalition for certain cannot afford to lose any Members of Parliament — no matter how they perform and behave — or any by-elections. Hence, there is much stress and anxiety for the poor opposition leaders and their supporters.

What about the deals made with the different politicians and royals? Sorry, the public cannot know the details. The public should just sit back and wait, and celebrate when changes happen. The public should demand transparency and accountability only after the regime changes, not during the process of change.

Are Malaysians worth democracy?

Now, didn’t Gandhi say, “Be the change you want to see in the world”?

Can you install democracy through undemocratic means, keeping the public in the dark? Something is wrong when opposition leaders and supporters are more confident in targeting BN warlords with threats of immediate leadership change, along the lines of 16 Sept, than in selling regime change by the next elections to the electorate. But what, exactly, has gone wrong?

This really goes back to the fundamental question, to borrow the cosmetic advertisement tagline again: Are we worth it? Are ordinary Malaysians worth real democracy?

It’s time to make up our minds. TNG

A political scientist by training and a journalism lecturer by trade, Wong Chin Huat uses the Federal Constitution as his “bible” to fend off the increasingly intolerable evil called “state”.

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