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BN reforms unconvincing thus far

DEPUTY Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak recently announced that companies seeking listing on Bursa Malaysia (Malaysian stock exchange) can offer the shares to the public should efforts to get the originally required 30% bumiputera equity participation fail. Subsequently, he stated that the race-based affirmative action policy would be gradually liberalised, but “at a pace Malaysia is comfortable with.”

Watching the stock market index (© Kiankhoon / Dreamstime)
This was considered, cautiously, a sign that race-based policies might eventually be eliminated. Some may even regard these as pointers in the direction of national reform and necessary upheaval.

Welcoming as these announcements are, there are indications of a lack of honest commitment to the critical reforms needed, either at party or government level.

The tedious exercise of reshaping and redefining one’s political party after a substantial electoral loss is usually a given. This holds true all the world over, including in the United States, where the Republicans now need to go back to the drawing board to analyse political realignments and why they failed to capture voters’ imaginations.

There is a multiplicity of reasons, but in essence, it is commonly the failure of a party to comprehend the issues people are concerned with, and consequently the inadequate championing of these issues.

Winograd and Hais write in their book Millennial Makeover: MySpace, YouTube & the Future of American Politics that those in the millennial generation, born between 1982 and 2003, have rapidly changing needs. For example, they would favour policies that involve “collective action and individual accountability” than the libertarian approaches favoured by their predecessors, the Gen-Xers. How a party co-opts these into its own philosophy will determine its future.

Party-level reform?

Similarly, in Malaysia, one would have expected this same self-examination to occur instantaneously. It is most pertinent to analyse shifts within Umno, because it forms the backbone of the Barisan Nasional (BN) and hence the powers of policymaking therein.

After the March 2008 general election, it took particularly long for the top Umno leadership to state explicitly the need for the party to reform itself. True, Datuk Zaid Ibrahim had made such calls, but he had always been considered a party maverick who was largely ostracised and who eventually resigned from his cabinet post.

(© Kamal Sellehuddin)
Former prime minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad had also called for reform, but his was just one of a string of torrential attacks against the current administration. Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah has made multiple such statements, as have younger members like Datuk Nur Jazlan Mohamed.

It was only seven months after the election, in October 2008, that Najib as Umno deputy president made such a pronouncement himself. Even so, this has merely been an acknowledgement of the need to change.

What this change constitutes is still shrouded in mystery. One wonders if there have been cohesive plans initiated to chart out the future direction of the party.

Government-level reform?

The need for government-level reform has been more readily acknowledged. Indeed, it is worth noting the announcements made recently in the attempt to shore up support for the BN government.

First are the economic measures as stated at the beginning of this article: the gradual liberalising of affirmative action policies, starting with relaxing the requirements for companies listing on the stock exchange.

Second, the announcement to reduce fuel prices to RM2.00 per litre for petrol, and RM1.90 for diesel. This is accompanied by a RM7 billion stimulus package, primarily for low-income groups, especially amid an impending financial crisis.

Third, although not under executive jurisdiction, the judge’s decision to release Raja Petra Kamarudin from being held under the Internal Security Act (ISA), which impressed positively upon the citizens.

However, although these are optimistic, they are not convincing enough of a serious commitment to change. There is a longer list of reasons to believe that the BN government has not quite understood the changing nature of today’s electorate. In order to revive its relevance to national politics, urgent paradigm shifts are needed.

Ahmad Ismail, of “pendatang” fame (Courtesy of Oriental Daily)
First, the manner in which race continues to be the political language within the BN. In a Merdeka Centre opinion poll conducted in September 2008, 58% of the Malays stated that (suspended Bukit Bendera Umno division chief Datuk) Ahmad Ismail’s statement about the Chinese being immigrants and not deserving of equal treatment in Malaysia was either “somewhat inappropriate” or “very inappropriate”. Research bias notwithstanding, six out of 10 Malays disapproved of Ahmad’s statement.

This is a positive indication that race-based policy may eventually prove irrelevant, since equal treatment should be deserved by all. A more detailed analysis of the younger generation’s ethos on the importance of race in their worldview would shed further light.

One imagines that the concept of citizenship should supersede race in the long run. Yet, racial discourse continues to dominate BN politics (they cannot help it since the parties are constructed that way). 

Second, the persistently arrogant and authoritarian attitudes taken by the powers that be. The continued use of the ISA against peaceful protestors is highly unnecessary, and contrary to any reformist mindset. There exist any number of ways in which government could express unhappiness at protests, but to use authorised force is shooting itself in the foot.

No lessons seem to be heeded from experience garnered from past gatherings — by the Bar Council, Hindraf (Hindu Rights Action Force), Bersih (Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections), among others. Rational negotiation with organisers to cordon off areas is a much-preferred option.

Hindraf candelight march on 27 Sept 2008

Third, the need for greater transparency. The government has announced its decision to declassify the highway concession agreements, and all concessionaires bar one company have agreed to make the deals public. Although this is positive, transparency must sweep across all government agencies. For example, there is a lack of transparency in its move to reduce pump prices, in making fully available its subsidy and petrol pricing scheme in detail.

Mechanisms for setting the prices of food commodities are also not published, which food producers are frustrated about. Methodologies at reaching corporate equity distribution calculations are not known. The lack of available data on the poor among Indian Malaysians makes it difficult for those who are suffering to statistically justify their cause for genuine distress.

In the final analysis, substantive reform proposals should have emerged from within the BN parties and government by now. Some policy announcements have been positive, but are, to date, not sufficiently convincing.

In order for the BN to survive the next election cycle, extensive national-level reforms within the judiciary and police, corruption, immigration, migrant workers, food production and racial and religious issues must be addressed with great wisdom and political will. Almost nine months after the elections, people are increasingly desperate for alternatives. Whether this comes in the form of a Pakatan Rakyat government is yet to be seen.

Tricia Yeoh is the director of the Centre for Public Policy Studies. She continues to hope for a better Malaysia, one in which revolutionary policy reform includes accepting all Malaysians as equal in dignity and worth.

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