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Game over for PR in Perak?

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.

1Malaysia’s success

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.

Good politicians

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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18 Responses to “Game over for PR in Perak?”

  1. fedupcitizen says:

    Are Malaysians that dumb?! A few jingles and publicity can change the perception of the people that easily? Have they forgotten 50+ years of rule by the BN government and the countless, and it appears endless, abuses?! Well, if this is true, Malaysians deserve what they get.

    God help us all.

  2. K S Ong says:

    It is distressing indeed, more so after having read your analysis of the situation.

    Power of the incumbent federal government seems able to override all obstacles, with almost all government agencies at their beck and call.

    To Najib, everyone has a price and can be bought. What he wants, he gets. So far, he seems willing to pander to the people, stealing the thunder from Pakatan. He would do almost anything to stay in power.

    Personally, I do not wish for a smooth operator, I would rather have people without the experience of corruption but who are sincere in giving their best to the country and people, in a transparent and accountable manner.

    I hope your article will help in rejuvenating the leadership in Pakatan to be prepared for a snap elections, especially in Perak.

    It looks like the two corrupt ex-PKR men would be convicted (that would please the people) and a fresh state elections be called (which will further please the people). Many people are surprised at the many public works being carried out in Perak recently…a prelude to elections?

  3. may foo says:

    I am not really convinced with the analysis given by Wong Chin Huat here. I’m from Ipoh and on the day of the rally, I happened to pass by the Ipoh Stadium where it was held and what surprised me was, many people from Ipoh like me weren’t really aware of what was happening till we passed by the place.

    Secondly, I saw lots and lots of buses ferrying people or rather “supporters” into the city from elsewhere. It was that obvious because the whole city especially the Ipoh Garden area was jammed with huge buses bearing signs that they were delegates from a certain place and the drivers looked disoriented because they were not familiar with the city routes.

    I guess, what came across was, the Ipoh folks were not bothered about what was going on in the stadium. All the hullabaloo came from the people who were ferried into the city and the whole occasion looked more like an Umno do than a 1Malaysia rally. This is from an eyewitness.

  4. zik says:

    Wong, are you speaking for yourself or for the million Perakians out there.. I dare you to go to Ipoh Jelapang or anywhere for that matter [...]

  5. Antares says:

    Seems to me Chin Huat is “hedging his bet” with this utterly dispiriting opinion piece heavily couched in middle-of-the-road terms of compromise, pragmatism and moral fatalism. There’s no denying that a lifelong career politician like Najib Razak has the breeding and grooming to outpolitick the comparatively inexperienced Pakatan Rakyat leaders (40 years of practice banging your head against a brick wall doesn’t necessarily prepare one to be a competent administrator, which is why Anwar Ibrahim remains our most outstanding alternative PM, with his 16-year experience as a handpicked future leader).

    But, by the same token, somebody with a quick mind and an open heart and an eloquent tongue (like Nizar Jamaluddin, Zaid Ibrahim, and several other promising Pakatan Rakyat leaders) who doesn’t have much experience in governance may also prove an interesting option – if only because they are unlikely to be inhibited by jaded notions of what’s possible and what’s not – and politics, people say, is “the art of the possible.”

    What I personally find IMPOSSIBLE is to overlook the long track record of corruption and complicity with wrongdoings that Najib brings to the nation’s highest office – and let’s not even begin to mention his inescapable culpability for the outrageously obvious cover-up of Altantuya’s unconscionable murder.

  6. kamal says:

    Well put. But we should also perhaps not underestimate the power of the print media. Also, the success of PM Najib needs to be seen in context from the late 1990s when I suspect Umno itself was facing much turmoil from within.

    Changes since former PM Mahathir stepped down, at least if I have read them correctly as reported in the mainstream media is that Umno has its house back in order. The party President is now back as the authoritative force. In a democratic system such as ours, the bulk of the political machinery can only be effective if it has control first over itself. A strong Umno will perhaps swing the majority votes in BN’s favour again. I suspect while the people showed in the 2008 elections that public opinion matters, many analysts perhaps mis-read what the public deemed as interests in their favour.

    The opposition coalition was too quick to lay claims to the victory and some Umno pundits were equally quick to allude that the Malay [Malaysian] swing was a result of former PM Badawi’s unpopularity. The point here is that political analysis was quick to favour one or the other. However in my opinion, it was clear that given certain conditions, we do have a functioning democracy. And perhaps the conditions include breaking the monopoly.

    Two questions for serious political scientists studying political trends in Malaysia are perhaps, 1). What do the people want? and 2). Do we need to introduce laws or perhaps increase democratic participation by bringing elections directly to local level office (e.g. through municipal level elections) to break any monopoly over the democratic processes in order to improve fair representation?

    I think perhaps the question isn’t over what is right for the public (this is a little too condescending), rather how can the democratic process be made to tease out the finer nuances of diverse public sentiments and interests? Also, we need to engage in the debate of public interests. The BN notion of course is rather a version of crude populism that the majority’s interest is public interest. These have to be refined. And it shouldn’t be only politicians that debate this, but also academicians, public servants, and interest groups. In short, we need a more vibrant civil space to broaden and mature public or popular notions of public interest. And of course Mr Wong Chin Huat should be applauded for his contribution in engaging with public interests and encouraging the growth of a vibrant civil society. But more people need to do this.

    Finally, while so much needs to be done to improve democratic practices in Malaysia, a healthy step forward is to realize politics is about the nuances and to recognize that it is full of surprises for the enterprising candidate. So yes, we may agree that Perak’s conversion to BN was done in bad taste (and perhaps a bit more) but the point for PR to learn is that legitimacy can be fleeting and public opinion a fickle mistress.

    But not to despair, if BN with its fifty odd years of entrenched history both in the psychology of the people and in the resources available to it could have lost that many seats in the 2008 elections and continued to lose most of the subsequent by-elections, given the right conditions, PR has a fighting chance. Now the question is psychological; do PR leaders want to view “right conditions” as a given right, that the playing field should be leveled? In which case the immediate question is who will do the leveling? Or will PR step up and take the initiative to create the level playing field?

    Personally, I feel that a lot has been done, for example for PAS – the move from being a largely northern peninsula Malaysia, Malay/Islamic party to a national level actor reflects the maturity and willingness of the party leadership to adapt to change. Similarly with DAP. And PKR has shown it is a viable platform to open conversation between the opposition parties to form a coalition.

    The challenge however, that I feel for any non-BN coalition party is how to come up with a coalition party that does not mimic BN. The whole point of the critique against BN is centered on its ethnic polarity (ie. MCA, MIC, Umno, etc.). 1Malaysia is a powerful rhetorical device for BN in that it appears to want to address the dilemma of an ethnic-centric coalition party in an increasingly complex society where ethnicity is not the only identity but one of many that shapes a person (plus a person may have more than one ethnic affiliation). 1Malaysia for BN hence is an honest slogan for a race-based coalition attempting to meet changing times. Whether it moves beyond the rhetoric is less material because it admits race is at the core of its political advocacy. Even if the foundation for it was set over fifty years ago.

    PR on the other hand, needs to address itself – what is the [coalition]‘s core advocacy? Is PR a coalition of ethnic-centric parties or are they issues oriented? Perhaps in the short space of the coalition’s history they have fallen short of addressing this central problem. And in my opinion this is an important point to address. Without a clear sense of where they come from it will be hard for anyone to discern their future.

    And as Wong mentioned it isn’t about the truth or saying it plainly, rather it is about selling an idea. The strength in Obama if I dare offer an opinion is that his message was of hope. If you follow the latest Umno general assembly, Khairy’s speech does the same. In fact the strength of 1Malaysia is that it offers hope for change. Hence, if PR is a race-centric coalition like BN, what does it offer that is different? Offering the truth and righteousness is well and fine but requires much more demonstration than hope.

    But I suspect the antidote to rhetoric is introducing tangible changes even if it is in small doses. And among the changes that I have been hoping to see are local council elections in PR governed states and opening civil space in debating public interests. Hence the latest comment by a PR leader proposing the ban on beer and condoms in convenience store is not promising but worse, is that it has not opened up debate on the nature of public interests, respecting minority rights and public health issues. The comments by his colleagues did not seem to reflect the openness and maturity I had hoped to see. Rather if what is reported is to be believed, they seem to treat this as an internal party matter. There is so much to be discussed and brought to the public forum from this recent statement that can go a long way in shaping public discourse on public interests.

  7. chinhuatw says:

    @may foo and zik, I would be happy to be proven over-worried. I did not go to the “show” myself but conversations with certain community leaders during my latest visit to Perak suggests the anti-coup mood is somewhat fading.

    @Antares, I am not suggesting PR should give up fighting. Quite the contrary, I think they should fight more as a government in exile/shadow government coming up with alternative policies and programmes. Overall, my worry lies in our largely conservative electorate. I wish there were more people like you. As I see it, the only way to beat Najib’s campaign is to hit right at the heart of authoritarianism – you can bet that I will never change my opposition against authoritarianism.

  8. kahseng says:

    Antares,

    Your idealistic and principled view may be a gap from the majority’s practical comfort.

    The majority have to show that they care about constitution, laws, proper procedure, or all is gradually lost. This attitude can lead to the day when the incumbent government can call on the army (if the Opposition wins an election) to stage a coup, or to use really dirty election and legislative maneuvres (as in Perak, MACC, etc, but on a national scale) without punishment. That I think is what Wong Chin Huat’s reasoning would lead to but which he chose not to make explicit this time around, because the dirty possibilities are too vast to ponder.

    A “practical”, conservative, unprincipled, and apathetic majority will gradually do irreparable damage to the constitution of a democracy.

    Our neighbour Thailand is a direct example. When the bad and corrupted government was overthrown by the military, the middle-class cheered the army on, ignoring the dire precedent set. The democratic party did not condemn the army.

    This lack of staunch principle on constitution and law (by the middle class and the leading reformist party) has laid the ground for political and civil chaos come the day when Thaksin decides to push back hard and when the Thai King becomes physically too frail. Thailand is a time bomb and a tragedy of a major scale waiting to happen in the next couple of years. I hope I’m wrong.

  9. Sean says:

    I think Pakatan Rakyat ought to go FTW or get off the pot. Malaysians voted against BN at the last election, not for PR. The fantastic experience of being part of a popular movement supporting change that was *larger* than those voting for BN has been refreshing. It makes it look as though there could be a government of Malaysia that isn’t BN.

    I think dissolving the state government in Perak might not actually return PR to power. As senior Umno figures were quick to point out post-coup, Perak gets more funding with a BN state government. A narrow victory for PR would just be an invitation for BN to start its imperial machinations again.

    I think it’s not just Perak – PR have to win a general election by a massive margin if they are to succeed at all. To do that, they have to look beyond Islamic States, market-stuffing tax-breaks for urbanites and celebrity politicians and offer something that every Malaysian wants. My suggestion (as ever) is money. Pay a criterion-free cost of living allowance to all adult Malaysians! It’s the only way you’ll ever get that big win. If we have to watch PR failing to wrest power from BN for another few years, it’s game over for all of us.

  10. ccying says:

    Sorry Mr Wong, maybe you are not from Perak. You can’t feel the feeling of all the Perak people.The fire is still burning in our heart. We are still waiting like PR for the chance to punish all the robbers!

  11. Awareness says:

    I like some of you here, your personal opinion is everything. I have been to Ipoh and asked around. Most do not care about the whole political nonsense that BN created. They only want to earn a living. Face that fact … The people are sick of the instability and will want to see stability no matter even if BN can give it when it’s actually done a mess of a job in Perak. That is reality.

    The other millions in Perak cannot afford to blog and surf so perhaps, Wong is right. Also, many are sick of PR, from up North to South and to East Malaysia. PR rallies and gatherings are losing numbers and it’s obvious. PR leaders are oblivious to this. I hope PR can change its ways and work hard again for the rakyat. But I doubt it as DSAI is still hell bent on his road to Putrajaya only. His speech at the Kg Baru Deepavali/Raya gathering shows the same old DSAI … I want to be PM. Yeah … only two thousand were listening to him, unlike a year back when he could muster 12K people … why the waning?

  12. cckkpr says:

    Were you there on the day the campaign was launched? Your 50,000 crowd apparently comes from the expectation as written on the newspapers prior to the launch.

    Even if you were not there, a look at the TV would have indicated that there were still many empty spaces at the stadium. A capacity crowd watching a football match would not have fetched more than 25,000 crowd. I stayed next to the stadium and I confirm that the area was jampacked with buses from other areas coming in, and all these are actually paid to attend. I can’t understand why you suddenly turn so positive for BN within a short span of time.

    Would you be changing your stand again after what happened yesterday on the NFA issue on the Lingam case and the testimony of the Thai pathologist at the TBH inquiry? [...]

  13. wong kah woh (Canning) says:

    Chin Huat,

    My constituency, right from Canning Garden, Ipoh Garden, Kg Simee was flooded with buses that night. The buses came from everywhere, with the Plate Nos. B, W, N, K etc. A supporter (coffee shop owner) called me up and said that one of the bus drivers told him the cost of hiring the bus from NS was RM1,750.00 and each of them get their pocket money.

    Two weeks before the launching, one Form Five student texted me, which [goes like this]: my teacher asked us whether we want to go to Stadium when Najib comes, we can get co-corriculum marks, plus a small makan and plus RM10.

    I won’t jump to the conclusion here whether PR had done a good job after the Perak crisis or we have failed to act as a government in exile, but I can’t be convinced if these are the ways used to mobilise people and created the scene: “Yes, we have your support!”

  14. anti-najib says:

    For non-registered voter like me, it is immaterial who is in power, as long as they deliver. We all know now who can deliver, and who is just politicking.

  15. racist says:

    @chin huat.

    You finally did give Najib his due credit. Not even me or you yourself – a political scientist by traning – can pull this one off.

  16. racist says:

    1BLACKMalaysia’s failure is 1Malaysia’s success.

    Why can’t we make 1BLACKMalaysia a success? Perhaps if we were an MP like Najib, actually going to the ground to serve the people, we would have made [it] a success. Rather than making up political theories in lecture halls. What a shame.

  17. Fikri Roslan says:

    Dear Chin Huat,

    As I [have] commented in many of your articles, do not underestimate the capability of Malay [Malaysians], Umno and BN to come back strongly. They did before and will do it again. Najib is far stronger than Pak Lah, and he will repeat what his father did in 1974.

    You will see a lot more new progress for BN next year. BN will generate a new confidence and your promoted slogan of 1BlackMalaysia will soon be replaced with a successful and more colourful 1Malaysia faster than what you can imagine. It seems that the analysis by a college boy like me is more [telling] than his master. Sorry I am kidding. Thanks for your wonderful analysis.

  18. chinhuatw says:

    @Kamal, I do think local elections – and decentralisation – is the way forward to check authoritarianism and defuse ethnic conflict. Plan to write more on that decentralisation agenda.

    @racist, sorry to disappoint you again. If I call someone a smooth criminal, smoothness is never meant to be compliment. Authoritarianism in my dictionary is a political crime.

    @fikri, I am indeed worried if Najib is able to repeat what his father did in 1974. Razak rescued and strengthened Umno’s electoral one-party state by co-opting the opposition parties and convincing a conservative population of the perils of democratic politics. Democratization of Malaysia cannot happen without a critical evaluation of Razak’s depoliticization, which Najib tries to copy in some ways.


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