THE Egypt protests have dominated prime-time news for over two weeks now. After 30 years in power and initially refusing to accede to protestors‘ demands for him to leave, President Hosni Mubarak resigned on 11 Feb 2011 after 18 days of nationwide demonstrations. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak warned Malaysians that demonstrations would not be allowed to bring down the government, as has happened in other countries. He also said that since Malaysians have the freedom to choose the government of their choice, there is no need to usurp power.
How close, or how far, is Malaysia from becoming Egypt? The Nut Graph asks political scientist Wong Chin Huat to comment on what implications, if any, the Egypt uprising has on the Malaysian public.
TNG: Najib has warned Malaysians against attempting to bring down the government through demonstrations. Would Malaysians be tempted to usurp power through protests instead of going through the ballot box? Why or why not?
Malaysia is fundamentally different from Egypt or Tunisia, where the benefactors of the regime are limited. Wealth in those countries have been monopolised by a small segment of political-military elites, while a huge number of university graduates are left in unemployment.
What held the Egyptians and Tunisians from open revolt until lately was extreme coercion and repression, which lost its threatening power after unemployed Tunisian graduate Mohammed Bouazizi burnt himself to death. The poor man protested against poverty in desperation after the police confiscated his cart used for selling vegetables and fruits.
However, two things may make Malaysia more similar to these countries. First, unchecked price hikes. Second, rigged elections. If a price hike causes electoral revolt, but voters find that their choice is frustrated, tens of thousands could be drawn to the street and Malaysia could potentially become Jordan or Yemen, if not Tunisia and Egypt.
Senator Ezam Mohd Noor, meanwhile, said it was absurd to compare Malaysia to Egypt, implying that our socioeconomic development is much higher than Egypt’s. Is this accurate? Are there other factors that would make comparisons not as far-fetched?
More important than socioeconomic development is perhaps political climate and timing. The man to thank for Malaysia not being like Egypt now is not Najib, but his predecessor Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, who loosened the one-party state’s political control in 2003-2004 and later unwittingly ushered in the political tsunami in 2008. Both incidents democratised the Malaysian state and rebuilt its legitimacy to some extent.
Imagine if Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad were still in power and former Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim in jail. It would be easier then for the Arab wave of “Reformasi” to hit Malaysian soil, resulting in Mahathir becoming Malaysia’s Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali or Mubarak.
It is also fortunate for Najib that the North African democratisation did not happen in February or May 2009 at the height of the Perak constitutional crisis. Otherwise, Najib, too, could have been Malaysia’s Ben Ali.
A part of Malaysia that potentially comes close to Egypt now is Sarawak, where Chief Minister Tan Sri Abdul Taib Mahmud has also been in power for almost 30 years. If a Hindraf-like demonstration were to take place in Sarawak, it could snowball into forcing Taib’s retirement. However, this is unlikely compared to Egypt, as those most economically marginalised in Sarawak are the rural natives who are not well-organised.
There were difficult negotiations in Egypt on power transition after 30 years of Hosni Mubarak in power. If the Barisan Nasional (BN) were to lose the federal government someday, what would an ideal transition of power look like?
An ideal transition would first have to be through ballot boxes, and with a landslide. Looking at what both Anwar and Najib were capable of, on 16 Sept 2008 and in Perak respectively, you can’t trust Malaysian politicians with a bare majority, let alone a hung parliament. They will be tempted to buy over elected representatives and court the unelected institutions – from the palace, bureaucracy, police, judiciary, Election Commission, Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission, right up to the military.
These unelected institutions would be persuaded to become kingmakers, and we may end up in coups and counter-coups. So, come the next elections, Malaysians should forget about a two-party Parliament, but should ask themselves: If a two-third or near two-third landslide is inevitable, which one can’t I trust more – the BN or Pakatan Rakyat (PR)?
In the event of a fragile majority, we may need to have a national coalition government that includes all the major political forces to avoid political instability and possibly military coups. But a national unity government that absorbs opposition parties, like what eventually evolved into the BN in 1974, is inherently bad because if it deprives the nation of checks and balances.
Similarly, if the PR is elected but it absorbs defected parliamentarians from the BN, like what Anwar and his PKR colleagues attempted to do in Sept 2008, such transition is bad because many corrupt elements from the old regime would stay in power with just a change of party label. So, in the end, you wouldn’t have a clean government even from the start.
Hence, an ideal transition plan must also have a broad-based consensus on future multiparty democracy with adequate protection of losers as its first element. Why protect losers? When losers are free from witch hunts or marginalisation, and are well-placed to challenge the winners in the next elections, then only will they be committed to democracy and not resort to coups or defections.
But this is, of course, not happening yet. The BN is feeling confident and wants to bury alive the two-party competition we have now. Hence, multiparty political dialogues in Egypt now and those that happened in Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia in 1989 are not on any of our parties’ political agendas. If transition were to happen in the 13th or 14th general elections, we can only hope that the verdict is a clear landslide to eliminate any element of uncertainty which may induce unconstitutional power grabbing.
Malaysians are often reminded by BN leaders not to gamble with the future by voting in an untested opposition into power. Is it, however, also potentially destabilising to have one party in power for too long? Countries such as Singapore seem to have been relatively peaceful till now. Where does Malaysia stand?
The opposition are like spare tyres. When you don’t have working spare tyres, of course your car cannot afford to have any punctures.
One reason why Egypt has been stuck in a stalemate is because there isn’t a viable alternative for the Egyptian state, economy and society, as well as their backer, the United States and the west. The choices have always been framed by Mubarak as himself or the Muslim Brotherhood. Why aren’t there moderate alternatives? Because Mubarak systematically eliminated them in his 30-year rule.
Similar stories happen with other Western-backed Arab despots. They present themselves to the West as the only moderate and rational voice for their country by suppressing moderate opposition and pushing opposition to the religious radical fringe. This is not unlike how Umno tries to demonise PAS and other Malay opposition parties in Malaysia.
However, without an effective and electable opposition, the incumbent will inevitably be corrupted by their absolute power, resulting in corruption, incompetence and economic marginalisation of the poor.
Even China is watching carefully what happens in the Middle East now because Tahrir Square in 2011 surely reminds them of Tiananmen Square in 1989. If Egypt has a successful transition, China may be pressured to consider some carefully managed political reforms.
Singapore is stable because of two factors: (a) there are still regular albeit controlled elections; and (b) Malaysia always serves as the imagined enemy that keeps the regime very disciplined.
Coming back to Malaysia, if the voters do not keep the opposition as working spare tyres, then any puncture may lead to a breakdown or even fatal accident. Hence, while the threat of an Egyptian regime break-down may not happen now, it may well happen after the next elections if there is no room for opposition parties, whether the PR or BN, to survive.
Wong Chin Huat is a political scientist by training and a journalism lecturer by trade. If readers have questions and issues they would like Wong to respond to, they are welcome to e-mail [email protected] for our consideration.