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A referendum on our future

THE Bukit Gantang by-election has one overriding meaning.

The by-election for this parliamentary seat in Perak is not about local development, as the Barisan Nasional (BN) would describe it. Neither will the election results determine Datuk Seri Najib Razak’s job as prime minister, as some opposition supporters would hope for.

Voters in Bukit Gantang will actually be voting for something much larger: they will decide whether Malaysia should follow in the footsteps of Thailand, the Philippines, Pakistan and Bangladesh. The decision of Bukit Gantang voters will be a referendum on a Malaysia free of coups — or a Malaysia with recurring coups.

Police in Bukit Gantang on nomination day (29 March), guarding the border between rival party supporters

Most detrimental

The most detrimental thing about the Perak coup was not the defection of three Pakatan Rakyat lawmakers. Neither was it the installment of a government whose avowed mission is the defence of ketuanan Melayu.

After all, lawmakers must be allowed to revolt against their own party in parliamentary democracies so long as voters are also allowed to reward or penalise their revolt. Similarly, while ultra-nationalist regimes are bad for society, the electorate has every right to choose an undesirable outcome in a democracy.

The real crime in Perak is this: the party that lost in the 2008 general election, i.e. the Barisan Nasional (BN), refused to accept its defeat. Instead, it struck back with unelected agents to seize and hold on to power.

Denying Perak citizens the choice of deciding who should represent them, the BN staged a coup d’état, a treason against democracy.

What’s the problem?

Regardless of whether a coup involves the use of military power or the ideology it represents, a coup is wrong because it denies citizens the right to choose their government.

Under a coup, you still have to pay taxes. But you no longer are able to determine whose paycheck you sign. The people are no longer sovereign. Instead, they become like victims of a mafia who must pay “protection fees” but have no right to decide who should run the mafia.

A coup is bad because it breeds future coups and anti-coups. Instead of working hard to please the electorate in the hope of winning elections, political elites work hard to please some unelected forces to support or topple the existing regime.

When might is right, political competition is reduced to gangster warfare. The “mafia boss” will buy over, blackmail or threaten his or her opponents or incarcerate or eliminate those he or she cannot subdue.

Soldiers in Thailand after the coup d’état of 2006
(Pic by Roger JG; source: Wikipedia)
Hence, it is unlikely for any country to have only one coup or a final coup. In this sense, stability may be provided by some shrewd Machiavellian mafia boss, but every transition of power spells possible disaster. And all means — from assassination to black magic — may be tried to expedite a transition.

Since her first taste of a coup in 1932, Thailand has had 18 coups — excluding the failed attempts — and 17 constitutions in 77 years. Thailand has one coup in every 4 years and 3 months, about the same frequency as Malaysia’s general elections.

In the Philippines, President Ferdinand Marcos effectively staged a coup against democracy in 1972 by declaring martial law which allowed him to rule without an elected mandate for the next twenty years. The result? Since 1986, the island republic has experienced eight major attempts or sets of attempts to change governments through “people power”, rebellion, coup or mutiny. This is excluding the number of attempted or alleged coups because they would simply be too many to include.

Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos with then US president Lyndon B Johnson,1966 (Public domain)

Preventing coups

The only way to prevent coups is for political elites to accept that “democracy is the only game in town” and for the citizens to mercilessly terminate the political life of those who don’t play by the rules of the game.

In 1985, Datuk Seri Joseph Pairin Kitingan’s Parti Bersatu Sabah (PBS) won 25 seats out of 48 contested seats in the Sabah legislative assembly. The slim majority of two seats tempted the sore loser in Tun Mustapha Harun of the United Sabah National Organisation (Usno, which was absorbed into Umno in 1991) and the ousted Chief Minister Datuk Seri Harris Salleh of Berjaya to stage a constitutional coup.

Since the Sabah constitution allowed the state government to appoint six more legislators, Mustapha and Harris claimed that with these appointments, their parties’ seats would increase from 23 to 29, hence constituting a majority in a full 54-seat assembly.

They went to Governor Tun Mohamed Adnan’s official residence in the early hours of 22 April and got Adnan to swear Mustapha in as chief minister. However, due to public outrage and then acting Prime Minister Tun Musa Hitam’s respect for democracy, Adnan revoked Mustapha’s appointment, and swore in Pairin as chief minister later in the same morning.

The disgruntled forces in Sabah continued their attempts to topple democracy by orchestrating defections of PBS lawmakers. Sabah politics stabilised only a year later when a fresh poll was called and the electorate slashed the seats of the coup-plotting parties to less than a third.

Clear and present danger

The key to democracy is the loser’s willingness to concede defeat.

Koh Tsu Koon (Pic courtesy of theSun)
In this sense, outgoing Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi and former Penang Chief Minister Tan Sri Dr Koh Tsu Koon will be remembered as democrats for gracefully accepting the electorate’s verdict on 8 March 2008. They did not attempt riots or a palace coup to retain or regain power.

We may soon face another moment of truth as we did on 8 March. By fanning Malay ultra-nationalism, Umno may be able to recover some lost ground in the Malay heartland, but it is also fast destroying whatever remaining goodwill Umno and the BN enjoy among non-Malay and liberal Malay Malaysian voters.

If, come the next elections, Umno and the BN won more Malay Malaysian support in the peninsula but lost non-Malay Malaysian support, it could lead to the following scenario: more super-majority Malay seats, but a reduction in mixed seats and a complete wipe-out in majority non-Malay Malaysian seats.

If this led to the Pakatan Rakyat winning by a slim majority, would Umno then be willing to concede defeat? Or would it insist on dominating the government because it enjoys the bare majority of peninsular Malay Malaysian support?

Would Umno be willing to hand over power peacefully? Or would it take whatever means necessary to maintain its dominance as is apparent in their taking over of Perak?

The Bukit Gantang by-election is therefore a choice between democracy or more coups. An Umno victory or a narrow miss in Bukit Gantang would be seen as giving Umno licence to stage more coups in future. In effect, this would present Malaysians with the experience of living in the new Thailand or Philippines.

A political scientist by training and a journalism lecturer by trade, Wong Chin Huat is based in Monash University Sunway Campus. He believes one can have no neutrality on the issue of coups, in the same way that it would be hard to be neutral about genocide and war crimes.

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8 Responses to “A referendum on our future”

  1. tengku mohd faizal says:

    Result of genocide and war crimes at its worst is the killing of human lives and extermination of the mass population, while result of a coup involves a single person or a small group of leaders, usually perceived as “useless” leaders.

    And comparing an apple with an orange will not get us anywhere. We might as well focus on the development of human capital rather than promote mass street protests.

    Since the writer lectures in journalism, maybe it’s time for the writer to focus on human capital development.

    And also please start comparing apple to apple and NOT apple to orange.

    Please do not sway the “easily swayed” Malaysian public.

  2. Danny Lo says:

    A good insight. The constitutional crisis in Perak is a case book example of a coup against democracy committed by unelected institutions, especially the police, and the secretary of the assembly. If this is allowed, it does set a precedent for future unscrupulous coups in the whole of Malaysia.

    Look at the outcome of the Umno elections, and the appearance of sour grapes in its ranks. The danger that Umno will resort to all means necessary to hang on to power even if it lost a general election is real.

  3. Eric says:

    @tengku, you may want to make meaningful and fact-supported comments.

    “Since the writer lectures in journalism, maybe it’s time for the writer to focus on human capital development.”

    Relationship between journalism and human capital development being? Or are you trying to illustrate your apple to orange point on yourself?

    “Please do not sway the “easily swayed” Malaysian public.”

    Mind explaining who is swaying whom by launching a coup against an elected state government and failing to appear before either voters or state assembly for weeks?

  4. Kenny says:

    Wong Chin Huat is wrong to say that by fanning ultra-nationalist sentiments, Umno will gain more Malay [Malaysian] support.

    The past two by-elections in Kuala Terengganu and Permatang Pauh has shown that this path does not gain more Malay [Malaysian] support but loses more non-Malay [Malaysian] support.

    The reason is that as Malay [Malaysians] become more educated, enlightened and politically matured they disdain ultra-nationalism as distasteful and damaging to the country. It is also seen as a self-serving means for Umno to maintain power rather than to benefit the Malay [Malaysians].

    Umno may take the ultra-nationalist path, but it has become a negative sum game and will be the extinction of Umno.

    Have some faith in the Malay [Malaysians]. Most of them have become too sophisticated and matured to be led by invoking base sentiments.

  5. tengku mohd faizal says:


    Yeah, i meant to MOVE from apple (journalism) to orange (human capital development in journalism). I’m NOT comparing apple to orange. I mean, nurture more good and balanced-view journalists.

    Answer to your 2nd question, that’s not swaying, that’s power grabbing.

    What I meant by swaying here is that don’t just give one-sided view, give balance view of both good and bad.

  6. chinhuatw says:

    Dear Tengku Mohd Faizal,

    Thanks for your concern about journalism.

    Where I teach journalism, I do teach my students about the proper role of journalism in a democracy, that is to be the watchdog and not the lap dog of the government (whichever party is ruling). I hold dear the mission of media as the fourth estate. Insofar as journalism is concerned, I believe I have done my part in human capital development by cultivating conscious, critical, and courageous journalists.

    Having said that, it is perhaps necessary to remind you that I write as a columnist here in my personal capacity. I make clear that my training is in political science and I am writing to share my thoughts in politics.

    While you are entitled to ask everyone to focus on job and human resource development, we are entitled to our priority.

    While it may appear to you that media freedom or liberty or democracy has no economic value (I sincerely hope this is not the outcome of the Chinese education you claimed to have received in another comment), I am glad to recommend you to read the following article by Nobel Prize Economics Laureate Prof Amartya Sen which explains why “no substantial famine has ever occurred in any country with a relatively free press”.

    Getting back to your first point: is a comparison of genocide and war crimes to coups inappropriate? I believe the comparability of these depends on one’s judgment on the risk and values. I have explained clearly why coups are both wrong and bad.

    I don’t think it is necessary for me to show evidence how many lives have been lost in coups and mutinies in countries like Thailand, Cambodia or lately Bangladesh.

    Of course, you are always entitled to claim that apple and orange are completely different entities while others can see clearly that they are all fruits and may be subject to the same set of rules, say under a FTA (Free Trade Agreement).

    Chin Huat

  7. Hwa Shi-Hsia says:

    The argument in this essay that political coups are in effect, similar to violent coups, is why I think Anwar Ibrahim should NOT be the figurehead for Pakatan Rakyat. He’s from Umno and having spent a few years in jail didn’t turn him into an angel. As illustrated by his bluster last year about taking over the government by party-hopping, he still has a “end justifies the means” mindset characteristic of corrupt politicians.

    And it’s appalling how many Pakatan supporters are Anwar fan boys who last year on the blogs and forums were coming down hard on anybody who dared to criticise this party-hopping – a.k.a. coup – plan. I think most Malaysians don’t really understand the purpose of democracy.

  8. Karcy says:

    I suspect that full, two-party democracy cannot happen in Malaysia because Malaysia is a socialist economy. Suppose if a member of the opposition is voted into a position of power. How much power will she actually have? Almost nothing. This is why the state governments run by Pakatan Rakyat haven’t been able to do much.

    In Selangor, the biggest argument now is the ownership of water services. Water companies like PUAS have ties with the federal government. The federal government is BN/Umno. Consider again, how many companies and organisations that are seemingly autonomous are actually government-linked: universities, banks, media companies.

    A party that replaces the ruling party at the federal level will need to be able to control all of these linked companies and organisations in order to be actually effective. The only way to achieve that is by a complete overthrow of the older government within these organisations and companies. While BN-Umno is losing popularity among the people, it still has a solid grip on all of its other mechanisms, including its influence on the monarchy (again, because — if i remember correctly — members of the monarchy are involved in businesses that are related to the federal government).

    So unless something major happens to the economic system, the only two-party system we’re getting is a dominant political party controlling everything and another opposing party elected to parliament which essentially just shouts back. Needless to say, this isn’t something that will make politicians very happy, and both parties are in danger of breaking or bending the rules in order to achieve an end, one to maintain its grip, and the other to extend it.

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