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US-Malaysia political parallels

(© Transplanted Mountaineer, source:
BARACK Obama’s presidential victory has been celebrated around the world, from Kenya, to Indonesia, to Japan. Democrats in the United States are obviously elated, and are hopeful for a new future. Indeed, this has been one of the most historic and highly anticipated elections in the US.

Multiple parallels can be drawn between Malaysia and the US as both continue to go through incredible political upheavals in 2008. Having been in the US for the past week observing the presidential elections under the International Visitors Observe the Elections (I-VOTE) programme, a number of comparisons spring to mind.

Historic elections in 2008

Both countries have gone through one of their most momentous elections in recent history. Malaysia’s March 2008 general election is already considered a watershed event. The ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition lost two-thirds of its parliamentary majority and an unprecedented five state governments to the Pakatan Rakyat opposition alliance.

An African American won the US presidential election for the first time just last week. It was also the first time a woman ran for the vice-presidency, and the first time since 1952 that none of the incumbent presidents or vice-presidents made a bid for the next presidential cycle, signalling strongly that change was inevitable.

The outcomes of both the Malaysian and US elections mark significant strides in democracy, but only if steered in the right direction.

Lame ducks

Conversations with US locals about current President George W Bush elicit common responses: “Where is the president these days?” Bush’s popularity ratings soared close to 90% just after the 11 Sept attacks in 2001, but have since dropped to the lowest ever, 25%, as of 26 Oct 2008.

Bush and vice-president Dick Cheney in 2006 (Public domain)
Even in the staunchly Republican state of Oklahoma, Bush’s popularity hovers at approximately 35%. In the months leading up to the presidential race, Bush had achieved little worthy of reporting. This could be primarily because the campaigns overshadowed his leadership, or lack thereof, but also equally importantly because of his inability to work constructively with the current Democrat-majority Congress. Obama will be sworn in as president in January 2009, hence Bush is president only in name until then.

The same can be said of Malaysia’s prime minister. Although he enjoyed massive support when he took over the reigns in 2003, Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi’s announcement of his 2010 transition plan was met with derision. Party members pressured him to expedite the process, and voila, he is now stepping down in March 2009 — exactly a year after the BN’s dismal electoral showing.

Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Abdul Razak recently won the Umno presidential election by default and will likely lead the country come March 2009. Like Bush, Abdullah is at his weakest position and can be considered a prime minister in name only. Although he has vowed to push through reforms in his remaining months, it is highly doubtful that he will accomplish in four months what he was incapable of delivering in four years.

Status quo vs change

“It’s time for a change,” Barack Obama’s campaign posters screamed, challenging the status quo of Washington’s policies: economic, social, and foreign. Beyond the need for policy change, Obama called for an entire paradigm shift. It is his ability to adopt an alternative worldview — one that is inclusive of a wide variety of community groups — that augurs well for American social cohesion as well as foreign diplomacy.

(© Aloysius Patrimonio/Dreamstime)
Obama has wide appeal. He has a Kenyan-born father. He was brought up in Jakarta, Indonesia, and grew up in Hawaii with his white grandparents. He attended the prestigious Harvard University. He is young enough to appeal to young Americans. Although moral and social ideology might not change immediately, it seems that US voters are shifting from the right back to the centre.

Likewise, the economic policies that opposition leader Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim is proposing run completely counter to the status-quo ethos of the dominant Malay mindset. To replace affirmative action on the basis of ethnicity to one of need is considered revolutionary.

Former Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Datuk Zaid Ibrahim was recently accused by Umno supreme council member Datuk Seri Shahidan Kassim of not being a true Malay since he questioned the concept of ketuanan Melayu.

People are optimistic that Obama’s victory means America is changing for the better. However, such change may take more time to materialise in Malaysia.

Right-wing conservatives

Despite the strong belief in the separation of church and state, the US has witnessed the rise of the extreme conservative right of the Republican Party in the past decade. Religion is invoked in defence of the party’s political stands and candidates. God is brought into political rallies, to the extent that even slight dissent is considered unrighteous and unpatriotic.

This is unfortunate since religious freedoms were foundational to the formation of the US. Nevertheless, Republican candidate Senator John McCain’s losses, especially in traditionally conservative states — Colorado, Iowa, Florida, and others — have signalled that the country may be more willing to challenge “one-view-fits-all” Christianity. It seems as though Americans are recognising the diversity of religion and its practices.

McCain (© Ttoes, source:
This sounds unwittingly familiar, except that in Malaysia the superiority complex finds its roots in the supremacy of race first, and religion second, although the two often intertwine. But differences of opinion about public policies and politics are often categorised as “unpatriotic” and worse, “a threat to national security”.

The Republicans and Umno seem to be very similar in their refusal to consider alternative interpretations of religion and ethnicity.

Participatory democracy

Despite these parallels, one of the most significant differences is how participatory democracy is practised in the US. Genuine federalism is evident, where elections are not merely held for the top office at the national level but also at state and local levels. Residents vote for specific local initiatives to amend the state constitution, members of the school board, and retention of state judges. There is an overwhelming concept of the “people’s rule”, a bottom-up approach of ensuring democracy is alive and well.

Several familiar sayings capture this argument perfectly: “Freedom is not free”, and “Democracy is not a spectator sport”. The Obama campaign fuelled even greater motivation that each individual citizen could make a difference. In fact, thousands of voters contributed small sums of between US$20 and $50 each from their personal pockets. The very act of donation mobilised support and the conviction that each person was an inherent part of the cause.

Many Malaysians desire the same sort of change. The same obstacles faced by those driving “change” in the US also encumber those in Malaysia. Ridding a political system of corruption, cronyism, and patronage is just the tip of the iceberg. The more difficult task is to overcome barriers of prejudice, superiority complexes, racism, and exclusivity.

Someone from the I-VOTE programme asked if it was possible for “anyone” to become Malaysia’s prime minister. After all, we had just witnessed firsthand the rise of an African American to lead the US, just 40 years after the Civil Rights Act 1968 was passed. I shook my head and sadly answered that the basic criteria is still that the person is Malay, Muslim and male. Only time will tell whether US-Malaysia parallels can be stretched to include diverse possibilities of leadership.

(Malaysian flag © Matt Trommer/Dreamstime; US flag © Sebastian Kaulitzki/Dreamstime)

Tricia Yeoh writes from Tulsa, Oklahoma, and is the Director of the Center for Public Policy Studies. She believes that all human beings are created equal and ought to be given equal treatment, as guaranteed by Article 8 of the 1957 Federal Constitution.

See also The Malaysian Obama

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