Corrected on 9 April 2009 at 12.05pm
IT is furthest from the truth to declare that the results of the triple by-elections on 7 April 2009 are about the status quo being maintained. Such an analysis, which focuses only on the number of seats each political party has, would fail to see the forest for the trees.
What has or will be changed because of 7 April, at least in Bukit Gantang, is the dynamics in party competition. The two contending parties, Umno and PAS, and their respective coalitions, the Barisan Nasional (BN) and Pakatan Rakyat (PR), are now officially in a new ball game.
The resounding victory of the Pakatan Rakyat’s Perak Menteri Besar (MB) Datuk Seri Mohammad Nizar Jamaluddin over his Umno opponent, Ismail Saffian, with an even greater margin than in 2008 is a clear verdict on the Perak coup.
The triumphant Nizar giving two thumbs up to journalists at the vote-tallying centre on 7 April
The majority of voters in the Bukit Gantang parliamentary constituency have made it clear that they do not condone a coup or mutiny. So, unless coup plotters can avoid or abolish elections forever, they will be punished once fresh polls are held.
Political parties should not expect the people to accept the fait accompli of a palace coup or emergency rule and then reward a party with an electoral landslide. This is 2009, not 1969.
The Bukit Gantang result is also a verdict on new Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak, not over the Mongolian woman whose name shall not be mentioned, but over his “1Malaysia” reform hype. “1Malaysia”, incidentally, is reminiscent of the DAP’s slogan “Malaysians First”.
The key to any genuine reform by Umno is not about treating non-Malay Malaysians and non-Muslims better. Umno must do that at any rate, or it will be buried by the non-Malay Malaysians. Indeed, appealing to the constituency that punishes you is the given in the perverted logic of Malaysian politics. Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad knew that after 1990. He launched “Vision 2020” to win back the minority votes. Najib himself may announce the end of the New Economic Policy towards achieving the same end.
No, the one reform Umno really needs is to embrace democracy. It needs to accept that it is not the default party in the government by virtue of being the sole representative of the Malay Malaysians.
That means acknowledging the legitimate existence — not purely on legal grounds — of its competitors in Malay Malaysian politics. This in turn means the discourse of Malay Malaysian unity under Umno must become a museum artifact.
If Umno is serious about reform, “1Malaysia” must therefore be inclusive not only of non-Malay Malaysians, but also of Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) and PAS. In other words, there cannot be a “1Malays” core in “1Malaysia”.
But for all the hype of the new emperor’s new slogan, Umno’s campaign in Bukit Gantang was exactly what it shouldn’t have been.
A Nizar banner peeks out amid BN and Umno flags (Pic by Raj Kumar, courtesy of theSun)
Embattled MB Nizar was harshly attacked on two grounds. First, for being “treasonous” for insisting on fresh elections rather than accepting the sultan’s installation of a new BN state government. And second, for being a “puppet of the DAP (read: Chinese Malaysians)”, which was in turn used to justify the need for a new Umno-led state government.
And what was the proof that PAS was the DAP’s puppet? Nizar’s granting of land titles to working-class Chinese Malaysians in new villages. Never mind that he has given more land titles to Malay Malaysian villagers or that the BN itself has given land away to non-Malay Malaysian business interests.
So, what did we see in Bukit Gantang? In a nutshell, Umno’s campaign there was the same decades-old ethno-centrist and far-right smearing strategy it’s used all this while. It was about “1Malays”, really.
The non-Malay Malaysians
And how about the non-Malay Malaysians? What did Umno offer them?
Firstly, Umno, with the MCA’s help, provided them entertainment involving sexy young women, which newly minted Umno vice-president Datuk Seri Ahmad Zahid Hamidi somehow believes to be Chinese culture.
Secondly, the BN was kind enough to provide a million ringgit in aid to the Chinese-medium primary school in Simpang.
Thirdly, the new prime minister visited Petaling Street and Brickfields before going to Kampung Kerinchi on his second day in office.
And fourthly, the new prime minister ordered the release of 13 Internal Security Act (ISA) detainees, including two Hindraf members.
Journalists and supporters outside the Kamunting Detention Centre on 5 April when 13 ISA detainees were released
(Pic by Raj Kumar, courtesy of theSun)
That 70% of the non-Malay Malaysian voters supported PAS in Bukit Gantang is a clear message that such cheap “divide-and-rule” tactics, even with the help of an expensive public relations campaign, has no place in the new Malaysia.
Unless Najib is willing to put democratisation as the core of his “1Malaysia” project, he should expect the following outcome at the next general election: the BN is likely to lose 51 seats that have a non-Malay Malaysian majority. It will also lose the 44 seats which have a significant non-Malay Malaysian minority of at least one-third. Bukit Gantang was one such seat.
This means Umno can win at most 70 Malay Malaysian-majority seats, but even then, a clean sweep is unlikely. While the BN may take comfort in the landslide in Batang Ai, can Najib expect the Sarawak and Sabah BN to remain loyal and deliver at least 42 seats for a bare majority? Even if he can, can an “Umno-and-East-Malaysian-only” government govern Malaysia?
That Umno’s “1Malays” politics has received its death sentence is the most important message from Bukit Gantang.
A worker removing party flags on 8 April, the day after polling day
(Pic by Raj Kumar, courtesy of theSun)
What does the Bukit Gantang result mean for PAS?
For one, it has firmly established itself as the third most popular party for Chinese Malaysians in the peninsula, just after the DAP and PKR. The MCA and Gerakan will not stand a chance to defeat Nizar or any PAS candidate that is seen as his proxy.
In the March 2008 general election, PAS already overtook the MIC as the third most popular party for Indian Malaysians, after the DAP and PKR. A case in point was (corrected) Dr Siti Mariah Mahmud’s victory in 2008 over the MIC candidate S Vigneswaran in the mixed seat of Kota Raja, in which non-Malay Malaysians make up 52% of the electorate. PAS’s Siti easily garnered 68% of total votes cast in the Selangor parliamentary constituency.
PAS’s future is clearly in the blue ocean of new politics, not the red ocean of ethno-religious nationalism which Umno tries hard to retain as its battle cry.
PAS spiritual adviser Datuk Seri Nik Abdul Aziz Nik Mat speaking at a DAP dinner on 5 April
As long as it can hold on to its basic ground of 40% Malay Malaysian support (in Bukit Gantang it was 43%), moving to the centre only means more room for expasion. Conversely, any talk of collaboration or negotiation with Umno, or any exclusivist measure of Islamisation, will serve only one purpose: to save an unrepentant Umno from its decline.
In fact, it may be time for PAS to incorporate its non-Muslim supporters club as a formal wing within the party.
Unless the trends in Bukit Gantang are soon reversed, future historians will see Bukit Gantang in a very special light, much like the 1952 Kuala Lumpur municipal elections that gave birth to the Alliance, the precursor to the BN.
Bukit Gantang isn’t just status quo. It’s turning from a hill into a mountain, offering Malaysians the first real ray of new politics. And the good news is, it doesn’t need defections for it to affect change. Alhamdulillah.
An anak Perak, Wong Chin Huat is glad that good sense prevailed to the rescue of democracy and political stability in Perak and Malaysia. He is upbeat that he can soon stop wearing black to mourn and protest the Perak coup. A political scientist by training and a journalism lecturer by trade, he is based in Monash University Sunway Campus.