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
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.
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)
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.