Datuk Zaid Ibrahim’s speech at Regional Outlook Forum, Singapore

Speech by Datuk Zaid Ibrahim
Regional Outlook Forum organised by Institute of South East Asian Studies

1.     I want to thank ISEAS and in particular Ambassador Kesavapany for this honour. Ambassador Kesavapany told me that I would have 30 minutes or so to talk about Malaysia, and since it’s a luncheon talk it would probably be light hearted and not too spirited. That will be difficult, like asking me to be on my best behaviour while in the company of Paris Hilton, but I will try.

2.     Malaysia is a wonderful country and its people are among the most hospitable. If Australia is the Lucky Country, then Malaysia is the Blessed Country. Malaysia is also unique in another way. Not many countries have their Prime Minister, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Tourism welcoming tourists. Many of you have visited the country and will no doubt remember the giant billboards along the highway with the imposing picture of a smiling Prime Minister, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Tourism welcoming you to the country. Now of course, after March this year, you will see a new set of billboards replacing the expensive current ones. In March 2009, Malaysia will have a brand new Prime Minister, Deputy Prime Minister and, in all likelihood, a new Minister for Tourism as well.  Hopefully they will not spend too much on the billboards for they might have to change them again.

3.     In Malaysia, General Elections had been considered a formality or a ritual – something we had to do every 5 years or so as a matter of habit although it had no real impact on the status quo. That all changed on 8 March 2008. The result of the 2008 General Elections held on that day sent shockwaves through the country. It is probably also true to say that it also surprised the Malaysian electorate which created the result. Ordinary Malaysians suddenly found that they were capable of doing something dramatic and historic. Malaysia will no longer be the same after March 8th. The book published by ISEAS known as “Eclipsing May 13” is a good read about what happened.  You will find a good analysis of the general election and the surrounding issues. What is clear is that Malaysia post-8 March 2008 is a different Malaysia.

4.     But, really, should we have been so surprised? For years, our former Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad had told Malaysians that they could reach for the stars. You remember the catchphrase “Malaysia Boleh”? Long before US President-Elect Barrack Obama introduced the mantra “Yes We Can”, Dr Mahathir was urging Malaysian to think “Malaysia Boleh” – “Malaysia Can”.

5.     Unfortunately for Malaysians, “Malaysia Boleh” has come to symbolize something very different. To Malaysians it is about the government or the bureaucracy doing things that could not and would not be done anywhere else. Faced with unjustifiable mega projects like the national car project, building the world’s tallest building, creating the splendour of a new city in Putrajaya, hitching a ride into space on a Russian spacecraft that has been paid for with tax dollars or revenue that should have been used for more pressing matters like better equipped schools and hospitals, or an effective transportation system, and all the things that have come with them, what else could the average Malaysian do than shrug and say with resignation, “Malaysia Boleh.”.

6.     It seemed however, there was at least one thing that they could do.

“Malaysia Boleh” took on a different resonance during the last General Election. For the first time BN only got 49 % of the popular vote in Peninsula Malaysia. In terms of seats, BN only won 51% of those contested in Peninsular Malaysia. Only the seats from Sabah and Sarawak actually gave BN the solid majority it now enjoys. As for the Malays, a vote for the Opposition is no longer an act of treachery or betrayal to the Malay cause. PAS and Keadilan garnered more Malay votes than UMNO in Peninsular Malaysia. UMNO is no longer the dominant voice for the Malays.

7.     Why the sudden change? In my view, it was not sudden at all. The results of the 2008 General Election were the culmination of the decline in support for the BN since the 1999 General Election. In that election UMNO lost a substantial portion of the Malay vote. It was this erosion of Malay electoral support for UMNO in 1999 that influenced the constituency re-delineation exercise in 2002. This move was to increase the number of Malay mixed constituencies and lessen the predominantly Malay seats. It was feared that PAS would be able to gain a stranglehold on such seats. This effort was to no avail in 2008 with PKR doing extremely well in the mixed Malay constituencies where Malay majority was between 50 to 65% and PAS doing well in the predominantly Malay constituencies. With DAP doing well in the predominantly Chinese majority seats, the writing was on the wall for the BN. The aberration was the result of the 2004 General Election.  This aberration had nothing to do with BN. It had everything to do with the manifesto of change proposed by the then new Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi. Change however did not happen despite his best efforts. I will come to that later.

8.     BN lost their 2/3 majority in Parliament in March this year though only by 10 seats. It retained a majority and formed the Federal Government. Yet, shockingly, there was almost instant pressure on the Prime Minister to quit. Here you had an incumbent Prime Minister and leader of his party having led his coalition to an electoral victory being asked to leave. No other country except probably Thailand would purge a leader in that position. But then this is the same country which saw the leader of the Opposition being touted at the same time as the PM in waiting although he was still 32 seats short of a simple majority. Malaysia is truly a unique country.

9.     So where did the results of the 2008 General Election put the country? In my view, the future looks good for Malaysia, current events notwithstanding. Of course we have a multitude of problems, but then which country is spared? What is important to note is that given our political history we are possibly in the best condition we could be to address and resolve those problems. As I stressed at the outset, Malaysia is no longer the country it was before 8 March 2008.  For the first time we have a real prospect of a two party system in Parliament. Even if the Pakatan Rakyat opposition fails to form the federal government in the next election – in my view they have a 50% chance – we will have a stronger and more effective opposition. To me, this is the only safeguard against abuse of power, corruption and the preservation of the rule of Law, or at least whatever is left of it.  Though those of you in Singapore may not need a strong opposition to ensure good governance and low corruption levels, the Malaysian experience requires the counterbalance a strong opposition allows for.

10.  And what of the BN after the change in leadership in March?

Never mind March, what happens after Kuala Terengganu? BN will probably lose and if that happens, life will be tough for Dato Seri Najib. If BN wins then it’s only temporary reprieve. In my view, the BN will appear to be stronger, thanks to the hype and spin by the mainstream media. With a new leader in Dato Seri Najib Tun Razak, UMNO and BN will rally behind him as a show of solidarity. However, when you dump and push out a sitting Prime Minister, especially someone as nice as Pak Lah, there are bound to be some of his supporters who will retaliate, and Najib cannot as such be assured of unanimous or cohesive support. After all, his popularity is low in the country. He will probably tighten the screw on the press and the dissenters within the party. He will be tempted to emulate Dr M’s style of governance. The Prime Minister in waiting will probably assemble a younger and stronger Cabinet. To do so, he will have to disband half of the present crop of Ministers, who have in any event certainly passed their shelf life. There are many young leaders in UMNO and the BN who are capable technocrats but, more importantly, they are not the typical UMNO idealogues and are more moderate in their positions. Khairy Jamaluddin, is capable and has enough gumption to effect changes the new Government may need to effect. He could be a star in the future, if he is not buried or sidelined in March. And another young UMNO leader is Dato Saifuddin Abdullah -the present Deputy Minister of Entrepreneur Development- these are bright BN second liners and will make good Ministers. On the other hand, if as is likely, Dato Seri Najib persists with the so-called “UMNO tradition” of giving Cabinet posts to those who hold senior party positions, then the BN Government will be more of the same. I also believe that the MCA and the other component parties will continue to play the role they have developed after their calamitous showing in the last General Elections. In the wake of their defeat, they became more assertive and less afraid to highlight the plight of the minorities. The dominance of one party to the exclusion of others is over; although UMNO extremists will try hard to hang on to the advantage they have become accustomed through bullying. All these elements should allow the BN administration a small window for a new lease of life if it plays its cards right.

11.  Pak Lah the outgoing Prime Minister has been the butt of many jokes and criticisms from all quarters. It should not be overlooked that it was his manifesto of change that got the BN its best result ever in 2004. He had also begun to move towards the reforms he had promised, showing earnestness in making transparency, integrity and good governance a reality. Sadly, he was impeded by extremist elements in UMNO and he was too weak to take them on. If UMNO had supported him with earnest, the March 2008 swing might not have happened. It will be a fatal mistake for UMNO and the BN if Dato Seri Najib reversed or paid mere lip-service to these initiatives.

12.  Integrity, good governance and judicial reform, in any meaningful sense, had been missing from our political lexicon for a long time. It took courage for Pak Lah to not only reintroduce them but to take steps towards giving them substance. The establishing of the Institute of Integrity, the Judicial Appointments Commission and the Anti Corruption Commission, all of which could have been better tailored to their purpose and declared aims, signalled the need for a massive change of direction – a paradigm shift, if you will – in political governance. Will these efforts herald a new era in anti-corruption efforts as well as allow for more meaningful efforts to restore judicial independence and competence? Only Dato’ Seri Najib can answer this.

13.  Though the Prime Minister will soon leave the scene he will leave behind an important legacy; a more open and critical society.  He allowed for a greater level of public debate and, albeit somewhat haltingly, encouraged change towards more accountability in governance. Islam Hadhari was sorely misunderstood. A good idea, aimed at promoting moderation and progressiveness in Islamic discourse, it did not take off principally for the effort having been handicapped by its promotion having been undertaken by traditional stakeholders like JAKIM and other UMNO leaders. They were sadly more interested in pursuing political ambitions and aims than realizing the noble aspirations underlying the campaign. The League of Nations conceived by Harry Truman failed as an organization, but the idea was too good to die with the organization and today we have the United Nations. I hope the reforms Pak Lah gave life to will survive him.

14.  But would things be any different under Pakatan Rakyat? The question is beginning to surface now that the euphoria of the 8 March 2008 election has waned. Anwar Ibrahim is a personality you are familiar with and is someone I admire immensely for his courage and tenacity. He has been the cement holding together the parties of the Pakatan Rakyat, with their diverse political philosophies and varying political agendas. I believe he’ll be Prime Minister one day. Certainly, he will continue to be the main player in Malaysian politics for many years to come. As you no doubt know, he is once again facing a charge for sodomy. Some are of the view that he will be incarcerated again, either through the courts or by executive detention order. I am not so sure. The public demands by some Cabinet ministers for Anwar to volunteer a DNA sample at the time he was arrested and subsequently when charged suggests that there are doubts. Without a conviction, he cannot be incarcerated. A detention under the Internal Security Act by a new Najib government would invite serious repercussions both domestically and internationally at a time when economic and social conditions are in a mess. I would like to think that Dato Seri Najib appreciates that he has other options to win the support of the people in the next general election. Detaining Anwar under the ISA is an unnecessary risk and may well turn the tide completely against the BN. Nonetheless, I cannot say with certainty that Anwar will not be detained. Such is the state of play in Malaysian politics.

15.  The Pakatan Rakyat, on its part, cannot assume that they are safely on the road to Putrajaya come 2012. The honeymoon is over for the five Pakatan Rakyat State governments of Kelantan, Perak, Kedah, Penang and Selangor. The PR must ensure that it retains these states. One would have thought that given the results in March, this would be a given. This may however prove not to be the case. It is said that on March 8th last year, Malaysians went in search a viable alternative. The PR must show that it is that alternative. Public infighting is not the way to go about that, yet this is what the PR has come to be identified with in recent days. The coalition needs to build on its common identity and provide for a common platform on major issues. Member parties must go beyond issues like the implementation of Islamic criminal law and concentrate on delivering on their collective message of social justice and compassionate and fair governance. In this, PAS, with its Islam-centric philosophy has to work harder to fall in line with PKR and DAP whose ideologies are more closely aligned. Whether the ulamaks of PAS are able to make this concession will be a test not just of their own maturity but also of the cohesiveness of the PR.

16.  In short, the PR must show itself to be a real alternative to the BN way of doing things. To be able to retain the states currently ruled by them, PR must offer more effective policies and initiatives when compared to those of the BN. It will not be sufficient for them to depend on the personality of their leaders. That may have been enough the first time round, but the voters expect more and rightly so.  But I must emphasize here that Malaysians are a patient lot. They have been patient with Barisan Nasional for so many years and I am sure they will be patient with Pakatan Rakyat as well. But Pakatan should never take the people for granted. In this, it would also be enormously helpful for Anwar Ibrahim to change his grandstanding ways. Proclaiming dates of anticipated takeovers without the ability to follow through merely distract and detract. Powerplays like that have undermined the PR in a way that has been wholly unnecessary.  Anwar should instead focus on getting PR together as an entity with one coherent vision for the country. He has after all, the support of the rank and file of all the parties in Pakatan Rakyat, although not necessarily some of its leaders.

17.  PAS’ Islam-centric political posturing is particularly problematic, not because of the party’s identification with Islam but rather it’s posturing. PAS is a key member of the PR. For the coalition to stay viable coalition, PAS’ approach to the subject of governance and public policy determination where Islam is a factor must show sophistication and restraint. This is particularly true of interfaith issues. Though PAS ideology has all the elements for an inclusive and pluralist society built on a foundation of justice and fairness, it has sadly become more known for its opposition to alcohol and concerts, and its fixation on implementing Islamic criminal law.  Recalling that a multi-racial voter base voted PAS in last March on the back of a manifesto that centered on shaping Malaysia into a welfare state, PAS’ energy would be better spent on fleshing out the economic policy underlying its concept of a welfare state to show that its vision is achievable. Additionally, to prove itself a viable Islamic alternative to UMNO, PAS has to distance itself from the UMNO-style of unilateral, ultra-legalistic, enforcement-minded approach to Islam.  PAS must further accept that it has to consult not only its partners but also a broader segment of the public including progressive Islamic thinkers before making policy declarations.

18.  The reality is that non-Muslims are also affected by declarations on so-called Islamic matters, particularly where these coincide with matters in the public sphere. As such, a culture of non-discrimination and consultation must be nurtured for the good of the country. As I have alluded to, the compassionate side of Islam can be PAS’ strong point. If it is able to harness the various dimension of this aspect and project them more inclusively, for example by championing the rights of stateless children with no papers and schools to attend, the issue of trafficking of women, the issue of refugees who have settled here for all intents and purposes, PAS will be viewed as a party for all Malaysians, Muslims and non-Muslims alike. To showcase its vision of an inclusive Islam, PAS could take the lead in forging solutions for those problematic so-called conflicts issues. The reality is that there will be persons who converted to Islam for marriage and whose marriages have broken down or ended by reason of death or divorce.  Some of them will want to find comfort in their original faiths. Leaving them unaided by hiding behind jurisdictional issues, as we have seen, or by proclaiming the beauty of Islam does not address the situation and the pain of those concerned. Thus far, BN states have been unwilling to offer solutions. PAS could lead the PR in navigating forward to resolution. This, I feel, speaks more for PAS’ ideals than mere pronouncements of what is sinful and what is not. In doing this, they would have offered the rakyat the security they crave. I also believe they would have done more to restore the dignity of Islam than the Islamization campaigns of UMNO have done much to undermine.

19.  Inter-racial cooperation in Malaysian politics has a short history.

We saw it in the years from 1946 as we came together in the quest for independence. Since the 80’s, Government policies appear to have increasingly polarized Malaysian society. Only in the last 5 years, have we again witnessed real camaraderie and solidarity, principally due to the efforts of NGOs, and, more recently, the PR.  The last general election bore witness to a new dynamic. The rakyat came together, the young and old and the person on the street, to work with and for one another regardless of race and affiliation. They had a common cause; the betterment of Malaysia. The majority of Malaysians who have been told repeatedly that they are of different races, that they have different rights and privileges, and to continue to blindly trust government decisions have now said enough! They have now found comfort and unity amongst themselves; they have found a rejuvenating sense of a new identity as one people. This is the new Malaysia.

20.  Malaysia is like many other countries where the young will ultimately determine the nature and course of politics. The people have shown their abhorrence for greed and abuse of power. The people have shown that they want to be together as one community.  They have shown that they prefer pragmatic discourse. Half of Malaysia’s population is below 35. These youngsters are eager for change, for a politics of idealism and honour. They want public officials to be more accountable, or at least, for a political process that is less corrupt and dirty. They want their leaders to be in tune with their needs, they demand security, remedies to their problems and social justice. Though still relevant, ethnicity is no longer a critical factor. The young are less susceptible to the instigation of racial hatred and prejudice. They want change. This is something that both sides of the divide must take note of. At the next general election, there will be another 4 million young voters who will determine the titanic struggle.

21.  Why am I so positive about Malaysia whilst continuously pointing to the deterioration in ethnic relations, and religious conflicts?  Because the majority of Malaysian are sensible people. Ordinary people have more sense than their leaders sometimes. They know the value of cooperation, mutual respect and harmony. I believe the people have spoken out loudly and clearly. The future direction of the country is no longer going to be solely in the hands of the political masters. The people want to be involved. They have had enough of scandals, abuse of power, and poor administration. It is not true that they voted for the Opposition just out of frustration or in protest as some pro-BN analysts have said. The people voted for the Opposition as a manifestation of their desire for a better country; for themselves, their families, their children. The non-Malays ask that they be accorded the respect and recognition they deserve as equals. They believe, rightly so, that their future is inextricably linked with that of the Bumiputras. The Malays on their part have responded positively to the idea of a truly unified Malaysia. Despite UMNO fear-mongering about Malay rights being threatened by support for the Oppposition, the Keadilan and PAS share of Malay votes on the Peninsula exceeded that of UMNO. While at one time a Malay vote was an UMNO vote, today the Malays no longer see themselves as beholden to UMNO.

22.  Sometimes I am asked what I intend to do next. I have only a limited political ambition; to see Malaysia prosper peacefully in a way that will benefit all including the Bumiputras who must have their fair share of the fruits of that prosperity; to see that the rights and the dignity of all are respected and protected; to see that the yearnings of the non-Malays to feel a sense of belonging and of being wanted as Malaysians in their own country is fully realized; to see that Compassion, which is the underlying teaching of my religion, becomes the central consideration in the formulating of public policies. Finally, as a lawyer, I want to see justice and the rule of law reestablished and flourishing. These are simple ambitions, I think.  Given the results of the 8 March 2008 election, there is some hope that they will be fulfilled in my lifetime. The rakyat has shown that it wants democracy and all that it portends.

23.  In the meantime I hope to do my part towards achieving this goal with a foundation I have set up called MyFuture Foundation. It is a vehicle that I hope will assist the young to articulate their Malaysian-ness through their support of the various community oriented projects that the foundation aims to undertake for the realization of a Bangsa Malaysia. It is a vehicle that will allow the people to express their rejection of narrow racist politics, and to show that the various races want to, and can be together as one people.

24.  Countries in South East Asia have gone through tumultuous change over the years, each having to endure different sets of challenges. We each have our own stories. I have tried in the time made available to me to tell you ours in Malaysia. Thank you.

Zaid Ibrahim

Wednesday, 7 January 2009

Island Ballroom, Shangri-La Hotel, Singapore