Time Barisan woke up and fixed what is wrong

That Barisan can no longer even win a simple by-election speaks volumes about how far and fast its political stock has fallen. No matter how slick the Barisan operation is, the simple fact is that voters are upset with very fundamental issues, and no longer fear to make their unhappiness clear.

By John Lee, The Malaysian Insider

After its humiliation in Kuala Terengganu, Barisan Nasional has no choice but to face the facts: the people of Malaysia are not happy with their Barisan-led government. Ever since the March general election, Barisan has been tearing itself apart in petty struggles instead of doing any serious soul-searching. The coalition had practically every conceivable advantage in the recent by-election; that in spite of this they lost speaks to a fundamental unhappiness with our government, and nothing short of sweeping reform, whether from within or without Barisan, will change this.

Post-March 8, Barisan leaders posited all sorts of reasons for their defeat. MCA leaders blamed concern about religious freedom and ethnic relations. Umno leaders cited Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi’s poor leadership. MIC leaders suddenly found the heart to say something about the problems faced by working-class Indians. Gerakan and PPP politicians voiced the need for greater freedom of expression and a more open government. But instead of uniting around any sort of coherent agenda based on these problems raised by Barisan component parties, the coalition has tried to maintain business as usual, as if March 8 changed nothing.

In the meantime, every indication since March 8 has been that anti-Barisan sentiment is growing, not abating. Polls and surveys consistently show significant dissatisfaction with our leadership that cuts across race, religion, and class. In the Permatang Pauh by-election a few months after March 8, voters sent the Barisan candidate packing with a larger majority for Opposition leader Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim. With nearly a year since the general election, the Kuala Terengganu by-election presented the best chance for Barisan and its incoming leader Datuk Seri Najib Razak to prove themselves.

Yet in spite of nearly every imaginable advantage, Barisan went home defeated. By-elections have traditionally been their strong suit; political celebrities of all kinds come in to shower voters with attention and promises of goodies. Vote-buying and extensive “phantom voter” operations have not been unheard of in the past, and this time round was no exception. The seat was not an opposition stronghold, and had previously been held by a deputy minister in the Barisan government. The upcoming Chinese New year holiday a mere week after polling (when most people would usually come home) and the fact that this was just a by-election were both factors depressing turnout among younger and urban voters, groups likelier to vote for the opposition. If Barisan’s plan to stay the course was working, surely Kuala Terengganu would be the place to prove it; prior to March 8, all these factors combined would have been enough to give Barisan a landslide victory. And yet in the face of all this, the Pakatan Rakyat candidate won with a larger majority than the Barisan candidate had on March 8.

That Barisan can no longer even win a simple by-election speaks volumes about how far and fast its political stock has fallen. No matter how slick the Barisan operation is, the simple fact is that voters are upset with very fundamental issues, and no longer fear to make their unhappiness clear. What has Barisan done to address economic and ethnic inequities? What has Barisan done to promote a level economic playing field for all Malaysians, instead of favouring the politically-connected? How is Barisan making our government more efficient and transparent? How is Barisan shoring up the credibility, power and respect of our national institutions? Barisan has proven unable to reassure voters that it is addressing these issues, and this is in large part because it really is not addressing them.

Some credit is due to Abdullah; he has done his best, as little as it may be, to push a reform agenda of sorts forward after the March electoral upset. But many of his boldest reforms have been stymied by stubborn and unrelenting Barisan political warlords, especially those from Umno. There has been no coherent plan or agenda for these reforms, which have appeared piece by piece, without any sense of how they fit into a larger scheme to address the issues which resonate with the Malaysian electorate. Barisan might claim it has done it best; that may even be true; but Barisan’s best so far is simply not good enough.

If our Prime Minister-to-be Najib wants to cement his party’s tenuous grip on power, and find his place in history, there is no better place to start than finally addressing the needs of the people of the country he has sworn to serve. The haphazard patchwork of reforms and absence of any real plan to address the underlying problems our country faces are slowly but surely bleeding Barisan dry. Najib is on track to lead his party to a resounding defeat in the next general election. If he wants to arrest the seemingly inevitable decline, Najib has to shake Barisan out of its denial and map out a path to reform for our country and our government.

That is what Najib and Barisan must do; whether they will do it is a completely different kettle of fish. Barisan has had over 10 precious months to get started on its roadmap to reform, and it has completely wasted them. Before the election, the Pakatan parties already had a clear message about what‘s wrong with the country and how to fix it. Today, nearly a year later, Barisan still doesn’t have a clue. For the sake of our country, I hope they wake up soon. If Barisan does not get things in gear now, it will be Pakatan that gets the ball rolling when it wins the next general election.

John Lee is a second-year student of economics at Dartmouth College in the United States. He has been thinking aloud since 2005 at infernalramblings.com.