Choosing change over continuity — Farish A. Noor

(The Straits Times) JAN 24 — The outcome of the recent by-election in Kuala Terengganu sounded a wake-up call in the corridors of power in Malaysia and among the senior leadership of the ruling Umno in particular.

As the votes were being counted, it became evident that the Pas candidate was on the winning side and that the opposition coalition Pakatan Rakyat would add one more to its parliamentary number. The turnout in the by-election was the same as for the March 8 general election, though in this case Umno's slim majority before was converted into a 2,000-vote majority for Pas.

The following salient points can be noted in the voting pattern in the Kuala Terengganu by-election: In the predominantly Chinese or in the areas where there was significant non-Malay representation, the voters by and large stood by the Barisan Nasional government.

It was in the predominantly Malay-Muslim areas where the swing to Pas occurred. This indicates some dissatisfaction among the Malays with the governing standards of the Umno-led government. It was in some respects a protest vote but it was not purely negative in its intent: By the time the result was announced, the streets of Kuala Terengganu had swelled with scores of Pas supporters celebrating their victory. It was clear voters had voted for Pas as much as against Umno.

Senior Umno leaders reacted to the result the next day by passing the buck. In the run-up to the by-election, the Umno candidate Datuk Wan Ahmad Farid Wan Salleh had even been dismissed as a weak candidate by none other than former Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad. Pas candidate Abdul Wahid Endut got off lightly in a campaign that was not marred by personal attacks on either candidate.

This is the third by-election loss for BN since the general election last year — the third time its entire machinery and the personal campaign appearances of its most senior politicians were unable to turn the tide.

One member of Gerakan, a component party in the BN coalition, said on the last day of campaigning: “There is no point in us (Gerakan) being here any more. What can we do? The people just don't want Umno any longer.”

The defeat has focused attention yet again on Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Rajak, who is scheduled to take over as Prime Minister in March. The son of Tun Abdul Razak, Malaysia's second prime minister, Najib comes from one of the oldest Malay aristocratic families, long acquainted with the vicissitudes of the country's convoluted politics. The by-election result indicates not only Umno's unpopularity but also Najib's standing and credibility with Malays at the moment.

Family connections and history aside, it is perhaps the longevity of Najib's association with power that bedevils him at present. For the older Umno elite, his standing is determined by the fact that he comes from one of the oldest ruling families of Malaysia. But this social capital is useless in the context of a new Malaysia, where an entirely new generation of younger voters has come to the fore. They know they can determine their own fate at the ballot box.

Malaysia today is not the same country that it was during the economic crisis of 1997-98. At that time, the total number of Internet users was less than half a million. Today, more than 12 million Malaysians are registered Internet users. This has created one of the most wired-up, clued-up and mobilised societies in the region.

Malaysia's urban landscape has also changed, with younger faces leading think tanks, non-governmental organisations and even state assemblies. Despite legal restrictions, political activism is alive again on campuses.

All of these seem to have passed under the radar of the cloistered Umno-BN elite. They bemoan their inability to arrest the process of change in the country. Yet it is the result of a globalisation process that went hand in hand with rapid development. A new generation of politicians will have to address this newly emerging society that is more vocal and assertive than ever before.

Can Najib, the son of the prime minister who introduced the New Economic Policy in the 1970s, address these challenges in time to save himself and his party? Or has the weight of history, patronage and institutional inertia rendered all attempts at reform within Umno redundant?

Judging by the Kuala Terengganu by-election result, it would appear that the public — in particular, Malays — has already made its choice: It is one for change rather than continuity. — Straits Times