No winners in Malaysia’s political tussle

By Anil Netto (Asia Times Online)

PENANG – The political situation in Malaysia is in a state of flux as both the ruling coalition and the opposition alliance face mounting challenges and uncertainties. 

A huge rally in which thousands of Malaysians gathered in the streets of Kuala Lumpur despite a tight security clampdown demonstrated once again that a large number of Malaysians want greater civil liberties and are increasingly disillusioned with the current political system dominated by the Barisan Nasional (BN) ruling coalition.

The organizers of the rally, the Abolish ISA Movement, a coalition of civil society groups backed by the main opposition parties, called for the abolition of the Internal Security Act (ISA), a holdover law from the British colonial era which allows for indefinite detention without charge or trial and has historically been used by the BN to quash political dissent.

Among those in attendance at the rally was opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, who now faces trial for what many view as politicized charges of sodomy, which is illegal in predominantly Muslim Malaysia. Anwar was sentenced to nine years on similar charges in 2000, but a federal court reversed the conviction in 2004. Anwar was also convicted to six years in prison on corruption charges in 1999.

Prime Minister Najib Razak's government has said that it had plans for a thorough review of the ISA law, which his predecessor Abdullah Badawi used against a prominent blogger to silence criticism of his administration. Such heavy-handed responses have galvanized the political opposition, known as the People's Alliance, which comprises Anwar's People's Justice Party (PKR), the Democratic Action Party (DAP) and the Islamic Party (PAS).

Najib, who came to power in April, has won kudos for his economic liberalization measures to cushion the impact of the global economic crisis, helping to restore some of his United Malays National Organization's (UMNO) waning popularity. New allocations of state-managed unit trust funds to ethnic minorities, which were snapped up by ethnic Chinese Malaysians, and a high intake of Indian Malaysians into the civil service this year, have directly appealed to the same marginalized ethnic groups Anwar's movement has targeted.

A proposal for Muslim "unity talks" between the dominant party in the ruling coalition, UMNO, and PAS also helped the ruling coalition reverse a trend of embarrassing by-election losses to the Alliance. The UMNO lost by only a whisker in a recent by-election in a rural east coast constituency in the Malay-Muslim heartland.

Najib's star had been quietly rising after the public relations disaster of his ruling coalition's power grab by defections of three assemblymen to the BN's camp in February in the state of Perak, which was won by opposition parties at the last general elections. Opposition politicians claimed the move, launched by Abdullah's government, violated the constitution and the takeover was ruled illegal by a High Court on May 11.

But then real tragedy struck the BN's credibility. A young DAP political aide, Teoh Beng Hock, was summoned last month for overnight questioning as a witness in an inquiry involving People's Alliance politicians at the Selangor office of the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission. He was found dead the following afternoon on the office's fifth floor rooftop, nine floors below the MACC office on the 14th floor.

A public uproar ensued and the government, on the defensive, eventually called for an inquest, which has just begun, and a Royal Commission of Inquiry to look into the MACC's interrogation procedures. The outrage over Teoh's death, the residual discontent over the Perak power grab, and the government's strong clampdown on the anti-ISA rally, at which close to 600 people were arrested, have taken the shine off Najib's administration and ended whatever honeymoon period he may have enjoyed as the new premier.

One significant observation of the anti-ISA rally, apart from a large majority of the participants being ethnic Malays, was a significant number of women and youth. That must be worrying for the Najib administration and its prospects in the next general election, as previous by-elections have shown that younger voters are more inclined to vote for the People's Alliance.

Opposition cracks
That said, the People's Alliance has its own share of problems. Differences within PAS over its flirtation with the UMNO accentuated factionalism within the party, and some analysts speculate this contributed to its poorer showing in the most recent by-election, even though PAS retained the seat. PAS will get another chance to redeem itself against UMNO in a coming by-election on mainland Penang in the north.

In the neighboring state of Kedah, also in the north and ruled by the Alliance, the demolition of an illegal pig abattoir and the imposition of a new 50% quota that favored bumiputeras, or sons of the soil, over other ethnic groups had strained relations between the DAP and PAS, although their differences have since apparently been resolved.

In Penang, meanwhile, the DAP-led Alliance state government is embroiled in a controversy over an old colonial-era ethnic Indian village after the previous BN administration sold the housing trust land to a government officers' cooperative. The cooperative then entered into a joint venture with a property developer to build condominium blocks on the land. Having taken the matter all the way up to the Federal Court – and won – the cooperative now wants to evict the villagers, who in turn have taken out their frustrations on the present Alliance administration.

How this case is handled could have a bearing on support from Indian Malaysians, who make up around 7% of the country's population, at the next polls. In the last general election, Indian Malaysians, many of them marginalized and disenchanted by decades of race-based economic policies that favor the majority ethnic Malays, swung to the Alliance by a wide margin, helping the opposition win a string of parliamentary seats and control of five of the federation's 13 states.

In Selangor, the most developed of Malaysia's states, the Alliance is reeling from a series of MACC investigations into state government leaders, which some believe were politically aimed at weakening the Alliance-led government's hold on the state after the BN had successfully captured Perak. It was as part of these intensive investigations that Teoh was called in for questioning as a witness – and later found dead.

All in all, both political sides have suffered setbacks in recent months and are now angling for issues to seek new advantage. Looking ahead, the uncertain state of the economy – where exports fell 30% year-on-year in May – will continue to weigh more on Najib than Anwar's Alliance. But with a new sodomy trial hanging over Anwar, and cracks appearing in his Alliance, new questions are emerging about how long he can hold his movement's disparate political forces together.