The Reformasi that never was

By Stanley Koh, Free Malaysia Today

Malaysians generally have had enough of politicians. What they crave is real leadership. Over the last 20 years or so, their distrust of their representatives has been growing but their aspiration for true democracy has never waned.

The opposition gains in the 2008 general election – the so-called political tsunami – did sweep in a breath of fresh air, but it has since turned stale.

What went right in 2008? How did the Pakatan Rakyat coalition succeed so dramatically and why did Barisan Nasional receive the blunt end of the electoral sledgehammer?

Many have attributed the tsunami to the charm of the youngest Pakatan component, PKR. They say that the message it hammered out – “reform is my goal” – was in complete harmony with the Malaysian dream.

So what does “being PKR” entail?

Let us go back 12 years.

“It all began on a Sunday evening, Sept 20, when the authorities stationed baton-wielding riot police outside Anwar Ibrahim’s residence.

“Two police helicopters hovered overhead, bathing the area with powerful searchlights. Then, at around 9pm, balaclava-clad men with bulletproof vests and submachine guns broke down the front door and stormed into the house where Anwar, 51, was conducting a press conference.

“The raiders, who belonged to the elite Special Action Force, manhandled some of the journalists and confiscated their notebooks and tape recorders before throwing the hacks out of the house.

“The arresting officer told Anwar he was being detained under the charge of unnatural sexual acts. Anwar was taken to a maximum-security prison outside Kuala Lumpur.”

This report, filed for Asiaweek, summed up the dramatic events of the day of reckoning for Anwar, currently PKR’s de facto leader.

Any magic left?

Anwar’s arrest came a day before the Commonwealth Games closed and not before the sacked deputy prime minister was able to address thousands of people – 60,000, according to disgraced top cop Abdul Rahim Noor – from a roof of the National Mosque. After the speech, he led the crowd in a march to Merdeka Square, and the chant “reformasi” reverberated across Kuala Lumpur.

“Reformasi” became the rallying cry of pro-democracy activists throughout Anwar’s incarceration and beyond.

It continues to be the mantra of PKR.

But many in the public have begun to wonder whether the word – or Anwar himself – has any magic left.

Indeed, will PKR itself survive the next general election or fade away and be remembered only as a fairy tale or parable?

PKR’s ongoing internal elections have turned out to be a ruthless affair, according to many critics within and without the party. They are at a loss to explain why the elections do not reflect the qualities and standards for which the party claims to be fighting.

The leadership has made no serious attempt to counter allegations of fraud and other irregularities. All we get are unconvincing denials.

To many observers, PKR’s direct elections have turned into an absurd drama instead of a demonstration of true democracy in action. The protagonists in all the contesting sides have failed to show enough patience and imagination to resolve problems fairly and squarely.

The party’s top leaders say criticisms about the conduct of the elections are unwarranted, but there seems little attempt to civilly and considerately investigate the various allegations originating at ground level.