Egypt’s uprising a wake-up call for Malaysia

By Debra Chong, The Malaysian Insider

KUALA LUMPUR, Feb 16 — An Egypt-style people’s revolution is far from erupting in Malaysia but the conditions for one are there, say political observers.

That is why they advise the Barisan Nasional (BN) government to carry out planned reforms sooner rather than later. In the wake of the Egypt uprising, various parties have drawn parallels between Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year regime in Egypt and the BN coalition that has been in power here for the past half a century.

They note that Malaysia, like Egypt, has been facing rocketing financial outflows, widening income disparity, growing unemployment and an ICT-savvy population who are increasingly unhappy with the ruling party — and are becoming bolder in expressing their discontent.

A wave of protests has also rocked other Arab nations such as Bahrain, Iran, Jordan, Yemen and Tunisia, where President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was earlier forced from power.

“The government has been dismissive that what has taken place in Egypt can happen here. This is a mistake,” said Dr Lim Teck Ghee who heads the Centre for Policy Initiatives Asia.

He said that the most significant shared trait was plunging public confidence in the political system and major public institutions.

“In Egypt, this recognition that the Mubarak regime was basically beyond reform pushed ordinary Egyptians, especially the young, to the breaking point,” he told The Malaysian Insider.

He said there was a potential for the ordinary Malaysian citizen to follow suit and “give up on Barisan.”

“After all, the BN has ruled continuously for more than 50 years and for many in the lower- and middle-class — irrespective of race — their life prospects have not improved.

“When Wael Ghoneim, the young Egyptian professional who has become the poster boy for the resistance, tweeted after his release from 12 days of confinement by the Egyptian Secret Police that “Freedom is a blessing that deserves fighting for”, he was speaking for many people all around the world — including in Malaysia,”  Lim said.

While the first recourse for change is through the ballot box, he said many Malaysians believed the electoral process was not level and even “rigged against the opposition.”

He noted that the mood in the country now is one for change and claimed there needs to be only one more election process to be perceived as unfair for the ground to swell up against the ruling government.

“Don’t forget that in all the national elections held, there has always been a considerable body of voters — at least one third of voters — that have wanted to boot the BN out of office,” he said.

Other pundits held different views.

Independent policy analyst Khoo Kay Peng said the focus on class differences and inequality in Egypt was more pronounced than Malaysia, making it hard to rally a civil movement against the government.

“In Malaysia we practise racial politics. Because of that, it will be hard to unite,” he said, adding that the status quo would only likely be challenged after the next 10 years at the earliest.

“The test would be to see how long the government can continue to absorb young graduates into its civil sector,” he said, pointing to the government’s growing intake of unemployable graduates every year.

Khoo explained that if the BN failed to curb wastages, the spending would cut into the national development fund needed to create more jobs.

Coffeeshop chatter against the government is normal in any country, said Dr Faisal Hazis who heads Universiti Sarawak’s political science and international relations faculty.

He added that it showed a healthy growth of political awareness at the ground level, but does not necessarily translate to action.

Unlike Egypt, Malaysians have yet to reach the critical point, he said.

The Kuching-based lecturer said the opposition group will likely use the Egypt uprising as campaign fodder in the upcoming Sarawak state elections in their bid to topple Chief Minister Tan Sri Taib Mahmud as there were far greater similarities between the latter and Mubarak.

Both assumed power in 1981, shared similar leadership styles and had triumphed over various attempts to remove them from power, facing down serious allegations of corruption over the years.

“Malaysia’s opposition will try to link Taib and Mubarak and evoke the sentiment of voters. Whether that will bring a big vote swing remains to be seen,” he said.