March 8, three years on…

By Karim Raslan, The Star

Three years after the 2008 polls, the Barisan Nasional has regained the advantage. This is as much to do with Pakatan Rakyat’s weaknesses, as it is Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak’s coolly executed strategies.

WHO has time for politics nowadays, except for politicians?

Who can manage to even think about public issues; the alignment of the MRT, Selangor’s water woes or the Anwar Ibrahim Sodomy II trial? Even mentioning these issues makes me — a seasoned commentator — feel exhausted.

After three years of unending turmoil, I’ve almost switched off when people start talking politics.

Like everyone else, I’m swamped with work, not to mention the “business of living”.

I wake up in the morning – generally before dawn – and start work almost immediately; writing, reading, attending meetings and presentations.

This goes on until late at night when exhausted, I flop into bed once again.

As a result, I’ve developed an aversion to politics.

So much so that, on Sunday, I totally forgot about the Kerdau and Merlimau by-elections.

And I don’t think I’m alone.

I suspect there are a lot of us who are suffering from a similar amnesia.

Still, another general election looms and the analyst in me can’t help but offer some thoughts – with the usual caveat that nothing is permanent in politics.

Firstly, three years after the 2008 polls and the Barisan Nasional has regained the advantage.

This is as much to do with Pakatan Rakyat’s weaknesses as it is Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak’s coolly executed strategies.

Although it’s premature to congratulate the Prime Minister – he is yet to win a general election – five by-election victories since helming BN is an impressive performance for a new leader.

The Prime Minister has been ably-assisted by a dysfunctional Opposition.

Pakatan has disappointed Malaysians of late.

Furthermore, last year’s PKR party polls as well as subsequent defections have damaged both the party and Anwar Ibrahim’s credibility.

At the same time, the increasing distrust between DAP and PAS – such as the recent controversy over lottery and gaming in Kelantan – highlights the challenges faced by the coalition.

Indeed, the great centrist experiment may well be facing the inevitable challenges of its myriad, competing constituencies.

Still, it would be wrong to think that Pakatan is heading for oblivion just as one would have been equally wrong to write off BN post-2008.

Realistically, the experience of power will motivate Pakatan to regroup.

Their young leaders – like Nik Nazmi, Tony Pua, Hannah Yeoh and PAS’ Erdogans are poised to carry their coalition onward to the next generation.

Ergo, Barisan, and especially Umno, needs to give prominence to its younger cadres if it doesn’t want to appear stodgy to the rising generation of Malaysians.

Also, Pakatan’s “Orange Book” signals its willingness to finally offer a more concrete, policy-based critique to Barisan — in writing rather than in ceramah circuits.

This is a giant step for the loose coalition, which is yet to form a functioning shadow cabinet due to its internal inconsistencies.

As to PAS’ retreat to its Malay-Muslim core — I for one was tremendously encouraged by the fact that the DAP Chief Minister of Penang, Lim Guan Eng was asked to speak at their convention on Malay issues recently.

That’s quite a paradigm shift where such things were once thought off-limits to non-Malays.

The point of all this is that Malaysia still needs a strong Opposition.

We need the checks and balances. We do not want to return to the pre-2008 “business as usual” era.

Such an outcome would be disastrous all the more so since we desperately need to reinvent ourselves economically to face a globalised world.

Indeed, our “political infrastructure” is just as crucial.

Certainly, we need a formal, party-based Opposition not the current motley band of activists with vague notions of forming a “third force”.

It was Pakatan’s victories in 2008, after all, that started the momentum for change that is now taking place in Barisan.

No one doubts Najib’s desire to transform the country, but it will be difficult for him if Umno slips back into its old complacent ways.

Pakatan’s mere existence helps keep the Barisan (and Malaysians) honest – pushing the envelope at every step.

Moreover, for all its problems, Pakatan has expanded the political horizons of Malaysians.

It has made the notion that our public life can and ought to be non-(or less) racial, coercive and patrimonial acceptable, even mainstream.

So we ought not to give up on our politicians, nor should we repudiate the great awakening of civic or political consciousness that 2008 heralded.

As the various coalitions make their case of power to use, we ordinary Malaysians must keep reading, questioning and voting.

We now have a choice, and we must use this power to secure from our political elite the best possible future for the next generation.