Wednesday, June 16

May the fifth be with us


AS I write, the dominant feeling among commentators is that making predictions for the results for Sunday night is futile, at least beyond the bounds of a close victory for either side and an at-best 2008 margin for Barisan. Of course, everything the politicians say needs to be ignored as they are obliged to effuse boundless bravado, but the last round of corporate presentations last week converged on a just-safe-enough win for Barisan. Since then estimates have fluctuated based on turnouts at rallies and contradictory polls.

So let’s leave predictions aside.

My first article in the Malaysian press, on March 11, 2008, argued that “Parliament and the Federation may be the most important winners of these elections”. Perhaps, if certain individuals did more predictable things, that might have come true. Instead, parliament has remained a sometimes shameful rubber stamp, while the federation has yet to fully realise the benefits of decentralisation, though some seeds have been sown thanks to inter-party competition.

Malaysian politics in the last five years has gone backwards in some ways.

While there is now undoubtedly increased access to the alternative (including social) media, elements of the mainstream media have either become constrained or willingly subservient to political interests, with some of my articles having been banned or edited to appear lopsided.

Racial and religious incidents are still blasted to the fore on occasion, and as polling day looms we see the deliberate stoking of the same fears, capitalising on ignorance and assisted by media collaborators. There was some hope that the gibberingly, unwaveringly, populist economic policies expressed in the manifestos (despite capable economic liberals in both coalitions) might have at least indicated a relegation of racial and religious politics, but that was not to be.

Still, I believe the effectiveness of the politics of fear and hate will be limited this time round, thanks largely to the actual real winner since 2008: civil society. The growth of civil society in the past few years – proven by the regularisation of debates and seminars on issues (other than race and religion), social media events and rallies – has helped solidify a ‘Bangsa Malaysia’ or ‘1Malaysia’ reality that the political parties only give lip service to.

The emergence of civil society has caused changes in the way the institutions of state react to public demands. At the most basic level, political leaders responded, as the replacement of the ISA and reforms to the UUCA attest. But there was also an evolution in the way the police handled large rallies – compare Bersih 2.0 with KL112. Some (though not all) public universities accept that university students have and will express their political views. The courts (which will of course claim that they were always independent to begin with) have made judgments that triggered (un)pleasant surprises.

All this is important in light of a reliable account of events on election night 2008. On March 8, 2008, as the results were streaming in from across the country, and as disappointment turned into despair among those who had much to lose, urgent messages were sent. “Something must be done.”

Ground work had already been prepared. Mobs were waiting to be mobilised. A cycle of events inspired by May 1969 was ready to begin if the green light was given.

But in one of the most courageous moments of Malaysian political history, the green light was not given. The four states that saw new transitions were allowed to do so. True, the process was not smooth in all cases, but few realise how much worse it could have been. The parliamentary result was, when it mattered, conceded with gentlemanly grace.

We have already seen some acts of violence in the campaign period. This has encouraged some people to stock up in case chaos breaks out on May 6. But the risk of politicians to acquiesce to violence, and the damage to our international reputation, will be too great. It is more likely that money will be flying around next week than violence.

Even if there was a political desire for violence, I think there will be unprecedented resistance within key institutions. No doubt, there has been too much ostentatious partisanship where there should not be. But it’s telling that, for the first time, both coalitions enjoy the open support of former members of different institutions including the civil service, police and armed forces. The prospect of one party simply deploying such institutions for its own ends is no longer feasible.

The institutions of state, catalysed by the rise of civil society, are in the process of maturing. May 5 may produce a parliament that can mature the remainder of Malaysian political life.

IDEAS will launch its report on its General Election Observation mission on May 8 in Putrajaya.


Tunku Abidin Muhriz is president of IDEAS.