a community of singaporeans

The fat lady hasn’t sung

Posted by theonlinecitizen on April 29, 2008

A primer on the possibility of a game-changing Pakatan Rakyat government in Malaysia.

Sonia Randhawa

TOC is happy to welcome Sonia onto the TOC team. She is TOC’s first Malaysian writer. She is also the former Executive Director for Malaysia‘s Centre for Independent Journalism.

Fear has shaped the politics of Malaysia for a long time, at least since, and possibly before, 1969. Fear has been a carefully-crafted constant. What there is to be feared has been dynamic, ranging from our economically-powerful, overly-Chinese southern neighbours, to the Americans, the Indonesians, the Jews, the Communists and, most consistently, each other. This is what ended in Malaysia on 8 March.

Not everyone in Malaysia realises that. The Crown Prince of Kelantan made a call for “Malay unity” just last week. Sorry, but that is just sooo 2007.

It’s important, however, not to see these elections as an incident in isolation. The 2008 results were not purely a rejection of Badawi and his administration, though they were undoubtedly that. They were a continuation of the rejection of Mahathir, something he hasn’t really come to terms with. These results were in part the ongoing aftermath of 1998 and 1999, of which the 1999 election was just one of the most painful.

In 1999, there was mass Malay disillusionment with the Barisan Nasional (BN). The humiliating farce presented as trial demeaned the judiciary, the ruling coalition, the police force and all Malaysians. It went so far against the traditional Malay adat (customs and traditions) that it still amazes me that those involved were not summarily stripped of ‘Bumiputra’ status.

It was the Malays, in particular, who abandoned BN in droves in 1999. They came back into the fold in 2004, attracted by promises of transparency and openness, promises that appealed not just to the Malays but to all Malaysians. It made 2004 a very different election from any that I can remember previously. BN was voted in on a platform, they were not voted in simply because they were BN. There were tangible election promises, there were tangible results expected. It was in 2004 that voting culture began that seismic shift that allowed for the 2008 election results.

The rumblings were apparent. The foreign media are still concentrating on the Hindu Rights Action Force (Hindraf) rallies, apparently forgetting (aided by opinion polls which belied what the streets showed) that the Hindraf rally was dwarfed by the Bersih rally earlier in November. The Bersih rally was not a rally about the Opposition, now Pakatan Rakyat (PR), parties. It was not about Anwar. It was about people being fed up with price increases, broken promises and a lack of economic and social security – rising crime and protesters in hospital shot by police. Not good. It presaged that this election was going to be different, because the Bersih rally was a largelyMalay rally. There were people of all races present, but the bulk of the people on the streets were Malay.

And then there was the Hindraf rally. And both the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) and Gerakan knew that the Chinese were uneasy, exasperated with the continued humiliation of their elected representatives, their inability to stand up to overt and covert bullying by the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) politicians, and the issues that brought this about (religion, kerises and the economy). Both parties have been attempting to reform, attempting to show their Malay counterparts that they were in serious danger of becoming irrelevant to their constituents. They were ignored, and UMNO continued to treat their partners with contempt.

And so March 8 came round, and throughout the campaign, UMNO and the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC) wandered about in their daze of hubris. Not that the other parties foresaw the scale of what was to come. But look at the excitement in the week ahead. Look at the figures attending Democratic Action Party (DAP), Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) and Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS) rallies. Read the blogs, and the results all make sense.

Look to the East

The results of the election are not cast in stone. As Sabah discovered in 1994, electing a Government isn’t a surety that you will be governed by the parties you voted for.

PR supporters, elite and grassroots, are claiming that there are 30 MPs ready to jump, they just want to wait till the figure hits either 40 or 50 before they announce it. It may well be true, but it would be a bad beginning for a new Government, and it would be bad for Malaysia.

Malaysian democracy has undergone a severe battering in the last 50 years. Forming a new government with MPs that have jumped ship may be the only way of breaking the BN stronghold, but it’s also an assault on the principles that underlie party-based democracy. The only way out of the morass is if PR comes to power, undertakes massive electoral and institutional reform, and then call for new elections, asking for a fresh new democratic mandate.

For the next few months, then, it’s hard to see where Malaysia is headed. If BN retains power, it will have done so through major concessions, in particular to parties (or individuals) in East Malaysia. In Sabah, one of the minimal concessions will be greater control over immigration policy. Politicians and communities alike have been concerned about the number of illegal immigrants, some of whom are speedily granted citizenship, in Sabah. The issue is particularly thorny, with some East Malaysians (not just Sabahans) musing that this migration would be one way of breaking the political independence of the State, and very much in the interest of the Peninsula-based parties. In both states, there are goodies up for grabs, dams and development to be handed out.

Would PR be able to offer the same scope for personal and political gain that BN can offer? Not if they keep their election promises about openness and transparency. It’s possible that politicians in Sabah and Sarawak are as fed up with the race-based formula of BN as the electorate appears to be, especially as this formula has been redefining the political patterns within both states. But again, if goodies are needed to persuade BN politicians to change sides, this is not a healthy start for renewed democracy in Malaysia.

Once the music dies down

Malaysia‘s political landscape has been redefined, regardless of what the die-hards want or hope. The question in the long-term is whether PR can live up to the renewed hopes of the rakyat (“people”), either at Federal or State level. In the mid-term, it doesn’t really matter whether BN renews itself or decays it has to do one or the other. If it decays, fine, if it renews itself, it will have to speak the new rhetoric of rights and responsibilities, co-opting much of the PR discourse.

The most worrying scenario is if PR fails to fulfil the expectations of the people to even a modest degree. Disillusionment with the parties could easily turn into disillusionment with democracy, spurred on by the perceived and real failures of nominally democratic states across the globe – particularly in terms of realising the rhetoric of human rights, free trade and development. This would be a disaster for Malaysia, and a disaster for the region. It would mean a slide into racialised (and religious) chaos.

Fortunately, this is an unlikely scenario – but one that all parties should bear in mind if they are tempted to dabble in the promise-breaking, power-hungry politics that have characterised the last four years.

What is more likely is that reform will proceed more slowly than progressives hope, but more quickly than politicians and bureaucrats would like. It is going to be hard for both BN and PR to not give in to demands for greater freedom, particularly in areas such as media freedom and freedom of information. BN is showing signs of resisting this wave, for example, in the forced closure of Tamil newspaper Makkal Osai. It is a move that can only strengthen PR, particularly among the non-Malay community.

Malaysia may follow a road to reform that is smoother than that travelled by Thailand, the Philippines or Indonesia. It doesn’t have the same depth of problems that these countries face, it has a reasonably well-educated population (though not as well-educated as statistics on the number of degree holders might lead one to expect), and the challenging economic environment, complemented by the challenges of climate change, may work both for or against those in power. But the work of reform and rejuvenation will still be challenging enough in itself.

New relations down south

There may be some changes to patterns of development that could affect some Singaporean investments, but increased transparency and less corruption (promised by all parties) can only help economic growth. This was evident in the stock market tumble after the elections – the nosedive was driven by companies that have relied on close political relationships to secure contracts. Companies, such as Air Asia, that are seen to have a solid, non-political footing held their own.

This could be the start of a beautiful new relationship with our Singaporean neighbours. One of the problems that has dogged cross-border fraternity (or sorority) has been the absence of democracy. Without a strong democracy, with an exclusive rather than rights-based system of democracy and citizenship, Malaysia has sought external conflict. Potentially small matters escalate, as politicians deflect internal troubles with external bravado. With a more rights-based citizenship, with leaders more responsive and responsible to the people, it is possible that the grandstanding may be ameliorated.

Of course, relationships such as ours are not one-sided. How the Singapore Government reacts to a new Malaysia will also determine the nature of the relationship. This may well depend on how increasing democracy in Malaysia affects demands for change in Singapore, and how the Singapore Government reacts to these demands.

Sonia has written for The Sun, The Edge, Agenda Malaysia and was the producer of Radiq Radio. She now writes freelance.



25 Responses to “The fat lady hasn’t sung”

  1. Expected Analysis said

    Ole! Ole! Ole!

    More intellectuals = More Fire Power = More Discovery = More Awakened = More Vocal Voices = More Awareness = More Involved = COMING CHANGE

    It does not matter what happened before, it’s the future that matters.

  2. phew! said

    Can you feel it? Change is in the air. 🙂

  3. Dr Syed Alwi said

    Dear Sonia,

    I have been following the debates on Tranungkite Online (pro-PAS) as well as on myKMU Forum (pro-UMNO). Not to mention Malaysiakini and Malaysia Today. I also have many family members living in Malaysia who tell me a lot of things regarding the situation there.

    The way I see it – the 3 most important issues to the Malaysian Malay right now are (1) PAS and its stand on the Islamic State and (2) Ketuanan Melayu and finally the (3) NEP (DEB).

    The Malaysian Malays may not like the UMNO-Puteras – but many civil servants and students who studied overseas under the DEB, support the DEB because they have benefitted tremendously from it. Also, many many Malays support the Ketuanan Melayu although they admit that UMNO has hijacked it to benefit only a few UMNO-Puteras. Who does not want to be a Tuan ?

    Until such time when the Malaysian Malays have overcome ethnic and religious feelings – the situation will remain status-quo.

    The Pakatan Rakyat is a very fragile coalition. Indeed one Lina Joy or Moorthy is enough to make it fall apart. Only time will tell whether PAS and DAP can work together.

    Ultimately Malaysian politics operates under the influence of Malay and Islamic ideology. Without any cultural and religious reform – the Malaysian situation remains status-quo.

  4. Hopeful Reunionist. said

    A very big welcome to Singapore’s blogosphere, Ms Sonia Randhawa!

    I hope this is the beginning of steps to be taken to reunite Malaysia with Singapore, which I am looking forward to. And I wish the Pakatan Rakyat would be able, under Dato Anwar’s leadership, to shape the politics and governance of Malaysia to the extent that meritocracy replaces racial dominance so that Singaporeans can feel comfortable of rejoining Malaysia as fellow brothers and sisters in a happy and peaceful big family, working towards a better future for all.

    TOC, keep up your good work. Cheers!

  5. Gerald said

    Welcome to TOC, Sonia! We’re privileged to have you on board.

    I just hope that this election will teach Hishammudin types to keep a lid on their racism and keep their keris at home. Frankly I’m disgusted when I see idiots playing to the gallery and in the process damage the fabric of the nation.

    PR must succeed. If it doesn’t, it will have great repercussions on not just Malaysia, but Singapore as well.

  6. Dr Syed Alwi said

    Dear People,

    The Malays will not want a re-merger with Malaysia for fear of diluting the Malay majority in Muslim Malaysia. Has it ever occurred to you that Islam is very close to the Malay heart ? They want Malaysia to remain a Muslim country !

  7. Dr Syed Alwi said

    One more point to add. You will never get the Malay vote unless you address the Islamic issue. Islam is at the heart of the Malay Dilemma and this applies to both Singapore and Malaysia.

  8. cesla said

    “One more point to add. You will never get the Malay vote unless you address the Islamic issue. Islam is at the heart of the Malay Dilemma and this applies to both Singapore and Malaysia.”

    Thank you very much but please speak for yourself. If it makes sense and it appeals to my values (Islamic or not), it’ll get my Malay vote.

  9. Hopeful Reunionist. said

    When the economy collapsed and when there is no food to eat, I think whether religion or no religion, everyone whether Malay or non-Malay will go about finding for food to feed their children first.

  10. Fever Guy said

    Singapore and Malaysia don’t mixed and merging them is going to be impossible. 40 over years apart has made us really different. I am happy for Malaysia long overdue democracy and hope it can happen in sinkie too in 2011.

  11. Dr Syed Alwi said

    Dear Cesla,

    Please keep in touch with the Malay ground. At least read the debates on Tranungkite (a pro-PAS forum) and myKMU (a pro-UMNO forum). I speak for many here in Singapore when I say that most Malays do NOT want a re-merger because they do not want to see the Malay-Muslim majority in Malaysia diluted. Obviously you are NOT familiar with the Malay ground.

    I completely agree with Fever Guy – Malaysia and Singapore has evolved differently over the past 40 years. Its next to impossible to re-merge. Racial issue !

    Recall what PAS said to MM Lee’s suggestion of re-merger – that Singapore can only come back UNCONDITIONALLY !! Are you prepared to accept Malay Special Rights, Islamic State, Ketuanan Melayu, NEP etc ?

  12. Dr Syed Alwi said

    Another point Cesla,

    Yes – Islamic issues ARE of great importance to the Malay ground. Please keep in touch with the Malay ground. Maybe you ought to read Berita Harian (Singapore), Utusan (Malaysia) and so on. At least you will have an idea as to how Islam affects the daily lives of the Malay ground.

    I speak for many when I say this.

  13. Dr Syed Alwi said

    Finally Cesla, you also ought to read HarakahDaily, Malaysiakini and even Malaysia-Today to get a feel for the Malaysian situation. And certainly you ought to follow the Malay news in Singapore !

  14. aniza said

    Agree with dr syed alwi,

    iam one of the handful that actually quite closely folllow the news in M’sia.A merger between s’pore and m’sia is in fact imposibble for another century.

    M’sia is strictly follow along racial and religious line due to it’s own govt policy that in fact in paper favour Malays.But in static wise,according to some of my m’sia malay friends are not true indeed.

    NEP does not help the M’sia Malays indeed.What does UMNO do really for the past 50years? In fact who’s running the business in m’sia?
    My m’sian Malay friends some oppose to NEP idea cos the help is only in limited period of time.Just look at mostly the malay mojority areas trengganu,kelantan and kedah…no changes and still the malays living in great poverty.
    Due to lacking of education mostly in the rural Malay areas,UMNO indeed has poison their mind for quite a considerable of time.

    Threatening not voting for UMNO will be the fall of Malay land and Malay rights and so on and so forth…over and over again.

    It’s difficult to bring real meritocracy to M’sia witgout first looking at skin colour.Indeed, I agreed humans are born equal and the best must lead the pack.But M’sia govt did not seem to see that and the advance step taken by non-malays especially in questioning ‘equality’ will be seen as a threat to them..

    Though deep in my heart,I always wanted a merger with m’sia.S’pore is getting smaller and stress everyday.While I do not want to see non-malays here in S’pore having the same traumatic treatment just like their counterpart in M’sia.For myself as a Malay in s’pore do not wish to have the ‘perceived’ walking stick given to me just because iam special.

  15. Dr Syed Alwi said

    What did UMNO do for the Malays ? How about sending thousands of Malay students for overseas studies to begin with ? How about KOMTAR and other efforts to help Malay entrepreneurs ?

    When I was doing my PhD in the USA – I made many Malaysian friends who were sent to study overseas courtesy of the NEP !

  16. aniza said

    then u gotta ask the real ground sentiment and maybe try to post it under Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim blog..see if he agreed.

  17. Dr Syed Alwi said

    Of course Anwar disagrees ! Anwar is anti BN but you ought to be mature enough to know that the NEP has benefitted thousands of Malaysian Malays in terms of education and such.

    Indeed if you read the posts on pro-UMNO forums – they accuse Anwar of being a slime-ball. On the other hand – PAS supporters still aim for that Islamic State.

    Personally I think that Anwar is being used by PAS………..

    You cannot deny the thousands of Malaysian students sent overseas to study all paid for by the Malaysian Government – courtesy of the NEP.

  18. aniza said

    Our thinking here as Singapore Malays gteatly differs from our M’sia Malay counterparts..
    To them ‘tanah melayu’ is everything to them and to make it simple do not wish to share the land with other races..

    One of my m’sia malay fren told me…below is his statement..

    M’sian Malays have long been living under the darkness for long..
    being used as a bait for every elections to keep UMNO especially in power..

    They under the NEP is lagging behind other races although with constant priviliges given

    it is something like a bull being pulled by its horn..
    he told me Malays are generally nature loving people who does not like the competitive world to achieve sucess..
    they just want to have a peaceful life in their kampung..

    again he said…
    who is really the malay warriors indeed?
    while m’sian polticians like tun hishamudin has a mixure of turkish descent
    present Prime minister,has a chinese grandfather
    and syed hamid albar is of arab desent..
    who in fact is using the ‘real’ malays..

  19. Sonia said


    First off, thanks to all for the warm welcome – I’d have responded earlier but have had a nasty bout of ‘flu.

    To address some of the points . Dr Syed, you make some very important points. The debate on Islamisation is hugely important, but I think it is a mistake to purely see this as ‘PAS and the debate on Islamisation’. UMNO, particularly evidenced through the civil service, is moving Islamisation along. In various UMNO controlled constituencies (such as Putrajaya and Shah Alam) there are restrictions on dog ownership, as just one example. The ban on smoking throughout Selangor (for Muslims), the raids on beauty contests, in Selangor etc, alongside the larger cases, including that of the famous teapot, all show that PAS and UMNO are, in part, in a race to out-Islamise each other.

    That is, however, a simplification of the situation. Neither PAS nor UMNO is a uniform monolith. Within each there are both progressive and conservative currents, and the meaning of these words has varying shades in each. And in as far as this is a trend to ‘sacralize’ the state, I suspect that the other religions would not mind getting in on the act (Act?) as well – note the proposal to set up a JAKIM-style body for the non-Muslims. In terms of understanding the various currents in Malaysian politics, I find this a more useful dichotomy – the currents for and against the sacralization of the Malaysian state. These are present in each party, including the Chinese-based parties (least present in the socialist-derived parties, PSM and DAP, I suspect because they are more strongly rooted in secular ideology).

    The second point of ‘Ketuanan Melayu’ is a complex one, made more complex by the power held by the East Malaysians in the current Parliament. I’m following the current debates on this closely – the phrase is emotive, but that’s partly because nobody really knows what it refers to. Is it the NEP? Land rights? Privileged access to education? Is it just the Sultanate? For different people it covers some to all aspects of these things. The power or at least position, of the Sultans is possibly the only part of the definition that is non-negotiable. But what does that actually mean in post-Mahathir Malaysia? Badawi is finding out a bit of it… Huzir Suleiman’s comments have been probably those I’ve found most enlightening.


  20. insulted said

    let’s move on….as usual when they screw up..its a honest mistake. They have shown their stand by not resigning…to face the challenge of not losing their salary. I believe our oppositions are judged by a higher standard….

  21. sam said

    i live in aljunied GRC, and my neighbourhood isn’t very clean. people feed the pigeons from the 2-5th storeys, cars get randomly scratched, human beings and dogs pee in lifts, random litter everywhere. a few years back, there was a fire because some furniture dumped at the ground floor caught fire. the feeder bus, which runs through the WP opposition ward, also takes forever to arrive. crazy place.

    whatever happens in this GRC, stays in the GRC. the whole neighbourhood now have upgraded elevators. although on paper, those living on the lift-landing levels could not vote for the upgrading, i’ve a lift-landing neighbour who had her door knocked on and was asked to vote. any way, residents were supposed to go a location outside their homes to vote. any absence would have constituted a “nay” vote to the upgrading. it’s really weird: lift-landing residents being asked to vote, and administrators going door to door to get votes. inconsistent and potentially embarrassing. like i said, crazy things happen here.

    ultimately, getting the new amenities up is a good way to improve election votes, but the whole thing about the thrash index and conservancy fees only sends mix signals to aljunied voters. maybe the solution lies in continuous and random gerrymandering.

  22. Gary Teoh said

    We have so many rules and regulations, why ATC want to complicate the matter ?That is the problem of 1st world country, must come up new ideas, brainstorming, change rule every now and then, so people will think that the MP are doing their work and not idling.

  23. Gary Teoh said

    The MP every now and then comes up with new ideas, so that people will think they are not idling, this is typical of pap culture, keep improving and serve the nation at the same time squeeze money from the peasants.

  24. Expected Analysis said

    Any Singaporean who has followed PAP’s strategy over the years would know by now that unpopular/controversial policies will be mooted to gauge public’s reaction and feedback. With this, they will formulate explanations and reasons to beat around the bush and enforce the policy gradually.

    With SPH’s full assistance, a couple of pictures to show the dirty blocks in the ST will do the trick of convincing people the rationale behind the policy. The town council’s obscene amount of invested funds testify that their cost of maintaining the estates is well below what has been collected from the residents. The foreign talents that they employ play a big part in their cost savings.

    To think of charging higher fees for those dirty blocks is to extract unjustifiable profits from the innocent vast majority living in those blocks. If this is indeed a real problem, why not install cameras to capture the real culprits? This one-off investment would be much appreciated by residents.

    Does it mean that S&C charges will be lowered for those clean blocks then?

    Singaporeans cannot reconcile and can never agree that the high pay accorded to the civil servants results in only higher dubious charges through lame excuses and inept policies. Most other Singaporeans can come up with profit oriented policies just as well.

    We don’t have to doubt that this was a miscommunication between them. It was meant to be an excuse in public relations. The only way to tell them off is to exercise your vote wisely.

  25. Expected Analysis said

    This is a pre-meditated move to gauge the public’s reaction to another profit-oriented policy. It is a dumb policy which penalises the vast innocent majority.

    If some of the blocks are indeed badly littered regularly, please install cameras to capture the real culprits. Residents will be most happy and the problem should be arrested unless the cameras are not commissioned.

    Does it mean that by keeping the blocks clean, residents can look forward to lower S&CC charges? After all, the hugh amount of invested funds testifies that the town council’s collection is way above its operating cost. Or will this be used to showcase the town council’s prowess in accumulating savings at residents’ expense?

    The intelligence of those who moot such an inept idea is not at question. It is the real intention that is highly questionable.

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