Abdullah revives Malaysian authoritarianism
By Ioannis Gatsiounis
KUALA LUMPUR - Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi took to the premiership four years ago, postured as a humble, well-meaning repairman. His words cut past Malaysia's shiny facade to fix the ethnic, social and economic fissures that after years of official neglect had worn away at the multi-racial country's foundations.
He spoke of good governance, of weeding out corruption, of closing one of the region's largest rich-poor divides. He introduced Islam Hadhari, a "balanced" approach to the faith that lightly hinted all was not right with Malaysia's deeply political and increasingly conservative brand of Islam. And he delivered his message with a soft voice and sensitive gaze that seemed in retrospect sincere about defusing deep-seated political and racial resentments.
In the time since, Malaysia has spiraled toward political instability, culminating in three major street demonstrations over the last five weeks. The latest demonstration occurred last Tuesday outside of Parliament and involved a coalition of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) objecting to a proposed constitutional amendment to extend the term of the election commission’s chairman. Last month an estimated 20,000 people turned up downtown here calling for electoral reforms. All the rallies were deemed illegal, as the government refused to issue permits and have resulted in violent crackdowns and dozens of arrests.
The embattled leader accuses the protestors of threatening national stability and on Monday said he would not hesitate to authorize use of the draconian Internal Security Act (ISA), which allows for indefinite detention without trial, adding, "I'll do it without feeling guilty, without feeling sad." On Thursday, he made good on his word, signing detention orders for five leaders of the Hindu Rights Action Force (Hindraf), which recently held a 10,000-strong rally in downtown Kuala Lumpur to protest the perceived marginalization of Malaysia's Indian community.
A long-standing affirmative action program subsidizes the majority Malays, though Indians are economically the worst off among Malaysia's three main ethnic groups: the Malays, Chinese and mostly Tamil Indians. The Malay-led government has labeled Hindraf "terrorists" via official statements and over the state-controlled media.
Abdullah's strong-arm tactics, however, do not address the root cause of the socio-political crisis, nor will they easily resolve the boiling situation. Sources of resentment and division include the country's affirmative action program, which favors the majority ethnic Malays over minority groups, and a brand of Islam which is slowly but surely encroaching into the public and political sphere. Badawi's ruling party, the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), has made a habit during its five-decade rule of squelching dissent and brazenly proceeding as it sees fit.
But this go-round of protests - the first major demonstrations in 10 years - is a potentially explosive culmination of long neglected grievances. The 1998 reformasi demonstrations, in contrast, targeted official corruption. The judicial crisis of 1988, which caused a split within UMNO and effectively ended the judiciary's independence, did not lead to judicial reform. The race riots of 1969, which violently pitted ethnic Malays against Chinese, gave rise to the still in-effect affirmative action program known as the New Economic Policy (NEP), which intended to help the Malays reach economic parity with the Chinese. It has been abused by well-to-do Malays and still has yet to reach its stated aims.
The first serious call for review of the current crisis began last year. And staunch resistance to changing the status quo within UMNO persists. When a video tape surfaced in September showing a prominent lawyer allegedly brokering judicial appointments with a chief justice, Abdullah's de facto law minister and other senior officials defended the integrity of the judiciary while impugning the whistleblowers.
The government's habit of reacting to crises by digging in its heels - rather than redressing them through legal prosecutions and reforms - has contributed to what was already an uneven brand of development. Economically, in broad terms, Malaysia has performed well. Poverty is expected to fall below 3 % by 2010; unemployment is low; Malaysia now imports, rather than exports, labor.
But socially and institutionally, it has not kept pace. Innovative and critical thinking is famously in short supply, while race and religion dominate the political landscape and are now seriously threatening national stability. The judiciary and media and other key institutions are widely seen to lack credibility, while the government dismisses recent international concerns over its abuses, including last week by the US, as an "internal affair".
It wasn't supposed to be like this. By the time Abdullah took over for his authoritarian predecessor Mahathir Mohamad, it was already apparent that Malaysia's lopsided economic growth was unsustainable. Abdullah's repairman rhetoric was for many Malaysians apt, uplifting, and unifying - a much-needed political reality check. He has since failed to deliver on most of those pledges, many feel.
Some of Abdullah's defenders have explained this away as a matter of a well-meaning leader up against an entrenched government system. But this explanation doesn't absolve him for the numerous scandals linked to his administration. His deputy internal security minister, former director general of the anti-corruption agency, and the inspector general of police have all faced allegations of corruption.
The attorney general has declared them all clean, raising in some quarters serious questions about Abdullah's and his administration's political will to push for more rule by law. Some scandals have even allegedly involved Abdullah's own family members. In 2005, an independent inquiry into then Iraqi leader Sadaam Hussein's oil-for-food scandal cleared Abdullah of involvement, but implicated two of his relatives for paying bribes to Iraqi officials.
His ambitious son-in-law Khairy Jamaluddin is now busy establishing a foothold in both business and politics - counter to Abdullah's initial promises to break the perceived corrupt nexus of government and big business seen under his predecessor. In particular, Kairy was involved in a controversial merger between the privately held and relatively unknown ECM Libra Capital and a major government-linked company, Avenue Capital.
Complaints of foul play have even come from within the ruling party: Then Information Minister Kadir Sheikh Fadzir claimed the 2004 general election, which swept Abdullah to power with an overwhelming majority, was the most corrupt he had witnessed in his decades-long career. To be sure, Abdullah has inherited a race-based political system that many say is outdated and increasingly inimical to the country's future. But despite the once-grand rhetoric he has not checked the tendency of leaders in his camp to play the race card for political gain.
By many accounts race relations have worsened under his watch and UMNO's senior politicians have not helped matters. The party's annual assembly last year was among the most racially charged in the party's 50 years in power. This year's was quieter, but on the whole the party is showing few signs of parting with its discriminatory strategy to maintain power. After the Hindraf rally, the state of Malacca's chief minister was quoted saying, "The Malays have never taken to the streets, so do not force us to do so as we will draw our parang [machete] to defend [Malay supremacy] in this country."
For his part, Abdullah justified Thursday's use of the ISA against political opponents on the grounds that it was necessary for "national stability", but thought better of applying it against senior UMNO members who publicly threatened to use violence against Malaysia's minority communities. (For an interview clip with opposition leader Syed Husin Ali on the ISA, click here.) A deeper problem, however, is the unwillingness of all the races to think pro-actively about what their respective communities can do to bridge the racial divide.
Political analysts say the finger is always pointed at the "other", while the government maintains that the solution is not to talk about differences. Some here are puzzled by how dramatically Abdullah’s agenda has veered from its stated course. But that is to negate his political past and unwavering support for the oppressive culture of his dominant UMNO party, which harks back to his days as a Cabinet minister under Mahathir.
After the opposition rode a wave of public outrage over official abuse to score significant electoral gains in 1999, four opposition leaders and a newspaperman were charged with offenses against the state. Mahathir was on vacation at the time, leaving then deputy Abdullah to deny that it was a case of "political revenge" and saying the often perceived pliant courts were "the best place for them to prove their innocence".
During the reformasi period, Abdullah also warned street demonstrators of "very tough" action. He famously accused Al Gore of supporting "terrorism" and inciting riots when the then-US vice president gave a speech here applauding Malaysian demonstrators for championing democracy and justice.
"He sounds like the [previous] PM [Mahathir], he is crude in his attacks on the opposition," said Nasir Hashim, president of Malaysia's Socialist Party at the time, in an analysis that many Malaysians will find apropos of the present, adding that Abdullah's "insecurity" over his inter-party support led him to sound and behave like other UMNO leaders.
The fact that Abdullah hasn't garnered support and built up connections in the traditional UMNO way, including through developing strong business ties, helps to explain why he has recently taken his hard authoritarian turn against the political opposition. Indeed, if Abdullah were to have fulfilled his initial pledges, the 68-year-old leader would have had to first change himself, to put the national interest above his party's, to cultivate the moral authority to stand up to the entrenched and often corrupt interests in his own midst.
On Friday, a day after signing the ISA detention orders, Abdullah met with 13 NGO's to discuss issues affecting the Indian community. This seemed duplicitous to many, after weeks of street demonstrations and the prime minister insisting the protests were not an acceptable way for Malaysians to voice their complaints and grievances - though also unwittingly suggesting that it was street demonstrations that finally got his ear.
His administration's use of the ISA, overtly targeting what the government has referred to as Indian "terrorists", simultaneously sent a message to the ground swell of dissatisfaction with Abdullah's leadership, which increasingly cuts across all ethnic lines. Still, many are predicting the ruling coalition Abdullah leads to handily win the general elections, widely expected to be called in the first quarter next year.
Indeed, without systemic electoral reforms, the cards are once again stacked in the UMNO-led coalition's favor. It controls the political machinery - the media, the national purse strings, the election commission, even the school curriculum, where university students and academics are required to take a pledge promising to "always be loyal" to the government. A resounding electoral victory will reinforce the status quo, but is unlikely to rescue Malaysia from its growing political impasse.
Ioannis Gatsiounis, a New York native, is a Kuala Lumpur-based writer.