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 Day 19

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A Relentless Theater

Malaysia Goes to the Polls

by BINOY KAMPMARK

Times are exciting, and terrifying, for the Malaysian electorate.  The voters will be going to the polls to consider the prospects of uncertain change or a continued embrace of the status quo, which resembles a decaying carcass of ill-promise.  There are no dates in the pipeline as yet.

No election in Malaysia is ordinary, even if the result has always been the same ruling party – Barisan Nasional joined to the hip with the Malay-dominated Umno. Theatre is inevitable.  Corruption is mandatory, confirmed in such studies as the Bribe Payers Survey conducted by Transparent International, which found in 2012 that Malaysian companies were the most likely in the world of business to take a bribe (Hindustan Times, Dec 13, 2012).  Second in the study was Mexico.

Promise is dangled only to be withdrawn, leaving a politically stunted electorate confused.  It has always been the same story – the ruling national front coalition threatened at stages but never overturned.  But things are changing, and the minders of the status quo are worried.  The People’s Alliance, led by Anwar Ibrahim, hovers with menacing promise after garnering a third of the Parliament’s seats in the 2008 polls.  “For the first time in the country since 1957,” observes academic Clive Kessler of the University of New South Wales, “the prime minister and his government are fighting for political survival, for their political lives” (Lim Kit Siang for Malaysia, Blog, Apr 7)

It is fitting that Anwar Ibrahim, a man deemed by opinion and law a sodomite, a treasonous official who was the admired deputy for so long during the reign of Prime Minister Mahathir, should now pose a threat to the position he believes was made for him.  Time is returning its favours to the party that not only disowned and betrayed him, but sought to destroy him.

True to form, Anwar’s enemies have decided to bring sex to the fore again.  A video supposedly featuring a man resembling Anwar has been distributed across various blogs. “This is a disgusting political gimmick executed by Umno” (The Star Online, Mar 16).  So far, the story has lacked sufficient political purchase.

Another theory in circulation is that Anwar was himself behind the destabilising conflict in Sabah, aiding the Sultan of Sulu. “Anwar Ibrahim wanted Sabahans and Malaysians to understand how lethargic our defences are that he persuaded a ragtag army to enter Malaysia and occupy the land” (Malaysian Insider, Mar 2).  Of course, the usual jaundiced commentary applies – Anwar being an “agent for the U.S. and Zionists” and sharing “a bloodline with the Sultan of Sulu”.

This explains the sheer desperation of the BN.  The party’s manifesto is blatant – a vote for the BN is an incentive to get more cash in hand.  As an afterthought, the ruling party is promising cheaper homes and cars.  Naturally, it promises to deal with the very same corruption that sustains it.  On Saturday, Prime Minister Najib Razak promised electors better transportation, a better education policy and better health care.

The poorly patched words used by the prime minister are tinged by a degree of panic.  “This mandate that I seek is about continuity and sustainability against disruption and stagnation, about moving forward versus regressing.  We have to safeguard what we have already achieved.  We cannot put at risk what we have, we cannot gamble away our future.”

A few figures are worth recalling.  Najib’s manifesto promises to raise annual handouts for poor households from 500 ringgit ($164) to 1,200 ringgit ($392) while building 1 million new low cost homes (Associated Press, Apr 7).  Numbers are plucked out of thin air – a promise to bring in 1.3 trillion ringgit ($425 billion) in investment by 2020 and the creation of 3.3 million jobs.

This crystal ball gazing has been the government’s program for decades.  Subsidies to rural voters have been targeted, for it’s in the countryside that the BN stands to retain power.  Constituencies have also been hostage to a gerrymandering campaign to keep the rural voters onside.  While pandering to a welfare model for poorer Malays, the BN-Umno group has been transferring tens of billions of ringgit from the public purse.  Promises of heaven on earth are supplemented by a staggering program of self-enrichment.

The only glaring problem here is that the platform seems identical to that embraced by Anwar’s People’s Alliance.   We are talking less about policy than exorbitant rhetoric.  They too, are promising cheaper cars, better education and a lower cost of living.  “This election is a race to be more populist,” observed Wan Saiful Wan Jan of the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs.  “It is about which coalition can promise to give more to Malaysians” (AP, Apr 7).  This election is starting to look very much like a choice between the bad and the worse.

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.  Email: bkampmark@gmail.com