UCANews. Democracy showdown looms in Malaysia

Approaching elections should act as a safety valve in the multi-ethnic nation.

For more than 10 years now, Malaysians have been asking for greater democracy and equality in the multi-ethnic nation. They made that plain at the last general elections in 2013 after a series of street protests. Nothing changed. The government consolidated its grip on power and passed new laws tilting the country towards dictatorship.

In the last election, the ruling coalition, Barisan Nasional, won 47 percent of the vote but took 60 percent of the 222 parliamentary seats. The opposition coalition, Pakatan Rakyat, won the popular vote (51 percent) but had only 40 percent of the seats.

Malaysians will get another stab at change this year. The 13th Parliament of Malaysia automatically dissolves on June 24.

While another term seemed in the bag after redrawing electoral boundaries to add new Malay-majority constituencies in the government’s favor, Malaysia’s leaders must be wincing at street protests by thousands of Iranians against alleged corruption and rising prices.

The protests highlight the corruption scandals and mismanagement plaguing the nation.

Malaysia is still reeling from the fallout of 1MDB — a Malaysian state investment firm at the heart of one of the world’s biggest financial scandals — and the imposition of a goods and services tax that has raised the cost of living.

According to a survey of 1,203 voters conducted in November last year by Merdeka Centre, an independent pollster, an estimated 20 percent of the population were cutting back on essentials such as food to make ends meet. Economic issues, such as the rising cost of living, economic hardship and jobs, were the biggest concern for 72 percent of the voters surveyed, it said.

Academic Ahmad Farouk Musa of the Islamic Renaissance Front does not believe events in Iran will have a ripple effect in Malaysia, though he sees protesting Iranians as justified for calling their government to account for finding themselves in a similar situation.

“Iran is a democracy as it has regular elections. In a democracy, a demonstration is something normal. It should be celebrated. If people are not happy with their situation, then it is their right to go out to the streets and protest and be heard,” he says.

“I think it is a good development because it has opened the eyes of the ruling party, especially the clerics, on the need to improve the living conditions of the people.”

Malaysia’s street rallies started in 2007, organized by a group of non-governmental organizations seeking to reform Malaysia’s electoral system to ensure free, clean and fair elections.

Many Malaysians viewed the last general election results as a clear example of a rigged political system designed to keep the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), in office since independence in 1957, in power.

The feeling of many people in the country now is that they can wait a bit longer to make their anger known at the ballot box.

“I don’t think we are going to hold any protests in Malaysia in the near future. There is a kind of fatigue among Malaysians, especially as the previous protests did not yield any results,” Farouk says.

“The ruling party is kind of immune to all these kind of protests and disappointment shown by the people. They are concerned about consolidating.

“Every day you hear new things banned by the government and yet they have survived. I don’t think in any mature democracy such a government would survive. If the government had some morality, they would basically have resigned.”

Referring to the government’s Islam-centric policies that conflict with its secular constitution, he adds: “No matter how you think you can govern a country in an Islamic way, the most important thing is whether you can deliver to the people the needs of the people. If you can’t provide a good life to the people, then you have failed as a government.”

International Islamic University lecturer Maszlee Malik agrees with Farouk that events in Iran will not reverberate in Malaysia, though the Iranian Revolution in 1979 and Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s rise to power did have an impact  on Malaysian politics.

He says the other time transnational events influenced the Muslim-majority nation was during the series of protests and demonstrations across the Middle East and North Africa that started in 2010 and became known as the Arab Spring.

“The Arab Spring was significant because you had one country after another change and that had some impact on Malaysia a couple of years before the 2013 election,” Maszlee says.

“But this time, whatever happens in Iran or in the Middle East, Malaysians have come to a stage where they feel they have had enough. That’s the attitude. It’s not going to be something that will really inspire change in Malaysia even though the demand for change in Malaysia is real.

“They (Malaysians) hunger for change. They really want to get rid of the mess and the topsy-turvy situation of our economy but going to the streets as a solution is not an option for Malaysians.

“I think if you want to see a change in the coming general election, it would be (induced by) very domestic and local issues.

“You would expect the scandals, if not handled correctly, are going to be a time bomb for change.

“The mood (for change) is there but it’s all about what’s happening in Malaysia. It’s very local.”

Maszlee warns, however, not to expect the government to surrender meekly: “Anything that will keep them (UMNO) in power … anything that keeps the status quo, they will do. Even at the expense of ethnic relations.”

This article first appeared on UCANews on 8  January  2018

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