Saturday, January 3, 2009

2008: Annus Mirabilis: The year that was... Part 2

6. The foundering disappointment of the Abdullah Badawi government
When he first took over the helm of Prime Minister, Abdullah Badawi was seen as the next hope for change toward a gentler, less corrupt, less autocratic government. He did promise to clean up the act. But alas, the wheels of change under his watch, were truly grinding under the weight of ponderous inaction and torpidly unconvincing pledges—some talk, but generally no action. At least, none worthy of institutional progress.

If anything, he let his cronies, his fourth/fifth floor gatekeepers led by his son-in-law KJ, control the engine of his listless administration and the nation's projects for development. As a result the country literally stalled, with gross incompetence, venal and shameless bartering for ill-gotten gains and extravagant wastage!

It was as if the wealth and direction of the country now hinged on the grandiose if untested whims and fancies of a small coterie of young 30-something year-old Oxbridge graduates, beholden only to the ambitious Khairy Jamaluddin.

Rumours of his excesses are probably just that. But the unflattering perception became disastrous for the Premier, who seemed unwilling or unable to rein in this appealing if brazen young man (in closer circles, he had been quoted as having said that he would become prime minster before the age of 40!)

His impatience and his greater-than-life belief in himself and his worth clearly antagonised more than just the ordinary Malaysian, his UMNO brethren began to openly question and challenge his stature and his ambition. Thus, began the break-up of the cosy unity of purpose of UMNO-dominated largesse and its shattered myth of political goodwill. It finally boiled down to everyman for himself, as they wrangled for the spoils of dominance, influence and connections.

The strong 2004 electoral mandate given by a hopeful rakyat, was therefore quickly sapped and frittered away, with escalating disenchantment with Pak Lah's lethargic style of leadership. Ambitious and impatient political rivals skirmished and began to sorely test his mettle, and left in its wake, a lingering if haunting disservice to his vitiated legacy.

Some kinder pundits have equated him, Pak Lah to be Malaysia's Gorbachev—a sort of an enlightened leader who espouse a new beginning (sadly, equally nebulous in the final anaylsis), an openness, a glasnost, for greater democratic space—perhaps, they were right...

But ultimately, being benign and gently ineffectual (perhaps even a seat-warmer?), is never enough to hold on to power in this hurly-burly world of politics... Pak Lah would soon have to relinquish his mantle of power, (one which we sense he was uneasy to begin with anyway), brokered through an uneasy truce with his number two.

His tenure of Premiership is best summed up as forgettable, even as he tried at the last gasp to enact new laws (the watered-down MACC, JAC) which would lend some spotted burnish and meaning to his lacklustre administration.

Still, it is true that Malaysians were given a chance to become more outspoken, more willing to question the status quo, braver with the uncensored anonymity of free-expression aided by the mushrooming alternate media—the blogosphere, YouTube and the world wide web through the internet. So, in a sense we should be grateful.

But, perhaps, it is also the spirit of the times, the zeitgeist of a new interconnected world, where civil liberties and expectant human rights have matured with presumptuous free expression, information ubiquity and where knowledge access is de rigueur, even inevitable...

7. The ex-PM who would not go away...
Mahathir Mohamed, now Tun, our ex-Premier for 22 years, must be that permanent fixture on any Malaysian political scene, who refuses to fade away.

There is much that can be said of this singular man, but there is also sadness that having achieved so much, he has clung on to his cast-in-stone ideas that Malaysia must be the Malaysia of his own, and perhaps his only image.

There can be no doubt that Mahathir placed Malaysia on the world map pedestal. He developed modern industrialised Malaysia in the mould of strong and autocratic man of yesteryears. Malaysia is made known globally because of his untiring efforts to promote a Malaysia that Can, i.e. Malaysia Boleh!

His grandiose schemes while criticised by many of his detractors, might be temporally opportunistic, but his landmarks have become household names in the region as well as globally, e.g. the Petronas Twin Towers, Putrajaya city, the KLIA, the Penang Bridge, Proton cars.

But alas, his other legacy isn't so sparkling or benign, but may be even more painfully enduring and inimical. In his determined quest to modernise Malaysia and uplift the indigenous Malays in particular, he began with unique bold ideas which were beneficent. As a result Malaysia's hard core rural poverty had been drastically reduced, and a sizeable middle class had been created.

However, many of these quickly became blemished as these created a spectacular if exclusive brand of government-linked corporations, and government-aided multimillionaires, very closely tied to or even dependent on the leadership's patronage system.

He did well in removing the scales from the eyes and the parochial mindset of many bumiputeras. He gave them a much-needed self-belief which is undoubtedly important and laudable, for which they can at last become more confident and conscious of their self-worth. He must be credited for having unabashedly promoted the Malay agenda so that as an ethnic group, they can confidently become more fully engaged in the business and affairs of the nation and its development—and hence, could compete on equal footing in this globalised world.

Thus, in times of plenty, when the economy was growing at a vigorous clip, there was enough wealth to be spread around, and every Malaysian appeared to benefit. Hence, in many ways he also made Malaysians of all races, proud to be Malaysians, because of his visionary leadership. But his continued sanction of this affirmative action has also created a subclass of dependency, of crutch-mentality and easy handouts, of rentier capitalism and political largesse.

He also brooked little opposition, challenge to, or restraints on his style and his power, believing that as popularly-elected Premier and government, he had the mandate to rule without interference from the constitutional royalty, the oversight judiciary or the minority opposition. His idea of majoritarian rule appears to be one of absolutism.

His brand of power politics and autocratic rule unfortunately and systematically emasculated these same institutions—the judiciary became beholden and capitulated; the royalty had its wings clipped, and the pliant police were offered unfettered power in exchange for its unquestioning loyalty. Corruption and political patronage practices reached its height, and UMNO-supremacist ideologies pushed to its ultimate arrogant peaks.

Following the March 8 election debacle, he openly led the huge chorus of criticisms casting his blame on the weak leadership of Pak Lah and his family connections. Since then he has all but undermined our hapless prime minister. He has since found a new dimension to his once silenced voice—the resurgence of his acerbic tongue through his immensely popular blog!

It appears that Mahathir has issues of not being able to forgive or forget, as he relentlessly pursue his Machiavellian vengeance on whoever crosses him... At 84 years old, he continues to remain as sharp and as artless as he had always been. Until Pak Lah leaves the scene, there is little doubt that Mahathir will continue to badger him and his administration, pulverising whatever little that's left...

As he has already commented, as long as he is alive, he will not keep silent when he feels things are not going his way, neither would he allow Malaysia's fortunes and gains (which he had bulit up over the decades) to be 'jeopardised'. I foresee that Dr M will continue to figure prominently in the coming 2009, health and God willing!

Thursday, January 1, 2009

2008: Annus Mirabilis: The year that was... Part 1

2008 must rank as one of Malaysia's most defining years, and perhaps too... for the world.

Here are the top events from my lenses:

1. The March 8, 2008 Elections.
For us Malaysians, 2008 must be ranked as one truly momentus Annus Mirabilis, for indeed after 51 years of shackled and distracted timidity, near half of all Malaysians, Malays, Chinese, Indians, Others, one and all, rose from the ashes of UMNO-dominated politics to decide that enough was enough. We were finally emboldened to think the previously unthinkable while overcoming the racial taunts and threats of disorder. In its wake, this spawned a new Malaysian political order.

The ruling Barisan government lost 5 states to the rag-tagged opposition parties, and shockingly lost its two-thirds majority trump-card. That night, the national TV channels were hopelessly shell-shocked, incredulous that the ballots were going against the government, that they refused to telecast timely disclosures, and purposely delayed the electoral results with idiotic racist commentaries by some pathetically out-of-date personalities. Recounting and postal ballot loading were insufficient to recast the foregone results, fortunately, and despite the odds, some 48% of the voting rakyat had given the opposition its unprecedented 82 seats out of the total 222—truly a most famous victory!

The opposition, whose loose coalition still managed to capture the imagination of change-minded citizens, who are simply put, fed-up with more of the same: top-down politics, arrogance, executive abuses, corruption; rising crime rates and crime-ridden cities, a discredited police force more attuned to political hijinks than civic protection purposes; a totally compliant judiciary; disproportionate and biased religious contentions; selective prosecution and high-handed suppression of public anger and demonstrations.

2. The Awakening of our Rakyat, Hindraf...
One uncharacteristic phenomenon which emboldened more of our unhappy citizens must be the eruption of Hindraf. This groundswell of long-forgotten and deprived Indians in many pockets of the country, grabbed the headlines by its boldness of purpose, its courage of conviction, its penetrating pervasiveness, and its shared anguish.

Many Malaysians of Indian origin could easily relate to and find the reality issues totally consonant with their sense of social and economic deprivation. Unemployment, unemployability, high levels of school drop-outs, growing gangsterism and entanglement with violent crimes among its restive youths serve as the stark underbelly of Indian marginalisation even in rapidly wealthy Malaysia.

This undoubtedly made many see the urgent need and the possibilities of unity of purpose and willingness to sacrifice, assimilate and participate in its causes with passion. Shouts of satyagraha and makkal sakhti became the clarion call for sociopolitical action and purpose. Short-message service texting (or sms's) and emails became the modus operandi for planning, collaboration and coordination. And boy, did they succeed!

Despite their announced plans for peaceful demonstrations and marches, they were denied permits and met with iron-fisted response from the government and the police. The Hindraf march on November 25, 2007 must rank as the determining focus of their concerted energy and sacrifice. The luckless police reacted by attacking these throngs of families—young and old—with laced water and tear-gas. They wrought unprovoked beatings and arbitrary arrests, in the full glare of the ubiquitous cellphone photography and videos.

They cast their idiotic paralysing police road-blocks around every arterial road entry into the city causing massive unprecedented gridlocks, which completely inconvenienced the rakyat without any justification except as a cynical portrayal of its silly attempt to show-off its clout—one supremely fatuous act after another, which further distanced the urban folk from the high-handed actions of the much-maligned police.

Videos and photos of police brutality were published in YouTube and the blogosphere, which further antagonised the disgruntled and the furious, and which lent the police and the government even less credence for their warped sense of powerplay!

3. The rise and rise of the blogosphere
Blogger extraordinaire Raja Petra Kamaruddin (aka RPK or 'Pete') led a motley crew of outspoken bloggers (Jeff Ooi, Kickdefella, Rocky, Tony Pua, M Bakri Musa, Kim Quek, Farish Noor, Azly Rahman, etc.) to vent believable (if somewhat unchecked) stories and alternative viewpoints.

Conspiracy theories and political shenanigans were told in such arresting conversational style and 'detail', that many readers believe these to be absolutely true. According to RPK, his 'rumours' have so far proven to be accurate in more than 90% of the time, and that he had all the documentation to prove them, which lent 'street cred' to his messages for change!

This internet chatter had earlier been the salt and grist of rumour mills especially when the main stream media (MSM) chose to be safe, sycophantic and self-censored, while remaining completely out of touch with the seething grumbles of the muffled grassroots. Thus, began the power of the blogosphere which were tapped with great elan by the opposition politicians, converted to printed pages, vcds, and roadshows—clearly offering an alternate if more plausible scenario of the inaptitude, corruption, arrogance and failings of the incumbent government and its tainted members.

4. The return & travails of Anwar Ibrahim and the Formation of Pakatan Rakyat.
Disgraced and imprisoned former deputy prime minister made a triumphant comeback, this elections, as he led as de facto leader of Parti Keadilan (Justice Party), although he was still barred from eligibility due to his conviction just short of 5 years ago. He managed to cobble together disparate opposition parties such as PAS and DAP, and led this loose coalition (then monikered Barisan Alternatif, BA) to a stunning if unexpected general elections results in March, 2008.

His charisma is unmistakable, but more importantly he had decided that he had to off-load many of his former archaic ideas and develop new ones which called for more openness, more egalitarian, more inclusive, less corrupt, more transparent, more meritocratic principles, which appealed to the change-agenda of many new voters and a restless rakyat. Setting priorities of cooperation rather than dwelling on ideological differences and unrealistic party political goals, helped the voters to focus on simply voting for change from the incumbent—the swing was decisive and impressive.

This led to the later amalgamation into the Pakatan Rakyat of today, a true blue alternate political front of substance, yes with its teething problems of sporadic spats of one-upmanship. It is hoped that this erstwhile if convenient alliance would outlast its trying differences, and become in due course, a worthy successor to viably administrate the next governments for the good of Malaysia.

But Anwar Ibrahim is still under the cloud of Sodomy charge II, one which was hurriedly brought about by an unashamed former aide, who happened to have met with the DPM Najib Razak, some days before. The timing could not have been better—Anwar was to stand for by-election after his wife resigned her place at Permatang Pauh in July 2008. The doctor who examined his alleged victim, was suddenly missing fearing for his safety, after he had been 'urged' to write a more favourable report.

Unfortunately, this salacious saga continues, despite urgent calls from many a disbelieving public to abandon what many feel is another trumped up charge. The silly attempts to move the case away from a sympathetic but brave judge at the lower Sessions Court to the High Court, again underlines the machinations which the Attorney General's office has decided to selectively prosecute its special cases. Clearly, Anwar Ibrahim is a special case... The final denouement has yet to be played out.

However, Anwar's attempts to persuade Barisan Nasional's MPs to defect failed miserably, despite rocking the equanimity of the governing leadership, whose tenuous hold appeared to be breakable at any moment. By September 16, Malaysia Day, it became clear that the Pakatan Rakyat could not pry away elected members from the BN camp to join their cause. Perhaps, the offers were simply not enough to entice the defections.

This failure has cast a shadow over the PM in waiting, and many wonder if his strategem had any substance to begin with. His popularity has taken a dip, since. Perhaps all this is for the better. Now, the PR seems resigned to its oppositionist role and appears more dignified. PR is finally beginning to look ready to seriously govern its 5 states, rather than acting as debutantes and tetchy oppositionists, whose intents and purposes appear to be too focussed on and mired in political ploys!

5. The inane spectre of the ISA
Following the March 8 electoral setback, the opposition and the rakyat became increasingly boisterous and began urging for greater freedom of speech and expression. The months that followed were difficult ones for all, with politicking and grandstanding taking the place of true governance and civic discourse. The insipid and debilitated premiership of Abdullah Badawi did little to assuage the mood of a restive populace clamouring for change and immediate if unrealistic reforms.

Challenges to the perceived fallout in authority of the police and the home ministry brought about swift and disjointed responses of confusion and knee-jerk stupidity. The public, finding its voice and now demanding greater transparency, appeared emboldened and testy—seemingly to kick the teeth in for the incumbent but beleaguered government.

Alas, when the chips are down and the tempo and pitch of political recriminations were turned upwards to jarring plangent decibels, the government reacted. Racist taunts were bandied about with unrepentent advocates on both sides testing the limits of each other's resolves. Ethnic bigotry was allowed to raise its ugly head, while seemingly tolerated if these were on the side of the governing political parties. Slanderous accusations were attributed to either sides, with the police appearing tardy or partial to investigate the veracity or otherwise. The ISA was invoked, and with some quickly shortened after huge public hue and cry--Sin Chew journalist Tan was released after 24 hours, purportedly her detention was "to ensure for her safety"; and opposition MP Teresa Kok after a week.

But the much feared and fearless RPK who was initially slapped with criminal defamation, had his detention confirmed by the incoherent home minister Syed Hamid Akbar, to a 2-year order for incarceration without trial. Then, after nearly 2 months at the Kamunting detention centre, a judge decided at long last that his detention was illegitimate, and RPK was freed! The government was in total disarray trying to ameliorate its public relations nightmare, for perhaps for the first time ever, its arbitrary decision had been successfully challenged.

His problems are still not yet over, as legal woes are mounting. But RPK has been as pugnacious as ever, challenging those who feel slighted to sue him, as was the case when he roundly condemned the pathetic performances and sorry excuses of the just retired Elections Council chairman.

Together with like-minded liberal Malaysians, such as Suaram, Jerit, the Bar Council, and even SUHAKAM, we are calling for the abolishing of the ISA, and we will continue to voice our strongest opposition against this unjust and arbitrary law. There is hope that Pakatan Rakyat will rescind this obnoxious law once it comes to power, so we can all hope for a better future, soon.