Agenda Daily


That the general election is just around the corner is quite obvious, judging from the subjects raised and tone used at the recent Umno General Assembly. The question is: Can the ruling coalition sustain the record-breaking mandate it won in the last election in the face of several issues plaguing the nation?


By A Kadir Jasin

the just-concluded umno general assembly was, for all intents and purposes, a preparation for the general election.

Despite a myriad of problems and issues facing the party, government and country — which need urgent attention — the delegates generally opted for the safer self-congratulatory and adulatory route.

Nobody was about to rock the boat for fear of not being nominated to represent the party in the polls, or not being offered contracts in the string of development corridors launched by Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi in recent months.

Hence, everybody from the party president to the nation’s token angkasawan (astronaut) were singled out for praise and adulation, leaving the more intractable issues like the rising cost of living, mounting crime rate and the ‘differences’ with the Malay Rulers over judicial appointments largely unaddressed and unattended to.

The party president, for one, was as tied up with addressing the challenge to his authority as Internal Security Minister as much as with party matters.

The timing of the meeting seemed to be less than auspicious on two counts. First, taking advantage of the recent judicial controversy and the apparent ‘differences’ between the Rulers and the government, the Opposition parties and scores of non-governmental organizations, which rallied under the Bersih banner, decided to mount a massive protest in Kuala Lumpur to demand for cleaner elections.

As expected, the police, who are under Abdullah’s charge, refused to give permission, and in a last minute posturing, the Prime Minister sternly warned would-be protesters not to test his patience.

The Umno-owned Utusan Malaysia on Nov 10 – the day of the protest – headlined: ‘Saya pantang dicabar – amaran PM kepada penganjur perhimpunan haram di KL hari ini.’

The Prime Minister’s choice of words in this particular instance was so typically Malay and full of threat that there isn’t an appropriate expression in English. The closest that I can think of is ‘don’t you dare challenge me’. The Star translated it as ‘I don’t take to being challenged’.

Unfortunately for the Prime Minister, neither his strong warning nor the huge police presence in and around Kuala Lumpur deterred the protesters.

After a series of run-ins with the riot police, they succeeded in handing over their petition to the Yang di-Pertuan Agong through his secretary at the gates of Istana Negara.

The petitioners were led by former Deputy Prime Minister and de facto chief of the Opposition Party Keadilan Rakyat, Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim. He was accompanied by Pas President Datuk Abdul Hadi Awang and the DAP’s Lim Kit Siang, who is also Opposition leader.

The timing of this year’s assembly was also inauspicious because the day following the president’s opening address happened to be Deepavali, which was a Press holiday.

Only Utusan Malaysia and Oriental Daily were published on that day to carry Abdullah’s speech, but Utusan’s circulation was believed to be well below its normal sales.

It was not until Friday – two full days after he made the speech — that other mainstream newspapers printed his message.

When asked why the assembly coincided with Deepavali, Umno Secretary-General Datuk Radzi Sheikh Ahmad said that it was the only period that the Prime Minister was free.

The tone of Abdullah’s speech clearly signalled the approach of the general election. He presented himself to not just the Malays, but Malaysians of other races as well, assuring them of Umno’s continued commitment to the spirit of the constitution and calling for an end to parochialism.

The Star newspaper quoted him as saying that Malaysia is a nation for all races and there is a future for every citizen.

He said Umno would always defend this principle, adding that the time for championing parochial interests was over. ‘Issues must be addressed on the basis of the interests of the nation and the Malaysian people as a whole.’

Abdullah’s 90-minute policy address was short by Umno’s standards, but was not short of promises, anything from religious tolerance to freedom of the people to defend their rights and what was in store for all Malaysians 50 years from now.

Fighting for survival

THE next general election, which has to be held before the middle of 2009, is unlikely to be plain sailing for Abdullah and the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition.

Instead, it could turn out to be his fight for survival. If he fails to lead the party to a resounding victory, there could be a challenge to his leadership of Umno and the government. But it would be a mistake to underestimate Abdullah’s staying power.

His history-making 2004 mandate is not likely to be repeated. Even without the string of controversies now plaguing his government, Abdullah is unlikely to be able to repeat the 2004 record.

By nature, the first general election win by any Prime Minister would be his best, and after every big victory, the popularity of the government would generally fall.

In the case of Abdullah, his massive 2004 mandate could end up being his Achilles’ heel, as many of his promises like fighting graft, improving the public sector delivery system and maintaining price stability have been left unfulfilled.

On the contrary, he signalled a further increase in fuel prices, saying that the government could not afford to continue with the RM80-billion-a-year subsidy in its current form.

The trickiest issue of all is the apparent ‘differences’ between the government and the Rulers, principally over judicial appointments.

The failure to extend the services of Chief Justice (CJ) Tun Ahmad Fairuz Sheikh Abdul Halim by two months is seen as a ‘defeat’ for the government, while the appointment of Datuk Abdul Hamid Mohamad as the acting CJ is a ‘victory’ for the Rulers.

This may be the erroneous public perception or interpretation of the issue, but explaining (or not explaining) it to the people poses a major problem to the government.

And the consent by the King to receive the petition by ‘clean’ election campaigners on Nov 10 may just add fuel to the speculation. Of course, the King has every right to receive any petition from his subjects. Under normal circumstances, however, such a petition would not have been handed directly to him or the palace, but would, instead, have gone through ‘His Majesty’s Prime Minister’.

But in this latest event, the petition was handed directly to him via his secretary. This is unprecedented, to say the least.

The question is, what will now happen to the petition? Who is going to act on it?

Since the King received it, the assumption is that he will act on it in one way or another. He can either choose to hand it over to the government for action or he can choose to bring it to the meeting of the Rulers Council. My bet is on the latter.

Having gone through two messy constitutional crises involving the Rulers and their powers, I think all parties involved must not allow emotions to take the better of them.

The situation must never be allowed to go out of hand. While we are loyal to our King and state rulers, we must always bear in mind that the government is the creature of our creation. It has to act on our behalf. If it fails, we can always withdraw our support.

Choosing change

WHILE not everybody might agree with the Prime Minister that the people should reject street demonstrations, I think every Malaysian would agree with him that the correct way to affect change is through the polls.

Even the Nov 10 demonstrators, who according to some estimates numbered 40,000, were in agreement with the Prime Minister. They too want to affect change via the ballot box.

The problem with them is that they think that the election is not sufficiently democratic, fair and transparent. They want it to become more democratic, fairer and more transparent.

Our election has, for decades, been seen as one of the most reliable among the post-colonial democracies. Since then, however, more countries have improved their democratic and electoral processes and become better off than us in some ways.

In countries like Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines, the improvements to democratic and electoral practices came about after prolonged and sometimes violent street protests.

We should not wait for protesters to fill our streets and squares before we take a serious look at our democratic and electoral practices. Resisting change and refusing people their right to assemble peacefully could make Malaysia less democratic, and this may fuel even more protests and demonstrations.

Peaceful assemblies are the constitutional right of every Malaysian. But when the police, at the behest of their political masters, refuse to issue permits to hold public gatherings, it automatically makes this beloved country of ours less democratic.

Since Abdullah is seen as being more democratic and tolerant than his predecessor, he should be less strident in opposing the people’s right to show their feelings.

Contrary to his assertion that street demonstrations are not the Malaysian way, Malaysians actually have been taking to the streets for decades to fight for one cause or another.

In 1946, the Malays took to the streets en masse to protest the Malayan Union proposal. It was the awareness created by this nationwide demonstration that led to the formation of Umno.

In recent times, his own son-in-law and Deputy Umno Youth Chief Khairy Jamaluddin took to the streets to protest against the United States and a host of other ‘evil forces’.

So, we do take to the streets to protest.

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