24September2020

Agenda Daily

OF IJOK,SHANGRI-LA AND EVERLASTING CONTENTMENT

In a bid to seek the mystical Shangri-la and everlasting contentment, people of days gone by undertook challenges which required monumental effort. In this day and age, general elections and by-elections, such as the one held in Ijok recently, continue to mystify us with rhetorical campaign pledges and less-than-satisfactory results. Some contemplation might be timely.

 

In james hilton’s imaginary shangri-la, life was so gloriously peaceful that men and women of great enlightenment lived to be 200 years old.

Since he wrote the Lost Horizon in 1933, a story inspired by real-life mountaineer George Leigh-Mallory, who was lost during a fatal climb of Mount Everest in 1924, great many travellers, dreamers and spiritual seekers have trekked up the Himalayas looking for Shangri-la.

To seek and find ultimate peace and happiness is the greatest dream that a man (or woman) can dream of.

Our Prime Minister, Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, very early on in his administration had declared openly that he was seeking damai abadi. Understandably, being a man who is generally identified with piety, Abdullah is not guided by Hilton’s fantasy in his search for ultimate contentment. He is guided by the holy Quran and the great Muslim Imams of Al Shafie and Al Ghazali.

In between Hilton’s search for Shangri-la and our Prime Minister’s metaphysical journey towards everlasting contentment, I sense a third-dimension having presented itself in Ijok during the April 28 by-election.

Among the extraordinary events reported by the mainstream as well as the alternative media was the presence of voters 100 years old or more and one who was as young as eight. Perhaps, the Election Commission can shed some light. Who knows, Ijok could turn out to be the lost horizon that Hilton was searching for where men and women lived to be very old and an eight-year-old had the wisdom of a grown man.

Of course, as far as by-elections go, Ijok is a Shangri-la of sorts. If media reports are to be believed, then its voters and the general population would have enjoyed the greatest windfall a state assembly constituency had ever experienced.

The fight for the 12,000-voter constituency was so fierce that it drew the rare appearance of the Prime Minister himself. As a matter of practice, the Prime Minister does not take part in a by-election campaign. He does not go down to the ground campaigning. The task of leading a by-election is given to the Deputy Prime Minister. But Abdullah made the exception for Ijok. He briefly toured the constituency.

Some say Abdullah was forced to go to Ijok because intelligence reports had warned that the Opposition, led by Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR), was gaining the upper hand, partly as a result of the constant presence of former Deputy Prime Minister and PKR adviser Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim.

Anwar, who recently declared that he would contest the coming general election come what may, had used Ijok as a launching pad.

Opposition sources say their high-profile candidate, businessman Tan Sri Khalid Ibrahim, was leading by some 500 votes just before Abdullah came a calling. One PKR senior office bearer said Abdullah’s denial that there was an internal attempt to undermine Deputy Prime Minster Datuk Seri Mohd Najib Abdul Razak, swung some Malay votes back to Barisan Nasional (BN).

Whatever the case might be, BN scored a sterling victory. It not only retained the seat but also increased its majority.

With four consecutive by-election victories in 16 months under its belt, BN should have the confidence it needs to contemplate the next general election.

Turning adversity into opportunity

BUT the outcome of the Ijok and the three earlier by-elections also bear some worrying indicators for BN — the most significant being the swing in Chinese voters in favour of the Opposition. This was most apparent in Ijok, where more than half of the Chinese votes were reckoned to have gone to the Opposition.

Acknowledging this, the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) President Datuk Seri Ong Ka Ting was quoted in the New Straits Times as saying that the swing was a result of unhappiness with the service of the previous assemblyman as well as several sensitive national issues.

Ijok, which is a Malay-majority constituency, is franchised to the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC). The Indians form the second largest voting block followed by the Chinese.

‘There were also some rumblings on national issues,’ he said, adding that some voters had expressed unhappiness over statements made by ‘some leaders’ which they considered hurtful to the interest of the Chinese.

‘We got this feedback although we had explained that the implementation of policies is based on collective decision-making with a multiracial perspective and not on certain statements by individuals. However, they did not accept our explanation,’ said Ong.

Unlike Malay and Indian voters who fall easily to promises of development and palm greasing, the Chinese are more circumspect and suspicious of electoral pledges. Furthermore, unlike the Malays and Indians, the Chinese, being traders and professional people, are more independent economically. At the same time, they are more acutely aware of the true state of the economy.

It is a well-known fact that middle- and lower-level businessmen are yet to feel the effects of the so-called good times that the government and its mainstream media supporters have been proclaiming in recent months.

There is no person who is more aware and knowledgeable about the behaviour of Chinese voters than former Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad. For more than three decades, starting with his defeat as the Alliance Member of Parliament for Kota Star Selatan (now Pendang) in the 1969 general election, he lived with the spectre of the shifting Chinese votes.

He lost the seat when the minority Chinese voters abandoned the Alliance – the predecessor to BN – in favour of PAS.

The Star quoted Dr Mahathir as saying in Kota Bharu on May 6 that Chinese voters are strategic-minded. This, he said, was partly the reason why a small swing in Chinese votes towards the Opposition was reported in Ijok and earlier in Machap.

Recalling his 1969 experience, Dr Mahathir said he lost the Kota Star Selatan parliamentary seat because the Chinese supported PAS out of fear that he was an ultra-Malay. ‘I know the Chinese disliked PAS, especially with their political ideology of wanting an Islamic country and so on and so forth. Still, the Chinese voted for it because they disliked my reputation as an ultra. It was a choice between the devil and the deep blue sea and the Chinese made me the devil,’ Dr Mahathir said after delivering a talk on Malay leadership in a globalised era.

On the other hand, said Dr Mahathir, the Malays tended to vote along party lines and based on raw sentiment.

There is no doubt that the strategic-thinking Chinese would be basing their voting decision in the coming general election on facts and, in the case of the economy, hard statistics instead of mere promises and rhetoric.

The move by prominent local tycoons like Robert Kuok and T Ananda Krishnan to delist their companies from Bursa Malaysia or taking them private suggests that something is amiss with the country’s economy.

Given this uncertainty, the Chinese-based parties of BN like the MCA and Gerakan have no choice but to continue making demands that satisfy the Chinese or risk losing their support.

So, the less-than-satisfactory performance by the MCA in Machap and Ijok was not necessarily bad for the party. It can turn the adversity to its advantage by asking for additional concessions from the Umno-led BN leadership.

Learning from Ijok

And what did Ijok and the three earlier by-elections tell us?

Among other things, it tells us that money politics, disguised as development allocations and financial assistance, will continue to be the mainstay of BN’s campaign.

The ruling party will do all it can to cling on to power. With a new breed of ambitious politicians now holding sway, we can expect BN to capitalise more brazenly on the party’s financial and manpower superiority to keep the Opposition at bay.

The majority of voters will continue to be influenced by promises of financial and material assistance, although many promises made during the 2004 general election are yet to be fulfilled.

Such universal ideas (and ideals) as justice, fairness, transparency, openness and accountability will remain a political mantra and beyond the ability of many voters to grasp.

The Opposition parties, in particular PKR, would be unlikely to be able to promote a common agenda that is acceptable to the majority of the voters. On the other hand, the mudslinging will become worse with each subsequent by-election. Personality issues are beginning to override and sideline the more fundamental aspects of governance, as character assassination becomes the weapon of choice. It is not surprising, therefore, that election campaigns are becoming increasingly shallow and insipid, lending credibility to the claim that there is a deliberate effort towards ‘dumbing down’ the intellect and the thinking of the people.

This has manifested itself in the growing tendency among campaigners to misbehave and resort to violence. The hypocritical tendency is becoming more widespread in political parties, as leaders are praised in public but derided and criticised in private. (A deputy Umno divisional chief from a northern state who made an appearance at Ijok told this writer minutes before the BN was declared the winner that he was disappointed that the Opposition had not done better. He said an Opposition victory would have served to send a strong warning to the BN leadership.)

The election process, in particular the registration of voters and the casting of votes, continues to be a source of discontent and suspicion among political parties and observers. Even BN often raises the spectre of ghost voters.

Umno, in particular, and the Malays, in general, will continue to support the non-Malay candidates despite the fact that several non-Malay BN parties had openly questioned the social contract which forms the basis of the Malaysian Constitution, proving, once again, Dr Mahathir’s assertion that the Malays tend to vote along party lines.

But BN cannot be too sure about voters’ sentiment and support come the general election when its financial and manpower resources are stretched to the limit and its performance is subjected to wider scrutiny.


When civil servants have it good

AMIDST criticism that the bureaucracy and its retinue of the so-called ‘Little Napoleons’ are sabotaging the government’s development efforts, the government suddenly announced their pay increase. The Prime Minister, who until recently was vocal in his criticism of the civil service, now says they deserve the revision.

It is a fact that the majority of civil servants are not that well-paid, but at least they are employed and continue to enjoy job security. The same cannot be said for private-sector workers.

So, can the government justify to the taxpayers, the majority of whom are in the private sector, that more of their hard-earned income will be spent on supporting the burgeoning civil service?

The powers that be have not only been denying the burdensome effects of government-mandated price increases, but have also constantly been dishing out gloriously low inflation figures.

Yet, at every turn and corner, we hear consumers, in particular the urban-based, lower-ranking civil servants, complaining about the runaway price increases. Even the mainstream media is forced to highlight problems of rising prices and disappearing supplies.

This latest salary revision and the series of cost-of-living allowance (Cola) adjustments in the last three to four years lends credibility to the claim that the cost of living has indeed increased dramatically.

The one million-odd civil servants may enjoy a temporary reprieve and be sufficiently grateful to vote for the government in the soon-to-come general election, but what about the rest of the population, in particular, the self-employed and lower-paid private-sector employees?

The private-sector employers are not likely to be able to keep pace with the government’s generosity. Already, they are being burdened by rising production costs and falling productivity, as the country sinks deeper into the ‘holiday mood’ with not a month passing by without one type of holiday or another being declared.

So, what will they do?

The unscrupulous ones and those whose products and services enjoy inflexible demand will raise prices, which, in effect, will negate the pay increase.

In purchasing power terms, they will be no better off than they were before.

The real answer should still be to increase the productivity of the economy and enhance the distribution of income and national wealth.

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