Malaysia opposition set to rule in five states
KUALA LUMPUR: Opposition parties were getting ready to take power in five of Malaysia’s 13 states on Tuesday, putting the country in uncharted waters with the government facing real competition for the first time.
A government led by the Democratic Action Party (DAP), backed mainly be the ethnic Chinese minority, was sworn into office on Tuesday in the industrial hub state of Penang in a quiet ceremony witnessed by sombre-looking civil servants who have only ever worked for the long-ruling National Front coalition.
The strongly Islamist Parti Islam se-Malaysia (PAS) will lead or share power in four states, including three — Kedah, Perak and Kelantan — that share borders with Thailand, which has been battling an Islamic insurgency with historical links to Malaysia.
PAS and the DAP have vowed to review federal projects on the drawing board in their areas, but said would not stand in the way of projects that were already approved and were beneficial to the people, and have warned they would not tolerate cronyism.
Malaysia’s politics of patronage, whereby state contracts are given to businesses aligned with ruling-party interests, has nurtured a powerful political-business establishment whereby contracts are often awarded without open, competitive tenders.
The Edge Financial Daily said in an editorial on Tuesday that was a major factor in Saturday’s election, which handed the ruling National Front its worst electoral setback in history.
“Indeed, one can say that one reason why the people voted so strongly for the opposition in the elections is to send a message that they have had enough of political cronyism and awards of contracts and deals to politically connected companies.
DEAD CAT BOUNCE
The prospect that this nexus could be cut, and the possibility of policy gridlock now that the National Front has lost its iron-clad two-thirds majority in parliament and faces strong opposition in heartland states, has spooked the markets.
Malaysian shares plunged 9.5 percent on Monday, wiping out some $30 billion in market capitalisation, probably the biggest single-day loss in the market’s history.
Stocks had rebounded nearly 3 percent by 0300 GMT, but analysts saw it as a short-lived reprieve. “It’s a dead cat’s bounce,” said Kenny Yee, research head at OSK Investment Bank. “Certainly our market will be undergoing lengthy consolidation.”
Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi’s National Front will be undergoing consolidation as well in the days to come.
He has a tricky task ahead in fending off leadership challenges, especially with his UMNO party — the dominant coalition partner — set to hold leadership elections in June.
He will also need to fill gaping holes in his Cabinet — four ministers lost seats in the weekend election, including Works Minister S. Samy Vellu, the head of the main Indian party in the coalition, who lost his seat in the weekend debacle.
The winning opposition parties have a delicate task ahead as well. The Chinese-dominated DAP has long harboured deep suspicions about the Islamist agenda of PAS, which advocates Islamic law for Muslims, including punishments such as stoning and amputations.
The DAP, PAS and the People’s Justice party of former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim were still hammering out their power-sharing arrangements on Tuesday in Kedah, Perak and central Selangor state in the first test of how well they will govern.
PAS kept power in Kelantan state and its government was due to be sworn-in on Tuesday evening.
A protest vote from ethnic Chinese and Indians, upset over what they saw as racial inequality in terms of business, job and education opportunities, had been expected in Saturday’s poll.
But Malays, who are all Muslims and traditionally support the National Front, completed a perfect storm for the government, giving PAS a record vote to protest against rising prices.
Without a two-thirds majority, Abdullah’s Front can no longer change the constitution or make some key appointments.
Malay demonstration highlights ethnic tension
PENANG, Malaysia: Chanting “Long Live the Malays!” several hundred members of Malaysia’s largest ethnic group gathered Friday on this largely Chinese island, defying a police ban on protests and raising communal tensions in the aftermath of sharp electoral losses by the country’s governing party.
Rapid moves by newly elected state governments to abolish some of the long-held privileges of ethnic Malays have challenged the core of Malaysia’s ethnic-based political system and inflamed the sensibilities of Malays, who until the March 8 elections thoroughly dominated politics through the country’s largest party, the United Malays National Organization, or UMNO.
The opposition parties that beat UMNO and its partners in five states say affirmative action should be based on need rather than ethnicity. But the opposition, too, is struggling to contain fissures along ethnic lines as a Chinese opposition party competes with its Malay counterpart.
“We’re living in very sensitive times,” said Tricia Yeoh, director of the Center for Public Policy Studies, an independent research center in Kuala Lumpur.
The affirmative action program favoring the Malays has been in place for more than three and a half decades and gives Malays everything from discounts on new houses to 30 percent quotas in initial public offerings of companies. It is known as the New Economic Policy.
“The term is very emotive,” Yeoh said. “I don’t think many people have bothered to investigate the details of the policy itself. But it’s an affirmation of their identity in the country, of their significance and their worth.”
Demonstrators here, who were dispersed by the riot police, chanted “Allah Akhbar!” – God is great! – and vowed to return for future protests.
“This will continue,” said Nasarudin bin Mat Nor, a 70-year-old retired schoolteacher who took part in the protest. “If there is no help for the Malays they will get poorer.”
Malaysians are split as much along religious lines as ethnic, with Muslim Malays governed by a separate legal system. The protest Friday immediately followed Friday prayers at a nearby mosque.
The election results showed that the Malays themselves are split between educated, wealthy and often urban Malays and poorer families living in the countryside.
“UMNO is going to go through some sort of consolidation,” said Ibrahim Suffian, director of the Merdeka Center, an independent polling agency. “A lot of people are looking for someone to take the fall for the results.”
For the first time since independence from Britain in 1957 the governing coalition has lost control of Malaysia’s largest and wealthiest states, including Penang, Selangor and Perak. The National Front coalition won 51 percent of the popular vote and just over 60 percent of the seats in the federal Parliament, down from 90 percent in the 2004 elections.
Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi has vowed to stay on but is coming under increasing pressure to quit. On Friday, Mukhriz Mahathir, the son of the former prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad, openly called for Abdullah to step down.
Abdullah came to power in 2003 promising to sweep away pervasive corruption and make government more accountable. But a series of scandals, rising prices and protests by ethnic Indians over religious freedom and income inequality caused his popularity to plummet.
Mainstream newspapers here, which are mostly controlled by Abdullah’s party and its partners, have emphasized squabbling among opposition leaders as they take control of state governments. A swearing-in ceremony Thursday was delayed when the parties could not agree who should fill the top government post in Perak.
“This is a process of coalition forming that is part of democracy,” Tian Chua, the spokesman of the People’s Justice Party, told Reuters on Friday. “We are learning it.”
Malaysia prime minister rejects
calls to resign amid rare political turmoil
KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia: Malaysia’s prime minister has rejected calls for him to resign, claiming he won a “strong” mandate in elections that gave the opposition its biggest gains in the country’s history.
Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi acknowledged that support for his National Front coalition had plunged in last week’s elections from 91 percent of the parliamentary seats to 63 percent or 140 seats in the 222-member chamber.
Still, the ruling coalition managed to get a “strong majority,” just eight short of two-thirds of the seats, Abdullah said in an interview late Friday on state television.
“This is still a mandate given to me. I will not run away from my responsibility to carry out the wishes of the people,” he said.
Abdullah’s comments came after the son of former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad asked Abdullah to resign to take responsibility for the election debacle.
Besides the decline in Parliament, the National Front also lost elections for legislatures in an unprecedented five of Malaysia’s 13 states.
The results “sent a sufficiently clear message regarding the people’s rejection of (you) as the country’s leader,” Mukhriz Mahathir, a government lawmaker, said in a letter sent to Abdullah on Thursday. It was made public Friday.
Abdullah said he has the full backing of members of his ruling United Malays National Organization, which forms the foundation of the National Front, and will let UMNO youth take action against Mukhriz.
However, he said he accepted that the vote signaled people were dissatisfied and wanted change. He said ethnic Chinese and Indian minorities were unhappy with the implementation of development plans.
“Whatever I can do I will do,” Abdullah said. “I will focus on the implementation and rectify weaknesses to ensure fair distribution for all races.”
But it was clear that the unexpected election results were causing tensions. In the first sign of partisan tensions after the polls, boisterous about 300 UMNO members protested Friday outside the state government office in the Chinese-majority Penang state.
Chanting “Long Live Malays,” they demanded that the newly installed Penang government, now controlled by the Chinese-dominated opposition Democratic Action Party, retain a decades-old affirmative action program for majority Malays. They dispersed after an hour when police arrived.
In Selangor state, about 60 UMNO members demonstrated near the Selangor chief minister’s office, demanding the state government not meddle with the NEP. They dispersed after 20 minutes upon seeing police vehicles.
Abdullah accused the opposition of instigating the Malays.
The government has tried to nurture harmony among the three races since ethnic riots in 1969 that killed more than 200 people. But ethnic Chinese and Indians have voiced growing fears in recent years that they receive second-class treatment. The minority disenchantment was a major reason for the National Front’s losses.
Perhaps it is high time we all think about how we should provide financial help in our country. Giving help is fine but it is definitely not a method to keep a sustainable development in our country. By simply giving money just like that, I think we will only spoil and pamper our people and I don’t care whatever the race or ethnicity they maybe. Yes, there should be a basic sum of funding to the poor but not in a way that we should say, “You are a Malay, you get this amount. You are a Chinese, you get this amount. You are an Indian, you get this amount.”
Providing work in equal terms would be a far much better choice for a sustainable development. When people learn to work, they then only will be able to live with pride and learn that by with strong and eager will, they are able to seek a chance to go higher if they yearn to do so. If we continue to just throw in lump sum of money, we are not nurturing the people but we are just telling them, be satisfied with what you are and as long as you ask, we will give. It’s time to change and we all should have the freedom to voice what we have in mind. Towards a better country, I believe that all actions taken and seen now will lead us to there.