Malaysians are caught between a perpetual rock and a hard place when it comes to the politics of their country.
On the one hand, they are saddled with a government led by a man who has been accused by the US Department of Justice of running the “biggest kleptocracy in history”.
On the other, they are sceptical about the alternative, the coalition known as Pakatan Harapan – the Hope Coalition – which until recently seemed unable to pull together a coherent and cohesive platform. They have, however, now named my father, former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, as their candidate for prime minister and Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, the wife of jailed opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, as deputy prime minister – choices that make strategic sense but are likely a disappointment to young people who were hoping for fresh faces.
On the one hand, few can abide the most unpopular prime minister in Malaysian history and his wife. On the other, should the governing Barisan Nasional (BN) win again but then get rid of Prime Minister Najib Razak, his successor is most likely Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, the deputy prime minister. Perhaps this is why Malaysians have taken an inordinate interest in the goings-on in Zimbabwe, where the long-time president, Robert Mugabe, resigned only to be replaced by his former vice-president, a man who goes by the nickname of ‘Crocodile’. Given Ahmad Zahid’s track record as home minister, we may well get our own predatory reptile.
Speculation is rife that these are the actions of a government that does not have the imagination to reverse its unpopularity
The 14th general election is to be held by August this year, but they may be called any time between now and then, leaving Malaysians in coffee shops, boardrooms and home kitchens speculating as to when it is more likely to be called. Some were certain that it would be after the budget in October and before the end of last year. Others predict it will be in the first quarter of 2018, around March or even April. Still others think that Najib will repeat what he did in 2013 when he waited almost until the last minute to dissolve parliament.
Not that this has stopped him from campaigning. While election campaigning officially starts on the day elections are called, and last for only two weeks, it is clear that the BN election machinery has already started to grind. This takes two forms.
The first is the doling out of goodies, or at least the promise of them. The recently announced budget promised, for instance, to build thousands of low-cost houses for the poorest sectors, including 600 units to be built in ‘indigenous areas’ and unashamedly named ‘My Beautiful New Home’ or ‘MyBNHome’. A reduction in individual income tax rates by 2% has also been promised, although this has not been accompanied by a reduction in the very unpopular 6% Goods and Services Tax.
The second approach is by denigrating the opposition through the mainstream and online media. Opposition leaders such as Mahathir Mohamad have been attacked. He was called “an Indian masquerading as a Malay”. Chief minister Lim Guan Eng of Penang is being dragged through the courts for alleged corruption, and Shafie Apdal, who is leading the opposition charge in the Borneo state of Sabah, has been charged with misappropriation of state funds. Mainstream newspapers think nothing of putting photos of the children and grandchildren of opposition politicians on the front pages for supposedly leading a jet set life while ignoring the far more serious case of the PM’s stepson being named by the US Department of Justice in its kleptocracy case.
But speculation is also rife that these are the actions of a government that is feeling nervous and does not have the imagination to reverse its unpopularity by giving people what they really want, rather than what they imagine they should want. People want the sort of leadership that gives them a long-term and sustainable vision of their future, not short-term, stopgap, vote-buying measures. They would very likely still vote for the BN if they are presented with a vision they can believe in.
Unfortunately, unless the opposition coalition gets its act together soon, such hypocrisy is what we will be saddled with for a long while.
Also worrying is the rise of a strand of conservative Islam in Malaysia that increasingly mirrors the Saudi Wahhabi variety. Most recently the deputy minister for religious affairs declared that not believing in God is unconstitutional because while the federal constitution guarantees freedom of religion, it does not allow ‘freedom from religion’. It is this type of twisted interpretation of the constitution that has led to increasing divisiveness in Malaysian society, leading some to believe that Islamic law supersedes the guarantees inherent in the constitution. It hasn’t helped that Najib has played to this particular gallery wholeheartedly, refusing to criticise inflammatory comments by radical preachers until forced to do so.
In this vacuum it has been left to an undemocratic institution, the hereditary rulers of nine of the 13 states, to take a firm stand against such conservatism. Stating that incidents such as the establishment of a Muslim-only launderette are abhorrent in multiracial Malaysia, the sultan of Johor ordered the launderette to open its business to all or close down. The Council of Rulers then issued a statement condemning such divisive actions and words, a move that was unusual but much welcomed by the public when there has only been silence from the political leadership.
The failure of government leaders to condemn such extreme views while espousing ‘moderate Islam’ abroad only underscores the public perception of a hypocritical and corrupt administration. Unfortunately, unless the opposition coalition gets its act together soon, such hypocrisy is what we will be saddled with for a long while.
Marina Mahathir is a socio-political activist and writer focusing on the intersection of gender, religion and politics. She has been a regular newspaper columnist for more than 20 years, led a HIV/Aids NGO for 12 years and is currently involved in advocacy for justice and equality for Muslim women.
This article was published in the January edition of Southeast Asia Globe magazine. For full access, subscribe here.