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From Hope to Despair and the Path Forward in Malaysia

The 2013 general election in Malaysia has come to an end. The poll was much-anticipated, with the promise that it appeared to offer the opposition, Pakatan Rakyat (PR). Pundits in Malaysia and around the world were of the belief that the 2013 election would be the closest in the country’s history and that the opposition, led by Anwar Ibrahim, might have even been able to prevail on Sunday the 5th of May. But it was not be for Anwar Ibrahim and the coalition of parties behind his bid to be the first of Malaysia’s Prime Ministers not to come from UMNO which has ruled the country since its independence in 1957.

The 56-year rule of the governing coalition is set to continue after Barisan Nasional (BN) took 133 of the parliament’s 222 seats, a simple majority, with PR snaring 89 seats in the assembly.

Not much has changed since the 2008 poll. Prime Minister Najib Razak was hoping to recapture the supermajority lost by Barisan Nasional in the election five years ago and Anwar was widely expected to do much better than the results indicate.

Where there is hope for Pakatan Rakyat is in the popular vote tally. PR won that contest, but of course, successful gerrymandering of electorates helped to offset the good showing in the popular vote which needed to be more uniform across the country for the opposition coalition of parties to be delivered government.

Prior to and throughout polling day and into the night, as the votes were counted and the election called, claims were aired about vote rigging and other unsavoury, undemocratic practices. There was indelible ink too, which turned out to be quite easily removed. And there were claims of foreign workers brought in to vote using Malaysian ID cards.

There appears to have been a significant amount of contestable incidents during the general election on Sunday and the Opposition Leader will not accept the result. Anwar Ibrahim has called for a peaceful rally and the wearing of black on Wednesday as the country and the world continues to digest the result.

There is almost no doubt that there were significant irregularities, but even the most hopeful of analysts readily admit that there was probably not enough examples of undemocratic behaviour by political actors on the day to overturn the result. It is arguable however, that gerrymandering alone could have prevented or at least aided in blocking a win for the opposition.

Then there is the simple matter of the electoral commission being under the purview of the Prime Minister. There is little chance that there will be even a shred of a meaningful examination of the claims and more than likely none at all. In fact Prime Minister Razak has already urged the opposition coalition to accept the result.

It appears then that there will be a period of, at best a calm unease and at worst, small-scale riots perpetrated by fringe elements of opposition supporters. The rally on Wednesday will provide a test to see if cool heads prevail. But it should be used, for the most part, as a rallying cry for the next election in five years’ time.

The situation going forward, beyond this election result, is a complex mix of factors, not least of which is Anwar’s future in politics and the future of the opposition movement and how they organise. Then there is what needs to change in terms of government, governance and democracy in the country more broadly.

Before the election, the Opposition Leader had announced that this would be his last campaign. The former Deputy Prime Minister had signalled a desire to quit politics should he fail in his dream to be PM. This will without a doubt leave a large hole in the opposition which will prove almost impossible to fill, at least in the short-term.

Should Anwar Ibrahim hold to his pledge to quit politics, the real, the popular face of the movement for change will disappear. Politics in countries around the world is growing increasingly presidential in nature and that means that the hopes of political parties will increasingly rest on the popularity of party leaders. And Anwar Ibrahim was an immensely popular opposition figure.

The only other PR figure with such a high-profile is Anwar’s daughter, Nurul Izzah Anwar. The opposition would have to seriously consider turning to her to continue the momentum brought by her father.

Another significant figure that Pakatan Rakyat should seriously consider trying to lure into a parliamentary career is the face of  the Bersih protest movement, Ambiga Sreenevasan. This will prove difficult however, and is, at best, an option in the medium-term future rather than in the short-term.

We know what must happen in terms of democratic change in Malaysia. Elections need to be more free and fair and that will only come to pass with a strong and vocal opposition movement, up against a powerful state with the traditional media all in its corner. The gerrymandering has to stop and the electoral commission must be made an independent body, certainly not located anywhere near the reach of the Prime Minister.

Sadly, this part of the recipe will prove to be the hardest ingredient to combine in the mix for a move to a more open and democratic Malaysian society. Seemingly. the only way this will change will be if the ruling party of 56 years is thrown out of office in five years from now. A more vibrant and creative civil society will play a significant hand in this, even though they will be pursued all the way by the cautious, paranoid and power-hungry regime.

What happens next is crucially important.

Appealing to Women a Game of Catch-Up

The public relations campaign to win over the hearts and minds of Australian’s for our various political parties continues. Today that PR battle accelerated with the all guns blazing entry into the political debate of the wife of Opposition Leader Tony Abbott. This political intervention has come on a usually politically quiet Friday, a great time to get airplay. The purpose of this battle to win over the electorate, an attempt to alter a perception, some of which has been proved a reality, that Tony Abbott has a problem with women. So of course, it’s a logical step to have the number one woman in the life of Mr Abbott, his wife Margie, speak out about the man she knows so well.

The key long-term aim of the Margie Abbott media blitz is an attempt to shore up some support among women for the leader of the Coalition and the side of politics that he has represented since December 2009.

However, the main-game, as far as the short-term politics of the situation, is to counter the most recent of attacks that Abbott has faced over the way it is perceived he has dealt with women in light of recent events and unearthed allegations. This has been prompted by the s0-called ‘handbag hit-squad’, female Labor Party MP’s, who have used a situation involving the Acting Speaker, Anna Burke as well as recently unearthed allegations against Tony Abbott from his university days.

It is at this juncture that we reach the first problem. The Liberal Party, mostly through the women on the frontbench and other female MP’s, but also the wider caucus, have decided it is a good idea to refer to Labor women as the ‘handbag hit squad’.

Coming from women only the term, catchy, yet over the top, is okay, though not ideal as a catchphrase to be utilised. It demeans politics even further than politicians have demeaned the occupation before. However, women referring to each other in that way will have much less of an impact, perhaps none at all than if men were to do the same.

Unfortunately, there has been the odd instance where male Coalition MP’s have taken to using the phrase. That does not look good at all. That just reinforces perceptions and helps them evolve into further home truths. It is blatant sexism. Repel the attacks based on the latest perceived indiscretions, but especially from the men of the Liberal and National Party’s, sexist intervention is not needed.

But back directly to the issue at hand: Does Mr Abbott have a problem with women? The short answer is ‘yes’, but it is a little more complicated than just saying outright that Tony Abbott is not seen in a good light by women and that he has a problem with women outright. In fact, it is entirely arguable that Tony Abbott does not have a problem with women, but rather, a problem with women’s issues.

Tony Abbott has said some very stupid and offensive things over the years, from comments on women’s equality, to abortion and the want to deny reproductive rights. The majority of these came when a minister in the Howard Government, particularly around the time of, as well as before and after becoming Health Minister.

These beliefs, do they come from a purely deep-seated hatred of women or from a religious background, a freely chosen inculcation of outdated beliefs that should hold no relevance in a free society?

The answer is almost certainly the latter as David Marr has recently argued. Since his childhood, the Leader of the Opposition has been brought up to believe certain things. In adult life, he freely chose to continue his religious experience and held onto the perceived teachings of the Bible. But this does not make those beliefs ones that should be prosecuted by a political representative in a liberal democracy where individual choice is supposed to be a key tenet. Far from that, it’s just common decency to think of all being equal.

The attack against Abbott in relation to how he dealt with Deputy Speaker Anna Burke however, is just a convenient usage of some incredibly horrific remarks from the past. Old words have been used to artificially construct an argument that because he pushed the boundaries in parliament, his actions were because of a problem with the fairer gender. The accusation is so absurd as to be laughable. His recent behaviour is a product of many things, including a thirst for power and media attention, but it’s a real stretch to characterise being a bit obnoxious in parliament as disdain for women.

As for the alleged events in his university days? Well, they are just allegations at this stage that have not been proven one way or the other. If they were proven to be true, then that would change the ballgame.

The television and airwaves mini-blitz, because of the long-term and justified impression of Abbott as having a problem with women’s issues will probably amount to little benefit. It was slow getting off the mark, years too late. Instead, Tony Abbott and the Liberal Party will be playing catch-up and probably, if there is any actual gain, only achieve a small uptick in support.

But of course, the Liberal Party will continue to pursue this campaign. The Opposition have to at least try to appear as if they and Tony Abbott is speaking to a wide array of women that hold a wide array of beliefs, even if the reality is the opposite.

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