Saturday, 16 July 2011

Wake-up call for Malaysian politicians: Challenge of a new mindset!




Challenge of a new mindset

INSIGHT: By JOCELINE TAN

Feelings are still deeply divided over last weekend’s street protests but there is a growing realisation that there is a sophisticated civil society out there who can determine the outcome of the next general election.

A DIE-HARD admirer of Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad was asked how the big man felt about his famous daughter Datuk Paduka Marina and her grown-up daughter joining the Bersih march last weekend.

The Mahathir-admirer said the former Premier felt more embarrassed than upset.

Dr Mahathir’s views about public protests are well known. In fact, he had, over the last few months, expressed disapproval of the way sensitive issues like race relations and religion were openly debated and challenged, saying such things had not happened during his watch and implying that his successors have been unable to control the politics of the day.

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But to have his daughter and granddaughter marching with the Bersih group was an eye-opener altogether. In a way, it was a metaphor for how the world has changed around him since the years when he was still in the driver’s seat.

However, the political circle around him fumed at Marina. They think she has put her father and her deputy minister brother Datuk Mukhriz in an awkward situation. But those familiar with Marina say her support for Bersih had more to do with her NGO ties and what they stood for. Also, like many Malaysians, she wants to see a first world electoral system emerge in this country.



The problem was that Bersih was polemic from the word go and when emotions run high, there is little middle ground. It becomes a situation of you are with us or you are with them.

That has been the dilemma for many, including Deputy Higher Education Minister Datuk Saifuddin Abdullah who came under attack from pro-Umno Netizens for his views on the rally. Some of them even called for him to be sacked from the Government.

Among his “wrongs”: He had questioned the authority’s handling of the rally and was critical of the Friday sermons cautioning people from joining the demonstration. A day before the protests, he tweeted: “Saya tidak setuju perhimpunan Bersih tapi tak payahlah guna khutbah Jumaat.” (I don’t agree with the Bersih rally but there’s no need to use the Friday sermon.)

He clarified later that although the rally was illegal, there was no need to resort to religious grounds to stop it. More bashing followed that remark although he also won praise for being objective. People like Saifuddin are a minority in Umno, which saw the rally as a direct challenge to its hold on power.

Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak acknowledged the raw feelings in the party when he made one of the most fiery speeches of his career before a packed gathering of Umno leaders and members at the party headquarters the next day. He was speaking to an emotional audience who felt that the other side was pushing them against the wall; and you could see it in their response.

Khairy Jamaluddin received loud applause at the PWTC gathering. The Umno Youth chief had also defied the ban to rally and he has been taunted for the barely 200 “Patriots” he managed to gather. But he went out there, took the hits for his party and they acknowledged it.

Umno Youth had its share of casualties. The police did not care who Khairy’s father-in-law was; they arrested him after giving him and his group the pepper water and tear gas treatment.

Bukit Bintang Youth chief Tengku Azman Zainal Abidin was whacked on his upper back while Putrajaya Youth chief Datuk Zaki Zahid is nursing a black-and-blue left arm, no thanks to a FRU baton. A member from Besut suffered a broken ankle.

The mainstay of Umno is still seething. They regard the whole affair as a veiled attempt by Pakatan Rakyat to import Egypt’s Tahrir Square phenomenon to Kuala Lumpur and destabilise the government.

“How would they feel if we take to the streets when we disagree with policies or laws in Pakatan states? You want this culture, we can do the same. They have set a dangerous precedent,” said Tengku Azman.

Claiming credit

Pakatan leaders, who kept to the background in the run-up to the protests, are now emerging to claim credit while threatening more street protests.

The rally was also very much about political gamesmanship and there is no denying that Pakatan has regained the momentum they lost following the string of by-election defeats and the sex video scandal. Public perception is that the Government could have handled it with more finesse, however.

PAS leaders, in particular, are milking the afterglow for all it is worth. Deputy president Mohamad Sabu, who was injured in the knee, has been making the ceramah rounds in a wheelchair where he is welcomed like a war hero. Shah Alam MP Khalid Samad who received about half a dozen stitches to his scalp has worn his scar like a badge of honour.

Surprisingly, pictures of Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim in hospital with tubes running out of his nose elicited little sympathy and some thought his bodyguard, who was seen with blood dribbling down his cheek and chin, should be the one stretched out.

A key concern of PAS was its standing with the palace because the rally had gone on despite the advice from the King. The latest issue of Harakah went into overdrive to contain the matter, carrying the King’s picture on the front cover as well as the back page while pinning the blame of treachery squarely on Umno.

A point of curiosity was the DAP’s role, or rather the lack of it. Key DAP leaders kept a low profile before and after the showdown. Questions are being asked whether they were trying to downplay their political clout after their massive wins in Sarawak or if they were apprehensive about the sentiments of the Chinese middleground regarding Middle East-style uprisings. According to an insider, the party did not want to be seen as the provocateur, so they played safe.

Besides, Penang Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng had a foretaste of this in his own state several days before the Bersih show. DAP leaders probably know they would be giving their opponents an excuse to retaliate the same way in Penang if they had actively encouraged the Bersih rally.

Will there be more rallies to come?

Bersih chief Datuk S. Ambiga said quite firmly there would be no more Bersih rallies for now. Her NGO coalition worked hand in glove with Pakatan to organise the demonstrations but she apparently does not intend to let Pakatan politicians hijack the movement and turn it into a yellow bandwagon for them to roll into Putrajaya. It will be a test of whether she is really in charge or whether it is the Pakatan leaders who are running the show.

Pakatan politicians know a good thing when they see one. They have been tweeting and making press statements about “yellow Saturdays” and holding more gatherings.

“The key challenge for them is how to maintain the momentum, to distinguish between the NGO and Pakatan arms of Bersih and how to stick to the agenda of electoral reform.

“For Pakatan, it is about how to build a broader movement by bringing in groups with grievances on issues such as inflation and corruption.

“But, by and large, we are a functioning democracy, the election process still works, and the way forward is to find a way to mediate between the demands and politics of these groups,” said Merdeka Centre director Ibrahim Suffian.

The way the rally unfolded has hurt the image of Najib’s administration but it has not undone the good he has done, as some claimed.

Najib, as Ibrahim pointed out, has tried very hard to be seen as more than just another politician. He has put into place policies and measures which he believes will be beneficial for the future of the country. It is there for people to judge alongside the political fallout from Bersih.

Within Umno, there is a segment who understands the civil society value of the Bersih demands. They agree with the bigger goals of free and fair elections even while opposed to the way the organisers took it to the streets.

“We are not afraid of reform and progress. I have no problems with the call for greater media freedom. We opposed the rally not because we are against principles of fair elections, but because the rally became a political challenge,” said Umno Youth’s Zaki.

For Umno, especially, the rally was a wake-up call. The large number of young Malays on the streets was the very sort of people which Umno Youth should be attracting but instead they were out there with the other side.

The Malays came out in huge numbers because there is a lot at stake for them – the Prime Minister will be a Malay and as Muslims, they want control over the question of Islam in the country. Moreover, the Malays/Bumiputras will determine the politics of the future because by 2020, they will make up 70% of the population.

On Thursday evening, Umno’s Saifuddin gathered a group of like-minded people to share and discuss the events of the past weeks and how to go beyond what had happened. Saifuddin is what one might call the thinking person’s type of politician.

New perspective

The group is talking about engagement, about looking at issues in terms of grey rather than just black and white. This group sees the diversity of views out there and they understand how important it is to command the middle ground.

Zaki, on his part, has invited his peer group from Pakatan parties to sit down and debate electoral issues.

They realise that the most significant aspect of last Saturday’s protest was the participation of civil society and the number of people who declared that they were there not to support PAS or PKR or Anwar Ibrahim, but because they want a better electoral system.

“These are the people who will eventually vote for the candidate rather than the party. They go on issues, they can distinguish between party politics and real issues,” said one senior journalist.

If not for anything else, Saturday has shown that there is a very sophisticated and discerning civil society out there and they are not afraid to make their opinions known.

This group will be a major factor in determining the outcome of the next general election and political parties should do everything they can to engage them.

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