Malaysia ushers in democracy

Marwaan Macan-Markar

Following last weekend’s general elections, Malaysia finds itself firmly among South-east Asia’s promising democracies that afford space for strong opposition voices to rein in their governments.

The impressive showing of the opposition parties at Saturday’s poll saw the ruling National Front (NF) coalition (or Barisan Nasional), lose its dominant grip on power after 40 years. Opposition lawmakers won 82 out of the 222 seats in the parliament, a dramatic increase from the 19 seats they had held in the outgoing legislature. The opposition also gained control of five of Malaysia’s 13 states.

Till this month’s poll, the NF had continued to enjoy a two-thirds majority in parliament, consequently giving rise to strong autocratic leaders like the former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, who ruled the country for 22 years. But the current leader, Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, faces a new political reality, after the governing coalition he led won 140 seats, a little over 60 percent of the constituencies.

”We are very surprised with the results, but it is clear that the issues we campaigned on like corruption, the economy and high crime rate struck a chord with the electorate,” said Teresa Kok, who was returned to parliament for the third time for the opposition Democratic Action Party. ”Finally, the people of Malaysia felt bold enough to demand for change. This has never happened before.”

The electoral results are a landmark for democratic politics in the country, she added during a telephone interview from Kuala Lumpur. ”It opens the space for a two-party system.”

The significance of the moment was not lost on commentators in the local mainstream media, where government pressure has historically kept a tight lid on dissent. ”In the years to come this election may well be remembered as Malaysia’s rite of passage to democracy,” wrote Shad Saleem Faruqi in the Internet edition of the ‘Star’ newspaper. ”A maturing electorate saw through all the political rhetoric, the issues of corruption, arrogance of power and price rises.”

Even some of the country’s regular foreign critics offered a bouquet. ”Malaysia’s elections this past weekend should be heralded as an important gain for democracy in South-east Asia,” remarked Freedom House, the Washington D.C.-based political and civil liberties watchdog, in a statement released Tuesday. ”Despite attempts by the ruling coalition to suppress opposition voices by arresting activists and restricting public demonstrations, opposition parties quadrupled the number of seats they hold, gaining the capacity to block government efforts to amend the constitution, as it has done frequently in the past.”

In fact, the political realignment in Malaysia deals a blow to an old political order that had defined a regional grouping since its inception, the Association of South-east Asian Nations (ASEAN). The five founding countries – Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore and Thailand – had governments that made a strong case for dominant one-party states, where any hint of opposition was crushed.

Consequently, ASEAN was the home to strongmen like Indonesian leader Suharto, Philippines president Ferdinand Marcos and authoritarian prime ministers like Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore and Mahathir of Malaysia. The policy of the one-party state was even defended by Lee and Mahathir as a feature of ”Asian values,” where political and civil liberties had to give way to development and economic progress.

The Malaysian polls confirm that people have grown tired of the arguments for the strong one-party state, he explained during a telephone interview from Jakarta. ”It may have served governments during the early stages of nation-building but not now. That era is over.”

Today, however, Singapore is the only founding member of ASEAN still clinging to the old political order of the strong one-party state. For company in the regional grouping, which has marked 41 years and has expanded to 10, the affluent city-state has communist-ruled countries Vietnam and Laos, military-ruled Burma and the absolute monarchy in Brunei. Cambodia, the other ASEAN member, has more political freedom.

Yet the prospect of the political wave that swept through Malaysia being repeated in other ASEAN countries appears remote. Most so in Singapore, the richest and most developed of ASEANs remaining one-party states. The ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) has held on to power since 1959. It holds 82 of the 84 seats in the current parliament, which was elected in 2006. The PAP enjoyed a similar dominance in the last parliament, following the 2001 poll.

”The ruling party sees an opposition party as a threat and it pursues a lot of measures to keep the opposition outside the political spectrum,” Chee Soon Juan, leader of the Singapore Democratic Party, said in a telephone interview from the city-state. ”It has been done by filing lawsuits against opposition figures, using the internal security act and even banning podcasts and using SMS during election campaigns.”

Yet he concedes that Malaysia’s transformation is ”very encouraging” for opposition parties in the region that face autocratic regimes. ”There are lessons to be learnt. The opposition parties and activists in Malaysia have been pushing the limits of the government, and they are now enjoying the fruits of their labour.”

And for ASEAN to grow up politically, the fear among the majority of the group’s countries to embrace a stronger and vocal opposition has to end, says Endy Bayuni, chief editor of ‘The Jakarta Post’. ”Countries need healthy debates in parliament, which will now happen in Malaysia. It means that the government will have to explain and fight for its policies.”

The Malaysian polls confirm that people have grown tired of the arguments for the strong one-party state, he explained during a telephone interview from Jakarta. ”It may have served governments during the early stages of nation-building but not now. That era is over.”

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