14 November, 2007

Malaysia-a virtual one-party state ?

Setting aside diplomacy, the European Union's outgoing ambassador has soundly criticized Malaysia, describing it as a virtual one-party state that discriminates against minorities and foreign investors by openly favoring the majority Malay Muslims.

Law Minister Nazri Aziz dismissed the accusations by Ambassador Thierry Rommel, who left his post Tuesday after 4 1/2 years, saying he is an outsider who does not understand the country. "I treat his opinion as uninformed and ignorant," said Nazri.

Rommel's blunt message _ in a recent interview with The Associated Press _ comes as Malaysia and the 27-nation European Union are getting ready to start negotiations next year for a free trade agreement. Rommel's advice will heavily influence policy makers in the EU.

The Malaysian government is facing one of its most critical moments of the last ten years as it prepares for the 2008 general elections. Civil society groups, ethnic minorities and the opposition in parliament are united in their demands for electoral reform and greater royal intervention to guarantee justice against the authoritarianism of current Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi.

The reality of the widespread dissatisfaction was brought home on Saturday when, according to organisers, 40,000 protesters took to the streets of Kuala Lumpur. The authorities ended up banning the mass gathering, and police used tear gas and water canons to disperse the crowd. Some 245 people were arrested but were eventually released after posting bail. The police intervention was however criticised in many quarters, including the Catholic community.

Analysts are convinced that the prime minister’s party, the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), is not likely to take 90 per cent of the seats in parliament as it did in 2004.

According to Fr Lawrence Andrew, from the Catholic weekly Herald, the Bersih march shows the political and social cracks in the country’s model, highlighting how some people get preferential treatment because they are on the right side of the political divide compared to those who just stand for rights in general.

For him these initiatives are fundamental in safeguarding the supremacy of the country’s constitution, which is threatened by personal interests and Islamic law.

Abdullah's coalition is in no real danger of losing office -- he has a record majority and a peerless political machine -- but political analysts say Saturday's protest, and the prospect of more, could make him question the wisdom of an early poll.

The next election does not have to be held until early 2009.

"The time is not right for them (the government)," said Ooi Kee Beng, of Singapore's Institute of South East Asian Studies.

"There are too many things going on that have made people quite dissatisfied, if not angry, with the government. They will wait for a time when the 'feel-good factor' … is higher."

Khoo Kay Peng, who runs a local independent Web site of political commentary, said it would be risky for Abdullah to call a snap poll without dealing with the issue of electoral reform.

"Saturday's protest has awakened people's awareness," Khoo said. "Abdullah has to look at the elections and convince people that elections are fair," he added.

Saturday's protest was organised by Bersih, a coalition of opposition groups and civil societies who have united to demand a clean-up of the electoral roll, elimination of so-called "phantom voters", curbs on postal voting and equal access to the government-friendly mainstream media for all political groups.

The ruling multi-racial coalition, which has governed in several different forms since independence 50 years ago, has denied that there is a need for reform and has said Saturday's protest was an illegal assembly by opposition trouble-makers.

But the protest revealed another uncomfortable fact for the coalition, Singapore's Ooi said -- that opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, who helped stage it, was still a potent political foe.

"It puts Anwar back on the map in a big way," Ooi said.

"With this demonstration and the support that has been shown, he will have to be taken very seriously from now on."

Anwar, who led the 1998 "Reformasi" protests, and his supporters have promised to stage more protests on the theme of electoral reform -- one of the few issues that all opposition groups, ranging from Islamists to leftists, can agree on.

"You know in the past, we hardly appeared on the streets until we had no confidence in the police, judiciary and in the elections," Anwar told Reuters by phone this week.

"Now we have come to that stage (again)... We have exhausted all avenues, except to go to the street," he added, comparing the mood now with that of his old "Reformasi" movement.

Anwar had been dismissed publicly by both the government and some political analysts as a spent force in Malaysian politics.

The 60-year-old's political party had failed to make a dent in the ruling coalition at a recent by-election, and even foreign journalists, who once regularly attended his news conferences, had stopped turning up to hear him speak.

Now, for the first time since Anwar was released from prison three years ago, he has shown he can still pull a crowd -- and not just any crowd: Saturday's protesters were mostly Malays, the majority ethnic group and the government's core constituency.

Malays have always been Anwar's main supporters. He was once heir apparent to lead the main Malay ruling party, a step away from the prime ministership, before he was sacked from government in 1998 and jailed on what he called trumped-up charges.

"He is a figure that most opposition see as a leader to voice their demands," said Lim Guan Eng, secretary-general of the opposition Democratic Action Party, acknowledging Anwar's role in galvanising the country's disparate opposition parties.

Umno and her president could have stood tall to walk the talk, should they have truly understood the true import of the “time for parochial interests is over”. BERSIH rally calling for some urgent electoral reforms, couldn’t have been a better opportunity to ‘show-case’ their earnestness and honesty of shifting from parochialism to the bigger interest of the nation. Electoral Reforms is surely one of the critical reforms in achieving a democracy worthy of Malaysia.

Admission by none other than the Chairman of the Election Commission of the need for various electoral reforms have been repeated not once or twice but many time over. SUHAKAM similarly expressed concern over the many undemocratic practices rampant in this country as amply argued in their many publications. BERSIH is ready to join hands with anyone, any party and any organization, so as to provide a functional democracy worthy of being inherited by our grand-children and all. It surely is beyond the parochial interest of both ruling and opposition parties. It serves the national interest of every citizen in the entire society.

But alas, Umno’s parochial interest took sway of their better selves!

By outlawing and forbidding BERSIH peaceful rally, they have indeed confirmed and reaffirmed of how parochial and more-than-narrow-minded they actually are! It is again an epitome of a ‘legacy of lost opportunity’ for the president of Umno.

Be that as it may, BERSIH, now a coalition of 6 political parties and over 70 NGOs must step up their relentless effort to achieve their electoral demands before the next GE. The Umno/BN government have denied BERSIH their right to a peaceful assembly, but the rakyat are resolute and unflinching to achieve the electoral reforms!

“The Time for Parochial Interest is Over”. What say you Mr Premier? Is it really over?

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