12 March, 2009

Sleaze, Betrayals, Threats Mar Politics

Sex scandals, political betrayals, threats and anger at the once revered monarchy - suddenly politics in Malaysia, after a sterling start last year which saw a strong opposition in parliament, is taking an ominous turn.


The gloom comes in the midst of the departure of the fatherly Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi who, although laidback and unable to implement promised reforms, was nevertheless a stickler for the basic rules of personal decency.

Abdullah was pushed out of power following the Mar. 8, 2008 poll which saw the federally-ruling, Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition lose five state governments and the two-thirds majority in parliament it had enjoyed since independence.

There was general jubilation and euphoria with the rise of the opposition Pakatan Rakyat coalition which formed governments in the five states and had a large block in parliament to check excesses and misuse of power.

With his impending departure on Mar. 31 and his deputy Najib Razak, a protégé of the former autocrat Dr. Mahathir Mohamad, taking over, the political climate has changed considerably with restlessness gripping the country amidst deepening economic gloom, closure of manufacturing plants and loss of jobs.

State repression is rising, lawyers and human rights activists said, and in tandem with rising public unrest the country.

Abdullah lost effective power after he surrendered without a fight in the contest for the post of president of the UMNO party, the ruling power behind the Barisan coalition, in December 2008.

Since then, effective power is wielded by Najib who is handicapped by allegations that he knew and is connected with the gruesome death of a Mongolian translator who was shot and her body blown up.

Najib has denied the allegations, but a court found two police officers of his security detail guilty of murdering Altantuya Shaariibuu. A close friend and political adviser of Najib, Razak Baginda, was acquitted of abetment in the November 2006 murder.

Despite his strenuous denials Najib has not escaped condemnation in the public mind.

"All primes ministers before have taken office without such a severely negative public perception as Mr. Najib," said a prominent lawyer who requested anonymity for fear of official reprisal.

"He is severely handicapped by the allegations that have refused to disappear," the lawyer said, adding that his rise in these circumstances is fuelling general unease over the future, especially for the democratisation process that Mr Abdullah had initiated, no matter how feebly,’’ the lawyer said.

"It is common knowledge that Najib is not averse to bending the rules to win the political fight," said the lawyer. "Will he respect privacy, human rights…will he play by the rules no matter how the rules have been battered?" For some lawmakers like prominent human rights lawyer Karpal Singh the fears are already real. For his strong support of people's rights, Singh has received bullets in his mail and has also been pushed in parliament lobby by ruling party members.

Najib, son of revered former prime minister Tun Abdul Razak, has now given a demonstration of his focused and determined approach by toppling the Pakatan Rakyat-ruled Perak state government in central Malaysia.

In a few deft moves in early February, he engineered the defection of four Pakatan-elected representatives to the centrally-ruling coalition to bring down the state government.

Immediately thereafter he persuaded the Sultan of Perak not to dissolve the assembly for fresh elections but use the defectors to increase the Barisan numbers and swear in a Barisan government.

That move sparked immediate public anger against Sultan Raja Azlan Shah - who has also served as a highly respected top judge - and a constitutional crisis that is still playing out.

Malaysia’s once revered monarchy has come under severe criticism by the general public who see complicity in a plot by Najib to hijack the public mandate.

For the first time, Malaysia witnessed Malay protestors stoning royal entourages, shouting abusive slogans and leaving behind angry and abusive comments on the Internet.

The fall of Perak’s Pakatan government has sparked a huge constitutional crisis with two chief ministers battling it out in court and on the streets - as to who is the rightful head of government.

The Barisan under Najib’s leadership is now focusing on grabbing the other Pakatan-ruled states of Kedah and Selangor where anything from money, positions and blackmail are being employed to win over defections.

"Their objective is to grab by subterfuge what they had lost in the polls," Tian Chua, information chief of the Keadilan party of opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, told IPS.

"There are using anything - money, sex blackmail, corruption, anything at all to get us," he said. "The people’s mandate is being stolen."

Already, sex and corruption scandals have hit the Chief Minister of Selangor state Khalid Ibrahim and another Selangor state minister Elizabeth Wong, prominent human rights activist before she entered politics to become minister.

Wong quit all her posts after her secretly taken naked photos in her home, presumably by a boyfriend, fell into the hands of the government-controlled mainstream media which went to town with it.

Wong’s departure is a major blow to the opposition as she fought strongly to protect the environment, clean up the heavily polluted rivers and exert control over polluting industries.

There is a possibility that big business was involved in the "operation" to use the pictures to force her out. "They had long wanted her head and they might have found a way to do it," an aide of Wong said.

Selangor chief minister Khalid, a former high government official before joining the Pakatan Rakyat, is facing charges of corruption and misuse of power over the distribution of cows for festivals and maintenance of a luxury vehicle.

In northern Kedah state, another Pakatan state minister, V. Arumugam, has resigned and skipped to India after allegations surfaced that he had committed bigamy.

"We see a hidden hand behind all these events," said Keadilan president Dr. Wan Azizah Ismail. "They are attacking us everywhere…they are seizing the public mandate by subterfuge,’’ she said.

- By Baradan Kuppusamy, IPS

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