Last Updated: Tue Jul 12, 2011 12:07 pm (KSA) 09:07 am (GMT)

Bibhu Prasad Routray: Does Malaysia’s ruling party under under Prime Minister Najib Razak have a death wish?

Bibhu Prasad Routray

What amazes analysts of Malaysian politics is the sheer detestation the government demonstrates towards the opposition. In this politically polarized island nation of 28 million people, Prime Minister Najib Razak has made no attempt whatsoever to reach out to the opposition to evolve a consensus politics and erect an electoral system that provides fair ground for competition to both the ruling party and the opposition.

Presiding over the longest continuing ruling party of the world, it is natural for Prime Minister Najib Razak to develop some false sense of invincibility and resultant arrogance. However, political events since 2008 have demonstrated that the grip of United Malays National Organization (UMNO) on the country’s politics might be waning.

The 9 July rally by Bersih, a conglomeration of about 63 political parties and NGOs, was indeed significant for several reasons. Centered on the issue of corruption free politics and a range of measures to ensure free and fair elections, it was Bersih’s second rally since 2008.

The rally made a lot people exposed to the genuine electoral reform demands of the opposition and evoked passions of direct participants as well as non-participants to be a part of the vision the opposition has for the country. It also left a lot many people unhappy with the way the government imposed confrontational shutdown measures to ensure that the rally was not a success.

Observers of Malaysian politics indicate that electoral reform as per Bersih’s demands will invariably lead to the ruling party’s defeat. This provides ample reason to UMNO to be skeptical of Bersih. In the last election in 2008, UMNO received only one-third of the country’s votes. It, however, managed to bring together other political parties under a coalition that claimed power. This is becoming increasingly clear to many of the country’s voters, who are now aided by the social media as well as foreign media channels.

This is precisely why the government wants to control the functioning of the foreign media in the country. Home Minister Hishammuddin Hussein on 11 July threatened to take legal action against “irresponsible foreign media,” which he says sensationalized the coverage of the 9 July Bersih rally. Unlike the largely state controlled media in the country, footages provided by the foreign media showed the police beating rally participants, firing tear gas canisters and even directing water canons on a retreating crowd. It made quite clear to the people that the government was afraid of the opposition’s demands and wanted to sabotage it at any cost.

The reaction of the government to the 9 July rally is indeed indicative of its threatened mindset. Prime Minister Najib Razak referred to a “lust to become prime minister” in opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, forgetting that aspiration to become prime minister by an opposition leader is not such a horrifying thing.

Prime Minister Razak’s popularity increased to 72 per cent according to an independent survey, results of which were published in June 2010. Notwithstanding the results of this one-year-old survey, experts indicate that racial politics has since undermined UMNO’s acceptability among the country’s voters.

The opposition parties have been buoyed by the results of the 9 July rally and now want to continue with similar program in the provinces.

Malaysia’s Economic Transformation Program (ETP), an ambitious project to convert the country into a fully developed nation by 2020 remains critically linked to foreign investment. The ETP requires annual foreign investment in the range of $11 billion to fund a quarter of the proposed projects. However, average annual investment since 1997 has only been $3.1 billion.

A March 2011 report by Bank of America Merrill Lynch ranked Malaysia the second least popular market after Colombia among global emerging market fund managers. Malaysia, thus, is in no position to project a picture of chaos and disruption to the investors from outside.

But UMNO under Najib Razak appears to have a death wish. It appears to have no hesitation to sacrifice its own goal of bringing economic development for the sake of staying on in power. For how long it manages to do so, is a mere question of time.

Dr. Bibhu Prasad Routray is an independent analyst based in Singapore and has previously been Deputy Director, India’s National Security Council Secretariat (NSCS). He can be reached at bibhuroutray@gmail.com or on Twitter @BibhuRoutray

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