Strategic strike

Published : Jan 14, 2011 00:00 IST

Malaysia: Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim's suspension from Parliament fuels speculation of mid-term elections.

in Singapore

MULTIRACIAL Malaysia, which is home to a core majority of Malay-Muslims and other natives, is governed, since independence over 50 years ago, on the basis of a social contract of power-sharing among the various ethnic communities. The chief minority groups are the ethnic Chinese and the people of Indian origin.

In a bid to update this social contract in a more modernist political idiom, Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak announced the formula of 1 Malaysia about a year ago. An unusual criticism of this formula has led to the suspension of opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim from the House of Representatives for a period of six months, effective from December 16.

The 1 Malaysia formula is widely seen as a self-explanatory proposition of the country being a unified home to people of several races and religions. The formula, given its political complexion of such identifiable proportions, has hardly been defined clearly by either Najib Tun Razak or like-minded political leaders. What the Prime Minister has done, though, is to unveil a New Economic Model, which, in his view, will help sustain the vision of 1 Malaysia.

Anwar Ibrahim is known for his indomitable spirit as a campaigner for political reform and economic justice. However, he has remained a maverick in Malaysian politics since 1998 when, as an insider of the long-governing United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), he was sent out of government by the then Prime Minister, Mahathir Mohamed. Carving a chequered political career since then, including a prison term on charges that were later discounted and set aside by the judiciary, Anwar Ibrahim finally emerged as a strong opposition leader. He now heads the opposition Pakatan Rakyat (People's Alliance), while Najib Tun Razak steers the governing coalition, Barisan Nasional (National Front).

With Najib planning to call a snap general election in a bid for a prime ministerial mandate in his own right, Anwar is in a mood to pull out all the stops to upset the National Front's long-laden applecart of political arrangements and form an alternative government. It is in this context that the 1 Malaysia formula figures in an unusual political controversy.

The latest parliamentary action against Anwar is based on a statement in which he is reported to have likened the 1 Malaysia initiative to the One Israel campaign. Such a comparison, whatever the exact context and actual words, is controversial even in a multiracial country with a core public discourse linked to Islamic identity. And, Malaysia is an active member of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC).

It is in this context that Anwar and his supporters walked out of the House of Representatives in Kuala Lumpur as he was being suspended on December 16. A point made was that Anwar and other opposition members were not given a chance to state or clarify their position on the allegation that Anwar saw the 1 Malaysia formula as something inspired by the hype on the One Israel campaign. The counterpoint, of course, was that the opposition lost any such chance by creating pandemonium in the House.

The parliamentary action against Anwar was followed by the suspension of three other opposition members, all belonging to the People's Alliance. The three were suspended for contempt of the House. The opposition leaders later announced plans to seek a judicial review of the suspensions. While such a review does not generally take place in parliamentary democracies, Anwar's camp is hopeful of invoking the principles of natural justice.

Najib's critics were quick to argue that the four suspensions were calculated to ensure the smooth passage of some constitutional amendments in time for a snap general election, which the Prime Minister himself had hinted at. Regional pundits expect such a poll within months, perhaps early in the new year.

Regardless of how the opposition sees Najib's poll-related political game plan, the 1 Malaysia formula has much to do with not only the national interest but also the Prime Minister's compulsion of having to keep his National Front in good shape for a snap poll.

The ruling coalition, led by the UMNO, consists of race-based parties, each with roots in the Malay-Muslim ethos or the ethnic Chinese ambience or the social mores of people of Indian origin or the distinctive identities of non-Malay ancestral natives. Significantly, the formula of power-sharing among the races, originally agreed to by the UMNO-led group of parties at the time of Malaysia's independence, is treated as the country's real social contract.

Some opposition activists, especially in the now-banned Hindu Rights Action Force (Hindraf), have questioned the validity of this social contract by arguing that it was primarily a political pact among certain distinctive groups of freedom-fighters. Moreover, the People's Alliance has floated the idea that the original social contract need not necessarily be implemented only through power-sharing among distinctive race-based parties such as the UMNO, the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC) and the parties representing the Malaysian Chinese, and so on.

Closely related to this is a finer point raised by the Anwar camp. It argues that there can also be a coalition of parties that have a multiracial base of membership. Such a coalition Anwar's opposition alliance being a step in this direction will be different from the long-governing coalition of parties with distinctive racial identification, it says.

For the present, though, the ruling National Front, which lost its two-thirds parliamentary majority for the first time in a general election in 2008, is keen to regain control in the House of Representatives in a possible snap poll in 2011. It is in this context that the MIC, a key constituent of the ruling coalition, has had a leadership change shortly after Najib dropped clear hints about his preference for a snap election.

Samy Vellu, 74, handed over the reins of MIC president to his lieutenant, G. Palanivel, 61, on December 6. Human Resource Minister S. Subramaniam became the MIC's deputy president in the place of Palanivel. The party's central working committee, which made these appointments, drafted as vice-president (1) S.K. Devamany, Deputy Minister in the Prime Minister's Department.

For 31 years, Samy Vellu presided over the MIC unchallenged. He was widely credited with mobilising the ethnic Indian vote, at over 7 per cent of Malaysia's total electorate, in favour of the National Front in every general election until 2008. In that election, the ethnic Indian vote fractured noticeably: the MIC, which won in all the constituencies allotted to it in the previous general election, virtually drew a blank. Significantly, the 2008 election coincided with a simmering unrest among Malaysian Indians over their long-time marginalisation in public services and in education.

Incidentally, Malaysian Indians, given their demographic distribution, do not constitute a monolithic bloc of votes or parliamentary seats. So, the various non-Indian ethnic parties in the ruling coalition, including the UMNO, have traditionally looked to the MIC for the votes of people of Indian origin.

Similarly, the MIC, too, has had to depend on these parties for its own successes in the constituencies allotted to it. This political dynamic has given the MIC greater political importance than it would have in a situation of a monolithic ethnic Indian vote bank.

The art of managing this political dynamic may or may not have deserted Samy Vellu, going entirely by the 2008 results. However, MIC insiders say the latest leadership changes in the party have been effected in line with Najib's call for political consolidation and transformation of all parties in the ruling coalition in time for the anticipated snap poll.

On a parallel track, Najib has praised Samy Vellu's decades-long contributions to the ruling coalition and the people of Indian origin. Not wishing to lose his services, Najib has appointed Samy Vellu Special Envoy to India and South Asia for Infrastructure with effect from New Year's Day. With Malaysia being closely associated with a few highway and airport projects in India, Samy Vellu may still find himself in political focus.

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