This is another reason to reflect and think as we step into 2008. It is the tenth year of Reformasi.
Reformasi has politically activated a generation of Malaysians. It has driven many to see the injustice in the system and demand changes. It has liberated the mind of many that criticizing or ridiculing politicians is no big deal. It has revived the tradition of street demonstrations and triggered cyber activism. Most of all, it has brought many Malaysians together to realize that they are on the same boat despite their differences in ethnicity, faith, culture, language and ideology. It has midwifed a new multi-ethnic party and a new multi-ethnic coalition.
But Reformasi is not without its flaws. If its promise was to renew Malaysian politics, its failure was clearly demonstrated in two developments.
The first is the effective disintegration of Barisan Alternative (BA) in September 2001 with the exit of DAP. While PKR and PAS continued to use the coalition label for a while, BA as the opposition’s answer to BN was effectively dead. With due recognition to PKR’s relentless effort to promote multi-ethnic politics, its alliance with PAS could not claim to bridge the communal gaps in Malaysia. Now, even Keadilan’s de facto leader Anwar Ibrahim has quietly swifted to a new term, Barisan Rakyat, perhaps hoping this can bring DAP back into the fold.
The second is Abdullah Badawi’s landslide in 2004. The Opposition’s share of valid votes has fallen from 43% to 36%, a sharp drop of 7%. PAS lost Terengganu and had its parliamentary contingent slashed from 27 to 6. Keadilan was left with Dr Wan Azizah as the sole voice. Only DAP has rebound moderately from 10 to 12 seats.
What have gone wrong? We must take stock. We must diagnose its weaknesses. This is no belittling the sacrifices of the nameless heroes who have suffered water canon, tear gases and political witch hunt and of the elites who have lost their freedom, personal and family life, and career under ISA, Sedition Act and other oppressive laws. Quite the opposite, taking stock is paying tribute to all these brave Malaysians and may make sure that their sacrifices for a new Malaysia will not be in vain.
In my humble opinion, the most deadly weakness is that Reformasi is highly personality-orientated, with due respects to noble efforts by many to make it otherwise. In popular perception, it is one to claim justice by Anwar Ibrahim and his family. In reality, it is actually defined more by the villain than the hero.
Reformasi is more anti-Mahathir than pro-Anwar. This explains why Abdullah Badawi could win back the lost ground – especially amongst the Malays – in the 2004 elections before Anwar was freed. It is not because Anwar supporters and sympathizers know for sure in March 2004 that their persecuted hero would be free in September. Abdullah Badawi’s popularity would not plummet – it would for other reasons – had Anwar been free six months or a year later. There was no building up of expectation on Pak Lah that Mahathir’s cardinal political sin must be corrected at once. Had Abdullah Badawi managed to deliver his promise to clean up the system, Anwar Ibrahim would probably now be as politically irrelevant as Khairy Jamaluddin wishes.
While the enmity for Mahathir happened at the same time with the support for Anwar, Mahathir had united more of his enemies than Anwar had of his supporters. Over his reign of 22 years, Mahathir has alienated many Malaysians with both his policies and his style. To his critics, Mahathir symbolized and personified corruptions, cronyism, extravagances, inefficiency, power abuse, arrogance, inequality, discrimination. A complex man, he could attract enmity of both ends on a spectrum, for example secularists and Islamists on his Islamisation policy.
As Anwar was very much part of the system, he did not and could not unite Mahathir’s critics. PAS was Anwar’s greatest political competitor for the Islamist constituency until his purge by Mahathir. Chinese educationists remembered well his works as the Education Minister. Human rights activists questioned his role in Operasi Lalang. Secularists saw him as the top Islamist despite his effort to promote civilisational dialogues after becoming the DPM. By sacking and imprisoning him, Mahathir built Anwar a rainbow coalition for him to lead as the absentee spiritual leader.
Because Anwar’s greatest instrumental value was to galvanize support across different blocs and communities to topple Mahathir, his failure in even denying BN’s two third in 1999 – thanks to the electoral system – significantly reduced his appeal. As Anwar could not provide his allies a prospect to take the federal power in the foreseeable future, he failed to hold back the religious zealots in PAS to push their agenda for Islamic State or convince the secularists in DAP or NGOs to put up with the never-ending Islamisation controversy. The exit of DAP from BA further weakened Anwar’s appeal as the alternative national leader, both in his ability to deliver a victory and to control his allies especially the Islamists.
The decline of Anwar’s attraction was matched by the rise of Abdullah’s popularity. When Mahathir announced in June 2002 his scheduled resignation 18 months later, the soft-spoken fatherly figure of Pak Lah was quickly presented as the best instrument to end Mahathir’s rule to those who could not wait to see the strong man go. He took over the Opposition’s agenda to combat corruption. His Islamist background and moderate stance eased both the Islamist voters who saw Mahathir as anti-religious and the non-Muslims and liberals who were disturbed by Mahathir’s declaration on September 29, 2001 that Malaysia was an Islamic state. And the rest is history.
What’s the lesson we can and should take home from the failed promise of Reformasi?
We did not begin with the end – more precisely, the right end – in mind, in the language of Steven Covey. We wanted a quick fix. We believed Mahathir was the embodiment of all evils. We were too desperate to change the man-in-power and care little how the system and institutions for change.
We did not have the road-map for Democratization, the plan B for the scenario of opposition’s victory only in states but not in the federal contest. We did not put on the agenda for democratization in Kelantan and Terengganu including local elections, introduction of alternative electoral system, freedom of information enactments, legislative reforms, media reforms, restriction of caretaker government’s power, and many more reforms. These reforms if carried out would place tremendous pressure for the BN federal government to follow suit. They are possible if opportunities for democratization are eagerly and creatively sought within the framework of federal and state constitutions and laws. The opposition parties did not care. Neither did the civil society. So, we wasted our energy on the disputes on Kharaj taxed and Hudud laws, which had not resulted in achievements even for the proponents.
We did not have road-map to fight corruption. We did not see the establishment of an independent Anti-Corruption Agency (ACA) or the enactment of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) as the minimum requirement of any plan to promote integrity. We had little informed expectations that we hailed the prosecution of a former tycoon and a lightweight minister as the milestone for anti-graft campaign. Abdullah did not even need to make promise on any institutional change as he did for police reform – he promised a special commission on police twice in BN’s 2004 manifesto. For all the hype about corruption in the Reformasi discourse, most Malaysians saw nothing wrong that the power to prosecute a suspect for corruption lies in the hand of the executive, giving Abdullah the easiest job of Mr Clean in the world.
Shall we continue our obsession with leadership change and party alternation but not real institutional reform for another ten year? Is it not the time for the democrats and the liberals to ask what democratization do we really want before we are swept again by the euphoria that the civil society is ready for regime change and the illusion so is the electorate at large?
UMNO and BN are here to stay in power, and very likely, with a two third parliamentary majority for the 9th time since 1969. Regime change is almost impossible until and unless there is a change in the electoral system. The democrats’ main concern should be what can be expected from the Opposition and the civil society itself with whatever the Opposition can achieve after the elections. The fear that democratization movements like BERSIH is perceived to be led by the opposition parties rather than the NGOs must be put in the perspective.
As in the past, it’s leadership, not distance, that is most needed.