Friday, April 11, 2014

Lessons from Bangkok

The turbulent decade of political stalemate in Thailand sounds an early warning for Malaysian politics. For almost ten years, Thailand has faced coups, protests, fights and messy elections because its two major political factions have failed to conduct themselves civilly. This deadlock should alarm Malaysians because politics in Malaysia bears incredible resemblance to the game being played out in Thailand, though at this stage, much less extreme. Nevertheless, if we do not pay close attention, we may march down the same path, stalling our economy and destroying civility and harmony.

The stalemate in Thailand is because the two main rival parties hold very different demographic capture. The "red shirts," led by former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra have a large rural base. Though charged with corruption and exiled to Dubai, Thaksin still commands a strong following in the agricultural regions of Thailand, a following strong enough that it elected his sister, Yingluck as Prime Minister despite her being a stand-in for her brother who still calls all the shots. The "yellow shirts" on the other hand represent urban voters who, fed up with the corruption of the Thaksin regime, have tried everything from military coups, to elections, to government invasions in order to vanquish the Shinawatra family from power. They have been largely unsuccessful, and were only in power briefly after a military coup and constitution court threw their opponents out. They have never been put in power by voters.

The concern for Malaysia is that if we continue on the trajectory that we are on, we too will end up with two rival coalitions of parties that each represent very demographic groups. As it is, the Barisan Nasional party finds its support among rural Malays in Peninsular Malaysia and among the various indigenous tribes in Sabah and Sarawak. Pakatan Rakyat has strongholds in most of the major cities across East and West Malaysia, as well as Chinese majority seats. If the country's political divisions continue to shift from race based to socio-economic based, then we too may face the same outcomes that Thailand faces today.

The challenge for each party is to widen its base. Barisan Nasional must not give up on regaining urban voters. It seems like an insurmountable challenge (and it probably is) but all the Barisan Nasional component parties must have a similar goal, they must find urban talent to help restore some legitimacy among middle to upper class voters in cities. It seems like a very impossible task especially since MCA and MIC have long become driftwood, floating down the river of intellectual absence, but for the sake of a healthy democracy, they must try.

Likewise Pakatan Rakyat must put greater effort into forming a stronger and wider rural base. While Pakatan Rakyat has the blessing of having PAS as a coalition partner, its rural support is constrained largely to the east coast states of Kelantan and Terengganu. It does not have reliable rural support elsewhere. In contrast, its urban gains in Selangor during the last election were astounding. PKR remains an urban-Selangor centered party. Such is this extent that its many talented leaders are beginning to spend more time bickering with each other about power in the state than trying to strengthen the party's national reach. If PKR does not focus on strengthening it's support in Perak, Pakatan Rakyat will never regain the state. While it will probably be a great sacrifice for the chosen one, what PKR needs to do is re-assign one of the many egos in Selangor (Azmin Ali or Rafizi Ramli) to strengthen the party's presence in other closely contested states, such as Perak, Negeri Sembilan, Kedah, or maybe even Malacca. Lee Chin Tong did that for DAP in Johor and look how far that got them. If PKR chooses not to look past Selangor, then Pakatan Rakyat will never take Putrajaya.

Given the two-coalition system that has formed in Malaysian politics, we must have representative coalitions of parties if we want to sustain the healthy democracy that is beginning to form. When one coalition chooses to entrench itself among a narrow demographic, it gives the opposing coalition incentive to do the same. We can ill-afford coalitions that cannot span the wide interests of voting groups across the country. Thailand has shown us the cost of narrow interests. We must heed their sad example and strive not to replicate. All political parties must take note.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Sunday, December 01, 2013

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Political Diversity

Let me start off by saying that I disagree with the magnitude of the pay hikes for Selangor state assemblymen that will begin in 2014. I don't think the raise is tremendously exorbitant but it is a tad too high; the increase should be tempered some. The proposed increase for Penang state assemblymen is more reasonable, though I do not think there should be a distinction between salaries and allowances. Assemblymen should get a single paycheck that they are free to spend as they please; no need for special allowances for chauffeurs, entertainment, etc. Do state assemblymen really need chauffeurs?

That being said, I am glad that dissent even within the governing party is open and honest. Anwar Ibrahim and Azmin Ali are secure enough in the strength of their and their party's position that they feel no need to "counsel" the Chief Minister, Khalid Ibrahim, in private, about their disagreement on this matter of wage raises. Khalid Ibrahim has also never shied away from open criticism. He has faced such public attacks before form both men, and many others within his own party, yet at the end of the day, no blood has ever been spilled. He holds fast to his beliefs and actions; rarely does he back track on decisions. The man puts thought into every decision he makes, hence he does not doubt most of his actions.

That these three men form the core of power within PKR says a lot about the tone this party is looking to adopt. Being relatively young, and born out of strife, rather than ideology, it has taken a long time for the party to form a clear vision of what it stands for. But, I believe that we are beginning to see an image of transparency take form. The party is not concerned that it will fall apart, or lose the trust of the people if it shows disunity in public. Instead, it is beginning to allow its members to speak freely. Diversity of opinion does not always lead to a fracture in an institution. I have always contended that parties in Malaysia are not tolerant enough of diversity of opinion. UMNO is well-known as a party where one has to toe the line. Even more liberal and outspoken folk such as Shahrir Samad and Saifuddin Abdullah speak cautiously in public, despite the known disparities between their beliefs and those of many other figures in their party. DAP had to part ways with Tunku Abdul Aziz because of a difference in opinion about Bersih rallies, losing a tremendous asset it its pursuit of a more complete Malaysian image. Yet, PKR is shaping up to be far more tolerant of differences than the rest of these parties.

It is still  uncommon for Barisan Nasional politicians to criticize their compatriots in office publicly. In fact the coalition has always insisted that its "closed door" approach is more mature and better for society. The claim is that many issues are "sensitive" and discussions behind closed doors keep the country harmonious and avoids a rehash of the May 13 race riots. However, the fact of the matter is that Malaysia has come a long way since 1969. It has created a safe civil space where disagreements do not lead towards physical acts of anger. PKR is beginning to leverage on that maturity, and in light of it, Malaysians are now involved in more mature discussions on policy. Politicians from any party need to feel more free to air their views on policy, regardless of whether they are toe-ing the party line or not. In 2013, it is largely unlikely that disagreement will lead to riots and acts of rage; if anything, it shows principle and individuality, and gives voters the opportunity to know the true identity and beliefs of their leaders..

This is a lesson the MCA and Gerakan need to learn fast. The reason for their quick fade from the political scene is their insistence on private discussions of grievances. Parties that do not adapt openness appear dishonest and cowardly. I'm glad that modern day Malaysia is far more tolerant of differences of opinion than politicians of days past have given us credit for. PKR seems well aware of the new landscape and is exploiting the space for honesty to their advantage quite nicely. There is plenty of room for public acknowledgement of the diversity of opinion within political parties. PAS and UMNO should embrace the fact that they both have liberal and conservative wings. Parties that choose to hide, rather than encourage diversity of opinion are just being dishonest with the "rakyat" about the actual nature of sentiment within their ranks. Not a wise idea considering that the public is far more discerning today than it was 10 years ago.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

School Vouchers

I'm hardly an expert on education but having spent the last 19 years of my life in institutions of learning (and at least a few more in the foreseeable future), I have grown to take a keen interest in how institutions should be organized to best educate and create productive and learned societies. My ideas and opinions have, by and large, no formal foundation. I have not studied pedagogical techniques, or taken classes in any education related fields. My positions are largely rooted in a combination of experience, news, opinions, documentaries  and other shallow resources. Nonetheless, I have at least moderate confidence in my current perspectives, though they continue to evolve over time.

I am warming up to the idea that school vouchers, coupled with "school deregulation" may be a good way to structure education systems. The School voucher system is a way of financing education by giving each child a voucher that they can take to pay for any school of their choice.There are many variations of the system, who's leading proponent, Milton Friedman, suggested, would cause schools, both public and private to compete and hence improve. I have long been cautious about the idea, largely because of the sorting effects such a system could have on school demographics. Particularly in heterogeneous societies, it is not unfathomable that schools will sort by wealth, race and culture. In so far as positive peer effects are important in determining student outcomes, such sorting could be detrimental to weaker students, now sorted into weaker schools. The effect of sorting on civil unity is also particularly concerning, especially for countries like Malaysia where race and cultural identities still clash and create tension.

Yet, I (and I assume, many of my readers) are well versed with the inefficiencies that plague central public education systems. The most obvious problem is that teachers in public schools often face skewed incentives. Wages are often a function of how much public funding is allocated to education, not necessarily a function of productivity.This means teachers may be overpaid or underpaid, depending on the country's tax revenues. To an extent, this also means teacher wages follow the overall business cycle, which can be a very bad thing. Teaching unions help voice concerns about wages for the teachers. yet (I can personally vouch for the fact that) even teaching unions have major flaws. They can be hugely political, looking out for private interests. Also, like all other organizations of people, they have the potential to be greedy and over-demanding.

There is an additional problem with public school systems. Because the system isn't competitive, it is often easy for teachers to shirk responsibilities. While general guidelines often exist for the termination of teacher contracts, it is the case (both in Malaysia and in the United States) that these guidelines are either loose, or rarely enforced. Maybe this is because teaching unions have gotten good at bargaining for cushy contracts, maybe the lack of competition between schools provides too weak an incentive for schools to monitor teachers, or maybe. The movie "Waiting for 'Superman'" claims that 1 in 57 doctors and 1 in 97 lawyers in America lose their licenses each year. For teachers, the number is 1 in 2500. I have countless personal stories of teachers in secondary school who shirked tremendously, even though I went to a school where the principal monitored teacher performance incessantly and was incredibly strict with teachers who shirked.

A school voucher system would, I believe, create stronger incentives for tighter teacher assessment processes. If schools compete against each other for money, they will have greater incentive to provide quality education. Since households can vote with their feet, sending their children to different schools depending on school quality, schools will be more willing to fire bad teachers to avoid losing students and the vouchers attached to these students. The best schools and teachers will be rewarded with higher funds. Bad schools and bad teachers will be paid poorly.Teachers who work hard will enjoy better salaries.

The advantages just outlined don't negate the concerns I have about demographic sorting, yet school vouchers maintain compelling draws. The libertarians at the Institute of Democracy and Economic Affairs  hope that they can influence Malaysian education policy in this direction. I am beginning to come around to the efficiency gains that such a structural change could have on productivity within the education sector, though some still has to be done to placate my concerns about it too.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Malaysia and English Education (Part 3)

The idea of importing teachers from America and the UK to teach in rural schools, is nonsense. It is an expensive and unnecessary gimmick because there are plenty of Malaysians who can do the same work for cheaper. We seem ever willing to pay a foreigner more, but we will not give fellow Malaysians the same treatment. We should replace these foreign teachers by expanding the Teach for Malaysia program, unless of course the foreign teachers are footing their own bill (why turn away charity?)

Fundamentally, what we need to be doing is accelerating the quality of education at teaching colleges and universities. Our teachers are only as good as the training they receive, and even 10 years ago, I could testify to the evidence that teaching colleges were doing an inadequate job. Salaries in public schools are decent (though they still fail to compare with private sector business jobs) but with bad teaching colleges and universities, all we are doing with decent salaries is overpaying bad teachers. As Dr. Mahathir has pointed out, our varsities lack quality teachers. We need to be ready to import good professors in all fields, from across the globe. At the same time, cut the many bad lecturers that persist in our system. We must not be afraid to fire the incompetent. Singapore, across the narrow strait, has one of the best education systems in the world. Our best candidates should be training there in the interim, until our teaching colleges are up to mark. It shouldn't take a rocket scientist to point out that we should be partnering Singapore and learning from them. They train great teachers, what can we do to be more like them? We need to send our best and brightest to study education at top schools around the world then bring them back and treat them with respect so they can make a difference in our schools.

Like all other areas of civil service, our teachers are difficult to dismiss. I can name a large number of teachers who never taught me a day in my life, though they were paid to do so. Mr Kuldip taught me moral studies in Year Four. Apart from the day he was evaluated by a senior teacher, he sat and read his reader's digest. This he did until his retirement. The school threw him a big farewell on the last day of school. I was happy to see him go, and I guess so was the rest of the school. My history teacher in Form Four, the wife of the city's mayor at the time, came to class once, for forty minutes. Fortunately, her husband was hated by the city, and they were transferred to Putrajaya not long after. Mr. Zulkifli taught me history in Form Five. He came in to tell jokes and taught the class maybe two of the nine chapters we were required to cover. I believe he still presents his same routine, seven years on. My art teacher in Form One preferred to sit in the teachers' break room to chat with the afternoon supervisor when we had class. This afternoon supervisor taught us moral studies and was equally irregular to class. There is no system of accountability to shape and ship out those who are lazy, unmotivated or ill-equipped for the profession. The fact of the matter is, nothing gets a worker working than the possibility of dismissal; no one should be guaranteed a job, especially not teachers.

We are many reforms away from getting our schools to work. English language education is one of many battles, but it isn't an insurmountable task. The real question is, do we, those who are able, care enough to get the job done?

Malaysia and English Education (Part 2)

It would be unfair not to recognize the reality that urban Malaysians emphasize: English is the global language. Research, in almost all fields, is conducted in English, largely because most research comes from universities in America. It makes good sense to teach Science and Mathematics in English, and when we don't, we're holding some students back. Parents of such students, wanting the best opportunities for their children, flock to private schools, if they can afford it, preferably to study an international syllabus; gone were the days when students had friends who were Malay, Chinese, Indian, rich, poor, privileged and under privileged. Now, the rich mingle with their kind in private schools, leaving the poor to languish in deteriorating public schools. The loss of opportunity for students to experience diversity, both cultural and socioeconomic, is catastrophic in my opinion, but we may only truly feel the difference in a decade or so.

There is a pressing need for the public education system to innovate. While there has been talk of reintroducing English medium schools, to run parallel with Tamil, Chinese and national schools, I personally am not of the opinion that adding a new stream of schools will work. If anything, we need fewer streams of education, not more. I know many Chinese bigots, who go to Chinese schools, and never understand the mind, background and struggles of the poor Malay. I admit, not all people who go to Chinese schools are bigots, (equivalently, not all who go to national schools aren't bigots) but to ignore the lack of opportunity to interact with other races is foolish. English medium schools will be no different.

What we need is more focused classrooms. We should be pre-testing 6 year olds in their proficiency of the English language, so that when they enter Year One, they are grouped according to ability and taught accordingly. Those fluent in English should be taught English as a first language. Those who aren't should be taught the basics. In secondary school, there should at the very least be an option of English and Higher English (as Singapore has Chinese and Higher Chinese as subjects for 'O' level exams). We should train some teachers so that they are able to teach English as a first language. Native English speakers are unfairly held back all through primary and secondary education. It is no surprise that they then end up pointing out mistakes that their English teachers make. They are just looking for a challenge. If we make no effort to keep the better students engaged, the wealthy ones will continue to flock to private schools depriving society of the healthy, diverse interactions it needs to sustain a peaceful and understanding country.

Malaysia and English Education (Part One)

Given the copious reminders we give ourselves about the diversity in our country's ethnic and cultural landscape, it is unsurprising (rather, it is unfortunate) that we are only now realizing that one size fits all isn't the way we should be teaching the English Language. As letters to newspapers surface pointing out the long existing fact that many students speak better English that their teachers, we should hardly be shocked. A decent majority of Malaysians speak English as a first language; teachers trained only to teach English as a second language can hardly expect to be prepared for the classroom. It has always been the case that the English proficiency of children entering primary school has been extremely varied. This legacy of the British Empire through government and mission English medium schools has only been exacerbated by globalization and the country's widening gap in income.

I entered Year One of primary school speaking fluent English and nothing else. I knew no Chinese dialect and only a few Malay nouns and verbs. I vividly remember struggling to string together the all important sentence, "Izinkan saya pergi ke tandas?" (May I go to the bathroom?) Some other classmates spoke fluent English, others spoke a smattering of the language, but many were as good at English as I was at Chinese or Malay.

That disparity hardly changed throughout my 11 years in the Malaysian public education system. I remember Malay friends from Form 3, who spoke little English lamenting the new government rule that Science and Mathematics be taught in English. We would miss out on the policy and they wished they could be part of it because now, at the tender age of 15, they already felt that they were left behind and would never catch up.

While the Science and Mathematics in English policy would be reversed soon enough to the delight of rural Malays and the chagrin of affluent and urban Malaysians, it's impact has been ambiguous, dividing many. Rural schools, in the "kampungs," which were predominantly Malay, found implementing the policy overwhelming. While on vacation in Cherating, a Canadian volunteer told me of how the local school was at a loss over the policy. Only the sole English teacher spoke English, and even so, barely. Now, they were expected to teach 30-40% of class time in English. There was no way it was going to happen. Yet, urban families, who spoke English at home, embraced the policy with excitement. These students, who already spoke the language well, now had a leg up on the competition. They argued that the policy made great sense, because international universities taught these subjects in English. We were simply readying our students for their future endeavors. Eventually, the heartland won the political struggle, giving further impetus to the flight of the middle class to private schools. "Malay is a dead language" is a common comment in cities these days, in response to the reversal of the policy. Even with more than fifty years of independence, so many have failed to understand the cultural complexities that underline societal living in Malaysia.

Saturday, August 03, 2013

Najib Razak's silence

Anyone who has read my election related posts knows that I was generally pleased with the results. I wanted Najib to continue leading this country but for the opposition to make gains, and this was not unexpectedly the case. However, I think many will agree with me when I say that since the election, the Najib administration's performance has been dismal, unexciting, oddly silent and incredibly disorganized. One thing I didn't anticipate, was for a weakened mandate to cower Najib into the fetal position.

While his leadership during the first 4 years in power was commendable, though hardly exceptional, the weak electoral mandate has rendered Najib vulnerable to attacks from within his party. He cannot make bold policy changes because a single misstep could see him lose further support among the "rakyat" and lend his critics an opportunity to unseat him in favor of someone else (Tun Razaleigh Hamzah, perhaps?) His continued silence on the issues of the day (Utusan's divisive reactions to the elections, rising gun-related crime, continued growth of conservative Islamic influence) only reinforce his enigmatic personality. While I was hoping his win would embolden him to reveal his true direction for the nation, in actuality, because the win was unconvincing, he has done the exact opposite. There have been no new policy initiatives since the May 5th election. His lack of presence is beginning to make me wonder if the enigma is just a facade for hollowness. Maybe I cannot find direction because there is none, maybe this boat really is without a captain?

Unfortunately, I will have to wait until after the UMNO General Assembly in December to ascertain this claim. Najib should not find it too difficult to win reelection as president of the party, after which, only an emboldened approach to leadership will give him and his party any shot of holding on to power in the 14th general elections, due in 2018. While urban voters demand greater freedom of speech and transparency, ultimately how he handles the country's finances/economy and public safety will determine his fate as Prime Minister.

Friday, July 05, 2013


Vegetable Omelette with Refried Beans, and Avocado Salad

Beef Kofta Curry with Green Bean and Pea Basmati

Garlic Rosemary Chicken with Pesto Fettuccine

Minestrone Soup with Poached Chicken and Bread

Strawberries, Blueberries and Mango

Hainanese Chicken Rice

Apple Turnover, Grapes and Yogurt

Avocado Grilled Cheese Sandwich with Tomato Soup and Side Salad

Fettuccine Alfredo with Cayenne Chicken and Green Beans

Carne Asada Burrito with Spanish Rice, Refried Beans, Cheese, Salsa and Guacamole

Mango Sticky Rice

Steamed Catfish with Shitake Mushrooms and Tomatoes

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Saturday, May 25, 2013


Taco Salad with Mango Salsa and Carnitas

 Digiorno Crispy Flatbread Pizza: Tuscan Style Chicken

Ayam Madu

Doesn't look good but tastes delicious: Biscuit with Strawberries and  Whipped Cream

Rosemary and Garlic Chicken with Fettuccine Pesto and Vegetables

Tortilla Chips and Guacamole

Cajun Chicken, Creamy Avocado Spaghetti with Roasted Garlic Cauliflower and Cheese 

Taco Salad with Chicken and Egg

Salad with Spicy Korean Chicken

California Breakfast: Scrambled Rosemary Eggs, Refried Beans, Avocado,  Romaine, Trail Mix and Orange Wdges

Jamie Oliver's Chicken Cacciatore 

Chicken Cacciatore with a glass of Pinot Noir 

Friday, May 17, 2013

Post Election Thoughts

Despite my avid interest in politics, I am happy that the elections are over. The intensity of the elections was beginning to show how stupid Malaysians are, and I am glad it has subsided enough that I can pretend that the truth isn't so. I have beef with both sides of the divide. I'm going to start first with Pakatan Rakyat supporters.

The outrage and anger among Pakatan Rakyat folk is largely justifiable. It's been 10 years since Dr. Mahathir retired and while the people tolerated corruption under his regime (largely because of a lack of open space to discuss abuses of power) they hoped for great change after he stepped down, but they have had a decade to fester disappointment and frustration. That being said, having been victims of corruption and deceit for so long, Pakatan Rakyat supporters are incredibly paranoid and self victimizing. It was embarrassing to see Malaysians intimidate and hurl insults at skinny dark skinned folk in line to vote because they thought these people were Bangladeshi illegal immigrants. There are countless videos that display this backwardness of Malaysian culture. May 5th wasn't a good day to be a foreigner in Malaysia. So convinced that Barisan Nasional had shipped foreigners in to vote for them, these crowds shouted and yelled at "suspects" as if they were less than human and undeserving of respect. Guilty until proven innocent, hardly the sort of values one would expect from groups that demonize institutionalized racism. On this account, Pakatan Rakyat supporters made me sick.

Other rumors are that Opposition seats were lost because of blackouts that occurred at polling stations across the country. Independent media sources like Malaysiakini and The Malaysian Insider never reported such instances, but Pakatan Rakyat supporters, ever ready to play the role of victim sprung into action, spreading these stories online and stirring up greater resentment towards Barisan Nasional and the Election Commission. All I ask is that reports of injustice be verified before we spring into fits of anger. If these events happened, can Pakatan Rakyat supporters wait for clear reports and announcements to be made before going ape-crazy. We are lucky to live in a day and age where some online media sources can be trusted; we should let them inform us before we jump to conclusions about fraud.

Too much anger, too little thinking, that is the fuel that is keeping Pakatan Rakyat alive right now. That is incredibly frustrating because good governance cannot be founded on victim playing attitudes. We need to ship out corrupt and incompetent governance, but if we're going to replace it with whiners who run high on anger, then all we can expect from the second lot is a witch hunt to right the past with no focus on the future. I'd like a more competitive political landscape to be a win-win, not a lose-lose situation for this country.

Barisan Nasional on the other hand, are a laughable bunch. Everyone anticipated the tsunami that wiped them out of urban seats across the country except them . In Penang, Perak and Negeri Sembilan, the DAP swept all seats they contested. In Selangor, PAS picked up five urban seats to hand Pakatan Rakyat a 2/3rds majority in the legislative assembly. For some reason, MCA and Gerakan leaders were shocked that they won fewer parliamentary seats than there are days in the week. Either they didn't have internet access to see it coming, or they're stupid; at least in Penang where one has access to free wifi in public areas, we have to conclude the latter. The immediate reaction of blaming their losses on the Chinese found support only among writers at The Star whose monthly salaries are paid by the bosses at MCA. Someone needs to tell Barisan Nasional that saying Chinese voters they were "fooled" by racist DAP strategies doesn't help. You can't insinuate that people are stupid and were deceived, then expect them to vote for you in the future.

Najib Razak's administration has generally been stiff lipped and guarded in their speech, which is why most are not terribly inflamed by his leadership thus far. But Najib and his allies have let their guard down since suffering these "unexpected losses." Najib failed to condemn Utusan's racist headlines blaming and attacking Chinese Malaysians. His closest ally, Zahid Hamidi, told people unhappy with the current electoral system to migrate to a different country. So much for the spirit of democracy and participate governance. It has been left to Saifuddin Abdullah and Shahrir Samad to play down the racial card and insist that "transformation" must be accelerated to win back disenchanted urban voters.

That Najib isn't outraged by Utusan's racially instigating motives, or the incredibly shallow and patronizing comments by his close friend Zahid Hamidi suggests that maybe he isn't the inclusive and progressive leader he displayed himself to be prior to the election. Urbanization and a youth bulge mean that the numbers are going to continue to be stack in Pakatan Rakyat's favor for the next few elections, and if Najib and his team cannot revamp their party to endear themselves to educated, urban voters, then in five years time, someone new will be Prime Minister and he won't be from UMNO.

Saturday, May 04, 2013

Anwar Ibrahim has already won

Terence Netto is on the money. I'd like to see Rocky Bru concede this point. Regardless of the outcome, Anwar Ibrahim emerges a winner, uniting a long fractured opposition front, forming a formidable coalition to challenge UMNO and Barisan Nasional, doing what many have failed to do in the past. Terence Netto writes:
"These are stupendous achievements, ones that eluded past protagonists of anti-Umno/BN coalitions, Onn Jaafar and Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah, who dented but could not dislodge the ruling powers, now over a half-century in harness, a span that's formidably difficult to end because of the enormous advantages conferred by incumbency."
It has been a true perfect storm for Anwar. I think it is fair to say that his charisma has overwhelmed that of Onn Jaafar and Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah, but Anwar alone didn't cook the opposition front into the power that it is today. He was fortunate to rise as BN component parties fell. MCA and MIC have hollowed out allowing the DAP to rise to take their place. Mahmud Taib's decision to hold on to power has frustrated Sarawak Chinese, and the inability of UMNO to shake of the shackles of corruption 10 years after Abdullah Ahmad Badawi's ascension to power with promises of corruption reform has driven even Malays to reject the once all powerful UMNO. The loose ends of the Mahathir, Liong Sik and Samy Vellu regime is haunting BN daily. Anwar has seized this opportunity and boy has he done well. He may end up teaching at a university come Monday, May 6th, 2013, but we can all agree, Malaysia's political landscape will never be the same.

PM or not, Anwar Ibrahim has won

COMMENT That Anwar Ibrahim would be adjudged the most consequential political leader of the second half century of the Malaysian nation's existence is not in doubt.

This would be true even if by midnight tomorrow he is not endorsed as prime minister of the country as a result of the outcome of the country's 13th general election.

NONEHis achievements will be deemed to be weighty even if the coalition he leads, Pakatan Rakyat, does not win a majority of the seats in Parliament at tomorrow's polls, the most pivotal in the nation's history and, by reason of it being the 13th in the series, the most unnervingly resonant.

This is because the race riots of May 13, 1969, continue to rattle in the attic of the nation's memory like cargo come loose in the hold of a freighter.

The ghosts of that incident and the aftermath it unveiled, in an initially good and, then, gone badly wrong social engineering scheme, desperately need to be exorcised from the nation's collective memory.

Otherwise this country will forever be pinned down by the twin obsessions of race and religion, with its society teetering permanently on the brink of multiple schisms.

Reinventing Malaysia

No Malaysian leader has demonstrated more capability at possible attainment of that release than Anwar because of his skill at challenging and re-shaping the assumptions of the people he proposes to lead.

When he re-emerged on the national scene in 2007 to lead the opposition to continued rule by BN, after the shipwreck of a six-year stay in prison on trumped-on charges and a brief spell in the grooves of academe, Malaysian politics was firmly stuck in the quagmire of race and religion, a bog 50 years in the making and seemingly unyielding to nostrums.

By dint of being the principal adhesive in an ideologically disparate opposition that grouped a theocratic PAS and a secular DAP, with his own PKR holding the balance, he was able to lead the coalition - with an assist from the Hindu Rights Action Force (Hindraf) - to a historic denial to the ruling BN of its vaunted two-thirds parliamentary majority in the general election of March 2008.

That in itself was a tremendous achievement.

NONEGiven that previous electoral pacts between the exclusively Muslim PAS and the Chinese-dominant DAP did not amount to government-buffeting proportions or had unravelled soon after the polls, the fact that the Pakatan has endured now for five years makes his welding together of it a tour de force.

These are stupendous achievements, ones that eluded past protagonists of anti-Umno/BN coalitions, Onn Jaafar and Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah, who dented but could not dislodge the ruling powers, now over a half-century in harness, a span that's formidably difficult to end because of the enormous advantages conferred by incumbency.

That Anwar has been able to lead and sustain a coalition while simultaneously fending off a campaign, partly played out in the courts, of sustained vilification of his moral character was evidence of admirable reserves of moral fibre and resilience.

Massive crowds

The huge crowds that have turned out to hear him since Parliament dissolved on April 3 have been bigger and more responsive than the ones that showed up at his campaign appearances in the lead-up to GE12 in 2008.

Those crowds had paved the way for an unprecedented denial to BN of its traditional two-thirds majority in Parliament.

These days the crowds' magnitude presages the downfall of the BN government, the reason for caretaker Prime Minister and BN chief Najib Abdul Razak's vacuous optimism that his coalition would regain its two-thirds majority being interpreted as cover for electoral fraud on a massive scale.

That move would be foolish, given the size and mood of the crowds that have turned up at Pakatan rallies in several cities and towns in the residential hubs of the country.

kl112 rally people's uprising anwar ibrahim crowd storyMainly, the people have come to hear and see the Pied Piper of Malaysian political reform, to look at how he has held up under the barrage of vituperation and character assassination.

No leader in modern times, in this and other countries, has been subjected to such a sustained and intense bout of personal vilification.

Throughout it all, Anwar composed himself before countless audiences in such manner as to steadily stay on the issues of national concern, telling his listeners how these have been grossly mishandled by Umno-BN.

Aided by a potentially disastrous decision by Najib to defer the polls on the assumption that a new-broom PM would recover lost ground through handouts and cosmetic changes to policies, Anwar used the time thereby extended him and the Pakatan leadership cohort to hammer away at the massive corruption and colossal waste of the country's resources by over a half-century of BN rule.

Revelations from a serial run of scandals affecting the government was of great help to making the point that Umno-BN was diseased beyond redemption.

Alternative media

The Pakatan message would not have gotten through widely enough without the connectivity of the alternative media, the mainstream one having been rendered a joke by its sickeningly supine attitude to its masters and owners.

The consequence of this widely disseminated message is the spectacle of the return in droves from such places as Singapore and nearby countries of otherwise indifferent Malaysian voters resident in those places who are keen to give the Pakatan plea for urgent reform of a decayed and dysfunctional system a chance to be realised.

bersih rally petaling street 090711These returnees and their local counterparts should help make the voter turnout at GE13 a peak - far more than the previous highest of 72 percent of the electorate - unmatched before.

Needless to say, a huge turnout would be a big fillip to Anwar's anticipated arrival at a personal summit: the fulfillment of a youthful ambition to be prime minister.

If the good life is a dream of youth realised in maturity, the great one must be the confluence between the fulfillment of a personal goal with the attainment of a national purpose which, in Anwar's view, is the salvation of Malaysia from Umno-BN's depredations.

Even without this fusion, his career has been a consequential one. With it, it would be a great one.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Al-Jazeera: Najib Razak

I can't decide if I was more frustrated with the moderator's passive approach or with Najib's expected lack of commitment to answering any question with a direct and honest answer. I was terribly disappointed with his response on the "Allah" issue, and wish he was more telling on his choice of Zulkifli Nordin as a party candidate among other things. By and large, Najib was his usual self, avoiding questions and giving slow and long winded responses only loosely related to the question at hand. More disappointing was the moderator's lack of conviction. She didn't press him on the party's failures. Why has it lost all urban support? She didn't press him for a more clear answer on the "Allah" issue, or it's affiliation with Perkasa. Najib did, however, gain some points for his light insinuation of the opposition's involvement in the Sulu attacks. That was subtle enough to be clever. Maybe the guy isn't as dumb after all?

I'm not anti-Najib like most urban Malaysians. The policies of his administration have been generally favorable and I am willing to attribute some of the weaknesses in his policies to the fact that he does not have his own mandate to lead yet. Given a victory in the upcoming elections, I see him more committed to implement the painful policies such as weaning the country off subsidies for petrol, sugar, flour and the like. I don't see BR1M handouts as vote buying schemes. Sure, he's timed them conveniently and strategically, but we cannot fault him deeply because the policy itself is a far better method of redistribution than subsidies, and should be continued. I have seen sufficient evidence to be convinced that there is a positive effect of cash transfers in helping families climb out of poverty.

Yet my apprehension with the man lies in his history. I'm not referring to his shady military deals as Defense Minister or his Mongolian connections, I am referencing his undying commitment to UMNO since his foray into politics at the tender age of 22. At his core, what does Najib Razak believe in, and what is his honest and personal vision for the country? That question is impossible to answer given his absolute loyalty to the Hussein Onn, Mahathir and Abdullah administrations he served under. He has never criticized any of these leaders or openly disagreed with any of their policies, so he gives us nothing to help us pin down his ultimate intentions. Is he purely an opportunist who is administering reforms to hold on to power and wealth? Or is he dedicated to his father's legacy, who was seen as a Malay nationalist, but not an "ultra" by today's standards? Or has he an entirely different agenda of his own? He holds his cards so close to his chest; it is not possible to know who he is or what his ideals truly are. His vision for Malaysia is blurry and unclear. Sadly, the only other window into his life is his wife, Rosmah Mansor, which paints the unfortunate picture I need not go into detail about. 

My ultimate hope is that Najib Razak is dedicated to an equal Malaysia. I hope he is not racist (in that he believes that Malays have a supreme right to ownership of the country). I also hope he is genuine about eradicating poverty and not playing a clever game to maintain the corrupt relations between the country's coffers and the many UMNO leaders those coffers have enriched in the past.
Most importantly I hope that should he be returned to power, he be quick to implement change. I blame his current slow progress on the lack of his own mandate but if he wins this one I want more bold efforts at change. I want him to offend his party UMNO, and make enemies as necessary. I'd like concerted effort to repopulate MCA with anyone other than the scarecrows that belong to it now. I'd like a hurried dismantling of affirmative action policies.

But if he continues with the reserved pace of the last four years,I may have to withdraw support for him in the 14th general election, five years from now. In writing this, I admit I am not confident of these dreams. Najib Razak has done well enough thus far, but he has a lot more to do to gain a favorable place in Malaysian history. I don't think he has it in him to do it but I'm willing to give him a shot.

P.S. This is my 500th blog post. Milestones in the making!