The ruling coalition, Barisan Nasional, lost four more states to the opposition, for a total of five, and fell to below two-thirds in the national parliament for the first time in the country’s fifty years of existence. As an outsider, I don’t have a stake in the outcome either way. I can only applaud the country for having a political environment that sustains such lively contests, with over a dozen distinct parties to represent their interests: UMNO, MCA, MIC, PBB, SUPP, PPP, PKR, PAS, DAP and numerous others. At the state level, there are politicians representing constituencies of as few as 10,000 people. At that level, the public can feel they have true access and representation, or if they don’t, they can vote in someone who will provide it. By contrast, the enormous USA somehow can only support two parties, and I am not alone in feeling that neither party represents my interests. As with so many aspects of Malaysian life, this diversity is a tremendous asset. Thus I was very impressed to read our Prime Minister Pak Lah, for whom the results were a serious setback, declare the outcome an expression of how democracy is supposed to work and for all parties to accept the results.
The number of factors at work in the outcome is huge and I wouldn’t presume to speak on all of them. Freedom of the press, though, or lack thereof, was an unmistakeable issue in the opposition wins. Mainstream newspapers, tv and radio stations are so docile and self-censoring that they are nearly useless. This gave internet news outlets extra relevance for anyone trying to figure out what is really going on. Sites like Malaysiakini and Malaysia Today, both excellent news sources in their own right, may benefit from an aura of celebrity and subversiveness that they really only acquire by virtue of the stifling media situation in the country. Sympathy for those and the many other bloggers who go online to speak out was clearly evident in the election outcome. Four opposition winners were bloggers, including Jeff Ooi, who I’ve linked to in the past about press freedom, won a national seat in Penang for DAP, and Nik Nazmi, who has been on my blogroll for years and won a state seat in Selangor. Congratulations to them both, may they serve the country well.
The press repeating government press releases not only drove people to get information online and gave extra prominence to web-based papers and bloggers; it also appears to have blinded the ruling coalition to dissatisfaction within the country. With only their own newspapers to read, where everything is always rosy, they began to believe their own hype and consequently were shocked by the outcome. Hopefully these results will help the governing coalition to see the benefit of a free press to all segments of society, even or especially to those in power.
The big question now is what the opposition can accomplish in the states they hold. One reason the opposition hadn’t been too successful up till now is that the two big opposition parties pulled in opposite directions. DAP is a left-leaning secular democratic party with a strong ethnic chinese base, PAS is an Islamic party with an exclusively malay base. The big difference in this election is the emergence of PKR, the People’s Justice Party, under Anwar Ibrahim as a truly multi-ethnic issues-driven party. PKR is positioned to be the go-between between PAS and DAP. PKR could find itself enjoying a lot of clout as a dealmaker in the new coalitions. Even if the opposition is unable to address hot issues like the status of Islam or bumiputera privilege for lack of common ground, practical changes on issues like transparency, corruption, and freedom of the press would surely be welcome first steps.
I haven’t had much to say on Malaysian politics over the years, and don’t intend to change now. As a guest in this country, I’m happy to let Malaysians thrash it out themselves. But if you are interested in keeping abreast of political happenings here, start here: Malaysiakini, Malaysia Today, The Other Malaysia.