Report from the streets of Bangkok

For safety reasons I am omitting my name from this account. My apologies.

I was in my house, when I heard. A friend messaged me, urging me to turn on the television, and so I did. All channels showed the same thing: Thailand’s General Prayuth Chan-ocha declared a total takeover of the country, Thailand was experiencing it’s 12th coup. A stream of announcements ensued over the next couple of hours.

This was Thursday May 22. I work in the media, so I rushed to the local TV-station to ensure I was there, before the now imposed curfew kicked in at 10 pm. A lot of other people had the same thought – everybody needed to be wherever they were going to sleep before 10, so the traffic was heavy and hectic.

I spent the night at the TV-station, occasionally being called up by journalists at home to give an update on the situation. I left for home in the early morning hours. I did go out during curfew hours, though, just a little bit. I wasn’t the only one – a few cars were cruising the otherwise empty streets. I said hello to a couple of confused tourists. But apart from that, about 11 pm in busy, buzzing Bangkok, the streets looked like this:

Bangkok 1

The next morning, it really sank in. The country was now military run, and in the daylight, a few reflections and reactions started to seep out. Cautious ones, though, due to the new, extensive censorship on media. One reporter of the English-language Bangkok-paper, The Nation, was really outspoken and critical. He used Twitter to express his anger over the sudden censorship and the coup in general.

I spent the day out and about in Bangkok. Most of the city looked normal, even more normal than it has looked for a while because the military cleared the protesters that have been camping out in the streets of Bangkok since November 2013.They’ve had a lot of demands and a specific political agenda, and has had stages and roadblocks in Bangkok for the good part of a year by now. I won’t go into that.

Up in the northern part of town, a small group of anti-coup protesters – maybe 200 – were defying the newly-imposed ban on gathering more than five people. So even though the soldiers were not present in most of the city, they were present up there: several stand-offs and minor scuffles during Friday, but luckily, nobody was hurt.

On Saturday, two days after the coup, a lot happened. A continued stream of different announcements – mainly announcing lists of people who were to report to the military – was on television all day. Late that evening, the military dissolved the Senate, and removed a not unsubstantial amount of public servants, amongst them the Chief of National Police. I started to worry, because many of the listed people, who were to report to the military, were academics and activists and journalists – critical civilians, in other words. It was not long after that the outspoken journalist from The Nation, the one who had been very critical on Twitter, was called in to report to the military.

So I think, by Sunday, the situation had become significantly more serious. Reports of large numbers of people being detained and transferred to unknown destinations were coming in now. A statement from the military declared that democracy in Thailand had “caused losses”, leaving us speculating if that meant they were not prone to re-establish democracy? The Nation’s journalist reported to military, as he was told, and it looked like this:

Bangkok 2

This picture floated social media yesterday. Unknown credit.

I heard that protesters were gathering again next to Victory Monument in Bangkok, and I decided to go up there. Overnight, the protest had grown in size – far more than 200 people were there now. I would estimate at least 1000, but it’s just a guess. Just when I arrived, I saw a lot of people running towards the soldiers that was blocking the street:

Bangkok 3

Upon reaching the ranks, people started shouting at the soldiers. (Who in many cases are young boys, and not necessarily happy with the task they are doing.) It was tense for a little while, especially when some people started throwing bananas at the soldiers.

Bangkok 4
But the situation seemed to diffuse, like it has done many times before. These scuffles happen regularly, because tensions are high. Anyway, the police were able to calm down the protesters, and the army was ordered to pull back, which they did:

Bangkok 5

After that, the anti-coup protesters decided to dissolve and meet again the next day. On my way home I heard that the Nation-journalist had been taken into custody and transferred to an unknown location. Noone has been in contact with him since that picture was taken Sunday morning, as of this writing.

The official explanation for the coup is to keep the peace. The military says it over and over – this extreme measure is to restore and keep the peace. I have a feeling that the new military leadership of Thailand has a very different definition the word “peace” than I do.

 

The author of the article has chosen to be anonymous, but is known to the In Focus editors.

Pictures are by the author, if not otherwise stated.

 


The Creeping Coup

Thailand has an impressive track-record in the department of political coups. There has, in the country’s democratic history (since 1932) been 18 more or less successful coups in Thailand.

For this reason, whenever there is political instability, Thai media and followers of Thai politics very quickly start using the word “coup”. Will there be a coup? Will the military stage a coup?

Bangkok protests at the Democracy Memorial, November 2013. Photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/maxim303/11468339025/

Bangkok protests at the Democracy Memorial, November 2013. Photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/maxim303/11468339025/

With the current situation in Thailand, we certainly have all the components:

An angry mob in the streets – since November 2013, anti-government protesters have camped out in the streets of Bangkok, demanding that the government step down and the entire system be reformed. That could cause a coup.

A political divide –the current government and the opposition does not agree even on the basic democratic framework. The current government aims for elections – the opposition will actively obstruct any attempt to hold an election, unless there is a reform first.  That too could cause a coup.

And lastly there is an all-round disrespect for the citizens and their right to co-decide what happens to their own country. What happens on the political scene today in Thailand is entirely a power struggle in between opposing elites. Top dog power struggles are the main ingredient in coups.

But despite all the political factors lining up we won’t have a classic coup in Thailand. Not this time.

What we MAY witness in Thailand right now is a whole new category: The Creeping Coup.

The Creeping Coup is a waiting game. Man, it’s slow!

It started all the way back in November 2013, when anti-government protesters started gathering in the streets of Bangkok, demanding the government step down. The protesters turned out to be surprisingly loud and stubborn – they put up roadblocks, built stages, erected tents everywhere, effectively shutting down most of central Bangkok.

With a capital that was largely ungovernable, and – it seemed – a never-ending stream of critical protesters pouring in from the south of Thailand, the Yingluck-government caved in and stepped down.

But it was already slowly becoming increasingly clear that that wasn’t the only thing the protesters – now formed into a form of political movement named People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) – wanted. They wanted their reform. So they stayed in the streets. And the government, excuse me, now the caretaker government, also stayed. For the next four months.

As the months went by, the numbers of the protesters dwindled. Now left with just a couple of small road-blocks, and an occupied park, the Creeping Coup went into the next phase:

In an impressive display of If-You-Can’t-Beat-Them-Join-Them, the opposition movement now started to use the very same system, they want reformed, to obtain their reform:

They started hurling lawsuits at the government. Lots of them.

The most substantial of those was the accusation of corruption within the government rice-scheme, a failed attempt to rake in additional foreign money by tampering with the global rice market. The National Anti-Corruption Committee just recently decided to impeach Yingluck Shinawatra over the issue, and the Senate will conduct thorough investigations on this matter.

Yingluck Shinawatra, Prime Minister of Thailand is captured during the session 'Women as the Way Forward' at the Annual Meeting 2012 of the World Economic Forum at the congress centre in Davos, Switzerland, January 27, 2012. Copyright by World Economic Forum

Yingluck Shinawatra, Prime Minister of Thailand is captured during the session ‘Women as the Way Forward’ at the Annual Meeting 2012 of the World Economic Forum at the congress centre in Davos, Switzerland, January 27, 2012. Copyright by World Economic Forum

 

Another recent one is the transfer of the chief of the National Security Council in 2011, Thawil Pliensri. A unanimous Constitutional Court voted caretaker Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra guilty of looking out for her own interests, when she gave the nod to the transfer, and that’s unconstitutional. She and nine ministers were ousted from government completely over the Thawil-case.

But the thing is, though, that Thailand’s different authorities are not all that impartial. The Constitutional Court, the Senate, the National Anti-Corruption Committee – these institutions are as much political players as the parties themselves are, but with the exception that they have juridical authority.

As of this writing, Thailand does not have an official government. Ten ministers, including the former Prime, have been ousted from their seats, there is no certainty how the next government will be put in place, Bangkok still has frequent mass-demonstrations AND the anti-government protesters still camp out in the streets of Bangkok, demanding their reform.

So there it is. Bit by bit, lawsuit by lawsuit, demonstration by demonstration, verdict by verdict, until there is no other way: The Creeping Coup.

Anya Palm, free-lance journalist based in Bangkok and NIAS Associate.

Palmwrtitings.com


Of Lions and Men: Pakistani Elections and Feline Symbolism

This spring six museums in Copenhagen exhibit collections of art and handicraft depicting flowers. As a visitor to the museum called Davids Samling – which houses the most exquisite collection of Islamic art in Denmark – one learns that in the Indian subcontinent prior to 1707 flowers were often depicted naturalistically. However, when in that year Aurangzeb ascended the Peacock Throne, a more stylistic representation of flowers came into vogue. Thus we are given to understand that when strict Islamic beliefs began to assert themselves, artists moved away from nature and closer to a standardized ideal. The museum also notes the exception that proves the rule: Poisonous plants continued to be depicted naturalistically even in times of Islamic reassertion.

But does this pendulum swings theory of art history set between the stern Islamic renderings of the living world and naturalistic renderings of the same world tell the whole story? Perhaps this generalization should be supplemented to include a third rendering of nature, which is neither stylized, nor naturalistic.  The recent elections in Pakistan would seem to indicate that even in the Land of the Pure, baroque and quasi-naturalistic forms of art asserted themselves in the space between science and religion.

This was evident in the campaign of Nawaz Sharif, the winner of the elections.  Both before and after the elections, Nawaz Sharif was virtually lionized as his party and followers played heavily on royal symbolism equating their chosen leader with the top predator of the natural world, i.e. the lion.  Equipped with the “fair, unused hand[s] of a wealthy Kashmiri-Punjabi” (Sethi 2013), the chubby rotund Nawaz Sharif hardly resembles a clawed feline predator. Nevertheless, in the streets of Pakistan and at party meetings his followers greeted him holding aloft lion toys or they painted themselves and their vehicles in feline stripes to give substance to their collective representation. Those fortunate enough to be invited to Nawaz Sharif’s garish palatial Punjabi home in Raiwind close to Lahore were treated to the sight of two stuffed lions guarding the staircase. The lions (imported from Zimbabwe) serve as the party symbol, and – said the granddaughter – as symbols of Nawaz Sharif and his brother Shahbaz Sharif, whose term as Chief Minister of Punjab helped Nawaz secure an electoral victory (Sethi 2013).

Lions were not the only predators with which the Sharif brothers were equalized. Tigers and leopards, too, were indiscriminately held forth as the symbol of the brothers and their party. All of this would seem to be an instance of a popular political culture throwing Islamic cautions to the winds by neglecting the call for stylization, while also not heeding the scientific call for the accurate identification and portrayal of the species found in nature. Tigers, lions and leopards are all big cats and top predators. As such they seem to be equally good to think with and hence they are evoked interchangeably in popular political imagination. Tellingly, the word sher is used for two of these species, i.e. for the lion and for the tiger (Madsen 2007). Altogether, the feline symbolism that infused the election campaigns exemplifies the powerful ways in which nature is widely used as a metaphor for human society (Madsen 2004-5).

The Pakistan Muslim League (N) won a resounding victory securing 35% of the votes and winning 45% of the seats in the National Assembly. In Punjab the party gained 49% of the vote securing an impressive 78% of the seats. Had not Imran Khan (the cricketer whose luxuriant mane more obviously entitles him to be considered the true lion of men) been around to challenge Nawaz and Shahbaz, the Muslim League might have won 60% of the votes in Punjab (Dawn.com 2013).

For sure, the lions had it in the worlds of the humans, but that did not mean that the real lions and tigers had a field day. During the election campaign, the Muslim League fielded a striking female white tiger. The animal was securely chained, placed on a vehicle and repeatedly paraded around as part of the election campaign. Nawaz Sharif’s own daughter was one of the persons engaging in this stunt. The party had apparently rented the white tiger from “a former PML(N) MNA, Mian Marghoob, who owns a large farm in Mehmood Booti in Lahore” (Khan 2013). This piece of symbolic politics stretched the natural world to the limit. Just before the election day, the tiger was reported to have died, but soon after this tragic-comic news was broadcast, it was contradicted by reports to the effect that the tiger was alive and well and had only suffered a minor ailment for which it had been successfully treated.  As of May 15, it was still not certain whether the animal had survived, but it seemed certain that a legal case had already been filed in the Lahore High Court by animal rights activist and actor Faryal Gauhar against the Muslim League. Wrote Rina Saeed Khan:

“The first hearing has taken place already and the next hearing will take place at the Green Bench in Lahore headed by Justice Mansoor Ali Shah tomorrow. The complainant would like to see a ban on displaying big cats in rallies and improvements in private facility inspections. The Election Commission of Pakistan will be called as well since they are the ones who agreed to awarding the “sher” as an election symbol in the first place” (Khan 2013).

Pakistani is still home to leopards and snow leopards in small numbers, but both tigers and lions are extinct. The only place on the Indian subcontinent where the Asiatic lion survives is the Gir forest in the state of Gujarat (Madsen 2007). The lion population in Gujarat is currently healthy, but in order to ensure its long-term survival it was proposed years ago to move some of the lions from Gir to Rajasthan or Madhya Pradesh as a fallback option in case the Gujarat population would come under threat. This plan was resisted by people about to be affected by the proposed translocation. They did not fancy lions in their area. However, resistance proved fruitless and the Madhya Pradesh government has eventually managed to relocate 1,545 families from 24 villages in the Kuno-Palpur wildlife sanctuary to make room for the lions. This human hurdle overcome, one might expect that the translocation of lions would be carried out.  But lo and behold! The Gujarat government did not want to let go of the lions which they consider theirs:

“The Gujarat government argued that the lions in Gir were doing well, they were protected, they had enough food and therefore there was no need for relocation. It went further by arguing that even though it was reasonable to conclude that restricting  an endangered species to one area could lead to its extinction and that the translocation site in MP was a sound choice, the lions of Gujarat were like family and hence decisions had to go beyond ‘scientific reasoning’ . Chief Minister Narendra Modi had personally put his heft behind this argument” (Economic and Political Weekly 2013)

The case came up in the Supreme Court of India which quashed the “anthropocentric” argument in favor of an “eco-centric” argument delinking the protection of lions from the particular site and people who had hitherto allowed them to survive. The court found that the lions were Asiatic lions, not Gujarati lions. The Gujaratis may well claim that they do have a special relation to the lions. After all, nowhere else has the Asiatic lion (which differs only a little from the African subspecies) been allowed to survive (Madsen 2007). But this argument did not persuade the court which ruled in favor of translocation based on scientific and universalistic reasoning, rather than in favor of status quo based on ethnic and historical reasoning.

Now that Nawaz Sharif has already been invited to India in the latest of umpteen attempts to mend the fences between the hostile South Asian neighbors, one might suggest that some lions be relocated to Pakistan, too.  Would it not behoove for India’s likely future Prime Minister Narendra Modi in an act of public diplomacy to let himself be cast in the role of the magnanimous dispenser of symbolic political capital, and would it not be wise for Nawaz Sharif to supplement his human stock of uncontrollable jihadist wards with a few free-roaming feline wards less likely to turn against him?

Stig Toft Madsen

Senior Research Fellow, NIAS

References

Dawn.Com, “The Election Score”, 16 May 2013, http://dawn.com/2013/05/16/the-election-score/

Economic and Political Weekly, “The Lions in Gujarat. The Supreme Court judgment marks a welcome move away from anthropocentrism”, Editorial, 18 May 2013, p. 8

Khan, Rina Saeed, “The mysterious case of the white tigress”, 15 May 2013, Dawn News, http://dawn.com/2013/05/15/the-mysterious-case-of-the-white-tigress/

Madsen, Stig Toft, “Musharraf lets in the lions”, Asiaportal, 29 November 2007, https://infocus.asiaportal.info/2007/11/29/novembermusharraf-lets-lions%E2%80%9D-by-stig-toft-madsen/

Madsen, Stig Toft, 2004-5, “Narratives of Nature as Metaphors of Society”, Folk 46/47: 121-141

Sethi, Mira, “Watch the throne: Nawaz Sharif on the cusp of power”, 1 April 2013, Caravan, http://www.caravanmagazine.in/reportage/watch-throne

May 23, 2013


Japanese politics at the crossroads

At the time of writing, there is every sign that Japanese politics is at an historical crossroads. In December 2012 the Japanese electorate voted the conservative Liberal Democratic Party back to power after a three-year break from 2009. Before then, the LDP had governed the country almost uninterruptedly since the onset of the Cold War. With the help of a highly capable bureaucracy, the party presided over the country’s rapid economic recovery and consequent wealth creation in the 1960s and 1970s. Its long reign, however, has also created a rigid and inward-looking political culture, and a self-serving political class that is unwilling to carry out difficult but necessary reforms if they are deemed to threaten its vested interests. A policy that favours big business, ad-hoc pump-priming measures using public works projects, and various measures that hinder women’s fuller participation in work outside the home, are just three examples of this culture.

In Japan there was a real sense of euphoria when the party was ousted by the opposition Democratic Party three and a half years ago. However, a series of blunders, but also tough policies (such as an increase in the consumption tax, which some specialists asserted was necessary in order to balance the national budget) made the Democratic Party extremely unpopular, and the party was resoundingly defeated by the LDP in the general election of 2012. Backed by its simple majority in the House of Representatives, the LDP is now pursuing an aggressive monetary and fiscal policy, which some pundits regard as ‘a gamble’, and also, more alarmingly, flexing its muscles to revise the pacifist Constitution under the leadership of the hawkish Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Nationalistic rhetoric and provoking behaviour by some members of the party, such as their regular ceremonial visits to the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo which commemorates the Japanese war dead, are aggravating its already strained bilateral relationships with China and Korea.

Yakusuni shrine

Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo. On 23 April 2013, 168 Japanese lawmakers including three high-ranking cabinet ministers visited the controversial shrine to offer prayers for the country’s war dead. Picture by dtpancio

This is happening against the backdrop of a myriad of domestic problems that the country now faces. These include the mounting national debt, the rapidly aging population, and the decline of local industry. All have been aggravated by the recent natural and man-made disasters, the Great Tohoku Earthquake and the Fukushima Nuclear Disaster in 2011, and come with international challenges, such as the rise of China and Korea as strong economic rivals amid unsettled regional security.

Some observers point to a general sense of malaise in today’s Japan, ‘a loss of hope’ as the Nobel Laureate Kenzaburo Oe described it nearly two decades ago, a society which is still wealthy but unsure about its place and destiny. A most worrying sign is that many young people have become even more inward-looking and apolitical than previous generations.

Some fear that the LDP’s aggressive spending policy and its populist and nationalistic rhetoric may be a sign of the party’s reluctance to tackle more fundamental questions. They fear that under the veneer of the determined posture of the party lies the working of an opportunistic and populist group, who are trying to preserve the old-style of politics, an economics-centred, big-business-friendly modern-day policy of ‘Fukoku Kyohei’ (Rich Nation and Strong Army), and to preserve the monopoly of power of a self-elected few. More generous observers might say that they cannot identify persuasive alternatives, so stick to familiar policies on a larger scale. Either way, the LDP’s nationalistic posture may be dangerous, as it may work to agitate and manipulate an already vulnerable population. And if it lasts too long, this belligerent policy is also detrimental to Japan’s further transformation into a fully participatory democracy and to a more open and cosmopolitan society.

At the moment, Japan resembles a boat drifting in a rough sea without a competent helmsman, an image that may conjure up the Japan of the late 1920s and 1930s for more pessimistic observers.

And yet the resources of Japanese civic life seem to remain intact. There are many signs of a more assertive citizens’ politics, as demonstrated by the large numbers who travelled to the quake-hit areas to help recovery operations, and by citizens’ anti-nuclear movements in the wake of the Fukushima Disaster. Shortly after the disaster struck, a group of citizens began to stage regular anti-nuclear demonstrations on Fridays in front of the Prime Minister’s Official Residence; these continue to this day. More importantly the Japanese judiciary, the heart of the Japanese politico-legal system, which has long been criticised for its inaction, has also begun to produce some noticeable rulings which are more in tune with the spirit of the Bill of Rights. As ever, however, progress here is slow.

At present Japanese democracy is facing one of its hardest tests, which has to be borne by the generations who have no first-hand experience of the major events that have shaped modern Japan, namely the Second World War and its aftermath, to say nothing of the remote, epoch-making, yet still crucial transformations and aspirations of the Meiji period (1868-1912).

At a time of such uncertainty, history is often a useful guide to gauge the present. It is high time to examine Japan’s democratic legacies (it is one of the oldest democracies in Asia) and to measure the strength of its foundations so as to judge where it is heading. What therefore were the major mistakes that the country made in the pre-war years that led it to war? What were the alternative paths that Japan could have taken so as to avoid it? How, in the past, did individuals learn to confront the state, and what principles sustained them in criticising their own government and society?

My forthcoming monograph, Power and Dissent in Imperial Japan , juggles with these questions with a deep concern for the present and future of the country. The Japanese tradition of dissent may also be relevant to other Asian countries which are also pursuing their own democratic futures. The claims of the rule of law, parliamentary politics, and individual rights, are intensely relevant to divided Korea, Burma, and elsewhere, too. The Japanese experience the book tries to recover is full of cautionary tales, but it can also provide inspiration and hope for a better and fairer future, both within and outside Japan.

Hiromi Sasamoto-Collins

……………………………….

BIO DETAILS: Dr Hiromi Sasamoto-Collins is a former lecturer in modern Japanese history at Durham University, and is currently a tutor in Asian Studies at the University of Edinburgh. Her monograph, “Power and Dissent in Imperial Japan: Three Forms of Political Engagement“, will be published by NIAS Press in August.


Who can meet the expectations of the majority?

Najib-Razak-Barisan-Nasional

 

Malaysia’s thirteenth general elections (GE13) will be a battle of the coalitions, pitting the world’s most successful ruling coalition – the 13 party Barisan Nasional (BN/National Front) against the 4 year old, three party Pakatan Rakyat (PR/People’s Pact/People’s Alliance).

It is not easy to categorise the two opposing coalitions and its members as they are disparate, complex, and, with multiple agendas, often fractured. This is primarily the outcome of Malaysia’s recent history. The disparate regions and people that make up Malaysia today are, after all, an artificial construct whose only common denominator was that they were all subject to British Imperial power. A peninsular with 9 Malay kingdoms at the end of Asia’s land mass whose citizens were populated in majority by a polyglot of people from the Malay Archipelago, the Chinese and South Asian subcontinents, with a sprinkling of Arabs, Turks, remnants of past colonialists, various unique groups that were created through inter-marriages, and not to mention the many indigenous peoples aggregated together with two geographical entities on the island of Borneo, that is separated by 800 kilometres of the South China Sea, and whose people have greater cultural affinities with the peoples of the Philippines and Indonesia, and who themselves are disparate in culture, ethnicity and language.

However, all these societies did have one feature in common – feudalism. This was buttressed by British efforts to violently suppress progressive elements in the Malayan polity, preferring instead to hand over power after independence to conservative elements, primarily as a means to protect British interests. The feudalistic nature of these societies gave rise to what has become a very successful model of politics practised by the ruling coalition since the first elections before independence in 1955: Consociational politics, where the elites bargained and struck a deal where each group – first three, then rising to 14, now 13 political parties – had some share of political and economic power under the hegemonic power of the Malay and increasingly Islamised United Malays National Organisation (UMNO). This system has served BN well, chalking up electoral victory after victory at the past 12 general elections.

More importantly, the BN and its predecessor, the Alliance, were able to monopolise power because they were able to forge a ‘syncretism’ in their style of government i.e. governing via a variety of ideological orientations and political practises. The BN was successful not only because of its competent stewardship of the Malaysian economy but mainly because they were able to straddle competing (social, economic and political) interests within their coalition as well as address competing interests outside it by either co-opting them into BN, stifling them through draconian measures or skilfully manipulating these competing interests. The opposition parties and coalitions of the past were not able to successfully mount a challenge to the Alliance and BN partly because the electoral process and system was stacked against them, but also because the opposition parties could never successfully find a way to manage the competing interests that they each represented.

In the past decade or so, especially since the sacking of former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim and the East Asian Financial Crisis of 1997/98, the BN appears to have lost this unique ability to straddle the competing interests of its members and the communities they represent, while the opposition, led by, ironically, the sacked former Deputy Prime Minister, appears to be increasingly adroit at managing these tensions.

Therefore, one big question at GE13 is how the two coalitions are projecting themselves as true representatives of the people’s wishes, and how they go about addressing the key challenges that Malaysia as a country and Malaysians as a people face, in a way that satisfies the myriad competing interests.

The key reasons for widespread dissatisfaction with the present situation are manifold, but the key issues that both coalitions have to address are the rising living costs, demographic change, rapid urbanisation and increasingly uneasy race-relations.

The BN, in the past, has been very successful with their politics of development and key among these has been the reduction of absolute poverty to below three per cent and shaping Malaysia into a middle income economy by 1994 on the back of a low-cost, export-oriented economic model whilst at the same time creating a Malay middle class, primarily through the expansion of the public sector and government linked corporations (GLCs) jobs that is financed primarily through Malaysia’s revenue from non-renewable resources.

However, this particular model has two unintended effects: widespread relative poverty and high income inequality. The low-cost model has seen wages for 80 per cent of Malaysian households stagnate over the past three decades. These households earn less than RM3,000 (around AUS$ 1,000) a month in a country where the average monthly income is RM4,025 (around AUS$ 1,250). More critically, the bottom 40 per cent of households earn on average RM1,440 a month (around AUS$ 450). Most shockingly, the vast majority (71 per cent) of people in the bottom 40 per cent are bumiputeras – literally sons of the soil, a designation that includes Malays and a range of indigenous groups – despite 40 odd years of affirmative action for this group. Indeed, their well-being is and has been the raison de être of UMNO, the backbone of the ruling coalition.

People have been able to get by in spite of rising living costs, because they have been kept at bay by infusing government funds into basic social services, food staples and a fuel subsidy. The last especially has proven effective, but any attempts to rein in costs have been met by popular resistance as a motorised populace has become addicted to cheap petrol.

There is also a significant demographic change in Malaysia. 71 per cent of Malaysians are under the age of 40 with 34 per cent aged between 20 and 40. They face a major challenge. Malaysia is in a middle income trap and must either develop or procure high quality human capital as a pre-requisite to transition into a high income economy. However, Malaysia’s poor quality education has not prepared them for the necessary challenges of a knowledge intensive economy. International benchmarks and surveys shows that the quality of education in Malaysia, at all levels, is no match to the successful East Asian economies that Malaysia has chosen to emulate. 80 per cent of Malaysia’s labour force has no more than the Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia (SPM – equivalent to year 10 or O’levels qualifications), and the 57 universities and the more than 500 colleges are producing large numbers of graduates that the Malaysian labour market deems unsuitable or poorly skilled. This in an economy experiencing full employment since the late 1980s, and severe skills shortage since the early 1990s. Ironically, unemployment among graduates was highest. In 2007, graduates accounted for more than one-quarter of those unemployed, while unemployment among new graduates was 24. 1 per cent in 2008. With limited employability, mediocre wages and loans to be repaid, young Malaysian graduates end up saddled with enormous debt. The bloated civil service and GLCs, which are also perceived to be inefficient and a fiscal drag on the economy, are unable to provide the expected middle class jobs for bumiputeras long accustomed to getting them as part of a perceived social contract with UMNO.

However, perhaps ironically, it has been rapid urbanisation, that has brought these once disparate communities closer together. While many urban areas are still stratified by race and class, the sheer density has increased the interaction. 71 per cent of Malaysia is now urban. Only Kelantan, Pahang, Perlis, Sabah and Sarawak have rates or urbanisation below 55 per cent.

Better infrastructure, especially information communication and telecommunications, in urban areas have also provided a platform for dissatisfied Malaysians to hear alternative views and to connect with each other. 65 per cent of Malaysians were using the internet in 2010. As the internet largely remains uncensored, the opposition coalition and civil society movements have used it effectively to mobilise support for their causes. These groups have used social media, technology and the internet to also penetrate into rural areas through free radio, websites, but also the audio-visual recording of government scandals in DVDs, and other forms. While the ruling party has also joined the information technology revolution, the opposition has been quicker and more able to marshal support online despite being out-resourced by the ruling coalition.

These developments, whose impacts were first experienced at the 2008 general election, have impacted the coalitions in different ways, and have prompted different reactions. It appears that the BN continues to rely on its tried and tested race-based, trickle-down economic growth, and welfarist approach to policies while PR sensing that the ground has shifted, appears to focus on class-based and rights-based policies.

The BN possibly believes that it is best to straddle the competing interests among ethnic, religious, cultural and regional groups by addressing their needs individually, while PR appears, in general to address issues more holistically.

In the BN, the president of UMNO and Prime Minister of Malaysia now takes precedence over the other political leaders in the coalition. Different interest groups today, do not go through their “representative” political leaders or parties to seek government support, but approach the Prime Minister directly, who then, channels the support to these communities through the “representative” political parties. This, however, applies only to Peninsular Malaysia, and not in Sabah and Sarawak which have different dynamics.

PR’s approach is markedly different. Although Anwar Ibrahim is the leader of the opposition coalition and is most likely to be the Prime Minister should PR win, several factions in PAS have indicated some misgivings, preferring their own candidate. This suggests a more equal distribution of power in the opposition coalition members. But most significantly, Anwar Ibrahim is the first mainstream Malay politician to persuasively argue for the dismantling of the race-based affirmative action and has committed to it in the PR manifesto. This alone stands in contrast to BN’s continued reliance on continuing and expanding affirmative action for bumiputeras (although the Prime Minister has made contradictory statements on this).

PR also appears to be moving towards depoliticising contentious issue such as education and language issues. While BN has made side payments to vernacular schools on a piece-meal basis, PR have promised to embed these into government budgets should they come into power. While BN has demonstrated inconsistency in its language policy in primary and secondary schools, PR has been consistent in promoting the right of communities to use their preferred language in education in vernacular schools. This was in the context of using English in the teaching of Science and Maths, that former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamed introduced, and which has since been reversed succumbing to strong popular protest.

Both coalitions however have resorted to populists strategies. PR’s strategies such as free education, removal of excise duties on cars, etc. all show that they are targeting the young and lower and middle income earners, much like the BN is doing now by handing out cash bonuses to Petronas (the national oil company) workers and through its many 1Malaysia initiatives, one of which provided a cash payment to low income earners to purchase a smartphone.

Handouts and their associated media attention are economic and visual reminders of a party in trouble and a party seemingly still able to resource its mass redistribution of wealth according to the principle of affirmative action and poverty reduction rhetoric. The former has been shown to have benefitted those in power (the now infamous 1 per cent) much more than the majority it is meant to aid. The latter, too, has been critiqued, especially in Sabah and Sarawak where poverty rates remain high.

And yet, BN has maintained a strong showing in polls and a support base that does not wish to change the way Malaysian society, economy or politics is structured. The status quo is highly reassuring for many who have yet much to gain from it as well as those who deeply believe in it. And belief is crucial in a country where mosque sermons are written by politics, ‘race’ is used as an everyday descriptor of ethnic background and ‘class’ is not uttered since the crackdown on the communists in the 1950s and 1960s. Who will Malaysians believe come the next elections? Personal attacks against political leaders has been a mainstay in Malaysian politics and lurid stories abound, backed up by court cases, exposes as well as much rumour, gossip and coffee shop talk.

Malaysia today is not the feudalistic society it once was, but the political is still dominated by communal topics such as race and religion and the need to ‘secure’ both against some unknown and often unnamed threat. Many people are willing to move beyond the politics of fear into a brave new world, but will there be a job, a car, cheap petrol and cheap food for them?

Only after the election will we see.

Greg Lopez is a visiting fellow at the Department of Political and Social Change, Australian National University and the New Mandala’s Malaysia section editor, an academic blog hosted by the College of Asia and the Pacific, also at the Australian National University.

Gerhard Hoffstaedter is a lecturer in Anthropology in the School of Social Science at the University of Queensland. He has recently published Modern Muslim Identities with NIAS Press.

 

This article was previously posted on the New Mandela website