MGG: Ketari X: The noose tightens, but not yet in Ketari
By M.G.G. Pillai
1/4/2002 1:31 am Mon
The election campaign for the Ketari byelections is over.
Polling stations have opened, and before the day is out, it would
have a new state assemblyman. The National Front (BN) as usual
turned it into a life-and-death poll and the Opposition
Democratic Action Party (DAP), though it shot itself in the foot,
took to their senses and campaigned as an underdog, with effect.
UMNO, MCA and Gerakan, more than ther common opponent, were
disorganised that a concerted campaign was not possible. The
deputy prime minister, Dato' Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, manfully
soldiered on, but if this campaigned proved anything, it was how
disorganised BN was where it mattered.
The BN had problems with the two main communities -- the
Malays and the Chinese -- and its UMNO election team -- so large
it had about two for every Malay voter -- could not weave its
monetary magic in Ketari, as it did in Indera Kayangan where it
forced its way into houses and prevented the opposition from
coming anywhere close. If it attempted this in Ketari, bloodshed
could have resulted. Even Janda Baik, where Kuala Lumpur's elita
have their weekend homes, is so riddled with PAS influence that
UMNO had a tough time there. This technically are elections
offences, but not, it seems, if the BN commits them. There is a
provision which makes it an offence to prevent campaigners from
persuading voters to vote for its candidate.
The Elections Commission is a sinecure for retired civil
servants, only to nod when told to, and whose tenure would be
shortened if they have ideas beyond their station. When it
should be the Elections Commission which should take the lead in
legislation to amend the elections laws, in Malaysia it is the
Government. In other words, it has the unfettered right to amend
the laws so it would continue in power for as long as there are
So, when the new amendments to the elections laws were
announced amidst the campaign, it was more a warning to the
Opposition that if they continued to get the support of the
people, they should face more official harrassment and pressures
than they now have. One scandal is the fortnight campaigning for
an election suddenly announced. This is usually done after the
BN have made all preparations for its campaign, leaving the
Opposition to flounder. But the opposition learned to live with
this, and the new amendments come when these restrictions affect
the BN more than its electoral opponents. Malaysian elections do
not debate issues. The opposition raises them, but the BN
ignores them, and concentrate on irrelevancies, often resorting
to personal attacks as the campaign winds down.
Ketari is a watershed. It reveals the BN's internal
weaknesses, its racial divide within and between each other, an
electorate not prepared to accept BN statements at face value.
The BN writ does not hold sway in many a constituency, and tens
of millions of ringgit must be spent to get what it wants.
Hence the new amendments to the elections law. The electoral
deposit is quadrupled to RM20,000 for parliamentary candidates,
half that for state assembly candidates, with more restrictions
on what candidates can discuss with the threat of jail, fine and
loss of civic rights for years after. Malaysia has, like
Singapore, decided to kill the Opposition by onerous monetary
conditions; though it has not reached Singapore's penchant to
sue opposition candidates for libel to tell those who join the
Opposition of the dangers facing them if they stood for
Election laws are tightened when BN loses ground to reveal a
governing party so insecure as to travel an authoritarian route
to hold on to power. It can do this because the West looks upon
Malaysia, as once on Zimbabwe, as a democratic beacon for the
superficial modes of democracy to ignore the undemocratic base on
which it stands on. And it would address this only when its
favourite opponent against the dictator it encouraged is caught
in the trap it helped set.
In 1964, when I first voted, ninety days separated
nomination day and polling day; today, it is a fortnight at
best. Election rallies were the norm, and government leaders,
from the prime minsiter down, went on the hustings, replying to
opposition charges, taking them to task, and allowing them to be
heckled by the crowd. A give-and-take rarely seen since, for in
the aftermath of the 1969 racial riots, the country was put into
a state of emergency and the rights deliberately reduced so
campaigns are since banned. The BN raises security concerns when
it should not; the police come in to impose conditions it should
not; the onerous conditions laid on for opposition to hold their
'ceremah', confined to any covered space, and the police habit to
allow or reject it at the last minute, keeps them on tenterhooks.
The old days can never come again. The BN is in difficulty
today because its dominant UMNO cannot wean the Malay back.
UMNO has the political leadership of the Malays, but not its
cultural. That gets worse by the day, so long as the humiliation
of the jailed former deputy prime minister, Dato' Seri Anwar
Ibrahim, is not erased. UMNO insists it would ensure he would
not ever return to power. That is possible, indeed even
probable. He is confined to a wheel chair, his neck in a collar,
his back so wrought in pain, that it is doubtful if he would ever
be normal again.
The BN decided to make an example of him, to tell him a
prisoner has no rights, but it is four years since he was
detained, and it cannot wean back the Malay. It probably never
could. The one option it has: to wean him back into UMNO, make
him the next prime minister, it would never agree. Just a hint
of that led to a threat on the prime minister's life, possibly
from UMNO members who could not survive if he became prime
minister. UMNO and BN believe they can overcome it if the
election rules are tightened.
So, in the aftermath of Ketari, BN and UMNO see defeat
staring in its face. Not in Ketari, or in the byelections to
come, or even at the next general elections, but in the long
term. A sensible, introspective UMNO leader told me he thought
UMNO now has a greater past than a future. "Every day Anwar
stays in jail, the worse for UMNO." When defeat is inevitable in
many a Commonwealth country, the first move is to amend the
constitution or elections laws so it would be returned however
serious the opposition ranged against it. When that is
challenged or not possible, then one-man rule or one-party rule
is constitutionally enshrined.
It matters not who is returned in Ketari. It is a handicap
to whoever is. For BN, a byelection would bleed it more than it
wants to: a byelection sets it back tens of millions of ringgit.
For DAP, after spurning the Barisan Alternatif, it found it could
not do without them. As it happened, Pahang Keadilan and Pahang
PAS helped it out, but not the national leadership. Neither DAP
nor the BA have a policy on byelections. It should have been to
bleed the BN with each, a win a bonus. Instead, it pushes ahead
for victory as its first aim. That makes it easy for BN to run
rings around the Opposition. So it does. Whoever is returned
tonight. If the Opposition cannot get together, it might as well
give up the ghost.