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MGG: After Ketari, whither the Opposition?
By M.G.G. Pillai

3/4/2002 1:45 pm Wed


After Ketari, whither the Opposition?

MGG Pillai

The Indera Kayangan by-election set the pace - DAP refused to join in the opposition campaign. That dislocation cost the opposition plenty. As in the Ketari by-election over the weekend.

The opposition went in there without a plan, DAP would not let it be rode roughshod and named its candidate. There was no consultation or discussion. DAP could not win it, even if it reduced the majority by 90 cent between 1995 and 1999.

The 1999 result included a Malay disenchantment with Umno and the Barisan Nasional over the humiliation of the jailed former deputy prime minister, Anwar Ibrahim. It could have reduced that majority if the opposition had gone in with a seriousness it does not now have.

BN's Yum Ah Ha defeated DAP's Choong Siew Onn by 7,153 to 4,949 votes, a majority of 2,204. While the majority is a ten-fold increase from the 1999 result, it is back to status quo ante 1995. The BN had to be returned, for it looks upon every by-election as an insult to its intelligence. Nothing is spared to ensure victory.

Its unexpected defeat in Lunas, where the MIC candidate lost to a Malay from Keadilan frightened it beyond words. It showed the path to electoral politics in the future. When non-Malay candidates are reduced to depend on Malay votes to succeed, a shake-up in the Malay persona, as now, could create waves. In other words, Ketari affirmed the non-Malay irrelevance in Malaysian politics, especially when the Malay vote is split.

Islamic state

DAP is caught in its own doldrums, to get out of which, it focusses attention to PAS's Islamic agenda; and fell into BN hands. BN has its own Islamic agenda, which to catch up with PAS must be as, if not more, extremist than PAS.

But it sold the idea to Malaysians in the Islamic state it envisions (which PAS Aziz Nik Mat calls negri Islam segera - instant Islamic state) is so humane that when it cuts off limbs for thievery, it is far preferable to the PAS' plans. Yet, every attempt to impose Islamic law in the country is by the BN, not PAS.

Even in Kelantan and Terengganu, where PAS is in power, all it has to is strengthen the Umno version in force. But DAP looks to PAS worldview as the devil incarnate, and by implication accepts the BN's.

An undeniable fact is the non-Malays slept through as these changes were made: those in BN wanted to remain in office and accommodated to the point of not raising their voices when they should. The opposition, especially DAP, did not give it the seriousness it should have.

Now that DAP has lost control of it, it walks out of the Barisan Alternatif. The BA on its own is reduced to its own Malay and Chinese hold outside the towns, DAP to its hold in the urban centres. This would get worse unless the BA and DAP get together to frame a policy of its own before the anticipated general elections next year.

Unexpected bonus

It should also have a policy on by-elections: it should not to win but to make it as expensive as possible for the BN, with a win an unexpected bonus. But it would not do to have leaders refusing to help unless formally invited.

BN's campaign in Ketari eased much when BA, instead of coming out to help DAP, insisted on a formal invitation to campaign. That was followed by an argument whether the invitation was issued or not, with leaders dragging their feet while the campaign went under way. In the end, it was left to Pahang PAS and Pahang Keadilan to help out, but unofficially.

This was one election where both BN and the opposition were on level ground: both had problems within, both wriggling out when asked. When control of the voting is in government hands, the Elections Commission unable to exert its will, accusing the government of foul play, as DAP did, is irrelevant.

There is only one way to prevent that: have hundreds, if not thousands, of election workers well versed with the Elections Law. Only one party, in government and opposition, have that: PAS. It trains people throughout the year, but the other opposition parties have not taken up its offer to train them. In other words, the opposition believes that its belief is strong as to be beyond question; that if they were not voted in, it was because the BN cheated.

The opposition is probably too late to counter the BN. The BN's future is predicated to the Malay community coming together under Umno's leadership. In the meanwhile, it tightened the Elections Laws to reduce the space of debate, with the sedition law thrown in to disqualify those who challenge the government as one would expect opposition parties to.

Tight leash

Civil servants are not allowed, after their Akujanji pledge, to attend ceremah - opposition and government - but this is where it would fall on its feet. What we see now in this tightening of democratic elections is a fear within BN that the only way it could hold on to power is by such methods to put the opposition on a tight leash.

All this is ignored in the aftermath of the latest by-election in Ketari. There is a tendency to regard it as an exercise of a democratic right. In a sense it is. But when how an election could be conducted is changed, chopped, centred on laws that make a mockery of a democratic choice, and the opposition does not even raise merry hell, the battle is all but lost.

If the opposition wants a voice in what is to come, it must buck up now, aim for a minimum common programme, organise itself as a coalition of multiracial parties, look upon parliamentary and state assembly constituencies not as of seigneurial right but to be allotted on the basis of a cold-blooded calculation of choosing the best candidate or party to run it.

Otherwise, it must consign itself into an irrelevant appendage of no use but to help the government prove to the world there is indeed democracy in this blessed land of ours.

MGG Pillai is a veteran journalist and runs the Sangkancil discussion group in the Internet.