OPINION: Reforms yes, but not through violence in the streets


19 November, 2007
Has the Barisan Nasional government ensured fairness in conducting elections? Ironically, despite flaws, fair elections have been proven in the defeats the BN suffered in the polls, writes KALIMULLAH HASSAN.

IT was more than 13 years ago — February 1994 — but for many journalists who covered the Sabah state elections then, some of the dramatic events that took place remain fresh in memory, probably because they are oft repeated at gatherings of these old hacks, at dinner tables or at the Foreign Correspondents Club where war stories are traded.
Just like the dramatic 1985 state elections when the newly-formed Parti Bersatu Sabah (PBS) eked a slim victory over the then powerful Berjaya party, only to see an attempted power grab with a dawn swearing-in of a chief minister from the losing party, and then having the decision reversed through intervention of the federal government, the 1994 election was also full of drama.
The PBS, which had then ruled Sabah for nine years and had, during this period, joined the federal ruling Barisan Nasional coalition and exited on the eve of general election in 1990 to back an opposition alliance that failed, was facing an onslaught from the BN which was determined to wrest the state back and punish the PBS and its president, Datuk Seri Panglima Joseph Pairin Kitingan, for their treachery in 1990.
As was convention, the deputy prime minister and deputy head of the BN, headed the BN election campaign. In 1990, the deputy prime minister who led the unsuccessful campaign to beat the PBS was the late Tun Ghafar Baba. In 1994, it was the newly appointed deputy prime minister Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim.
Encyclopedia Brittanica, in its review of Malaysia for 1994, states:
“Anwar Ibrahim was Umno’s chief strategist for the February (1994) elections in Sabah, the Borneo state long ruled by the opposition United Sabah Party (Parti Bersatu Sabah).
“The BN won 23 state assembly seats, whittling PBS’s legislative strength down to 25. Joseph Pairin Kitingan, Sabah’s chief minister for nine years, was forced to dissolve (his government) even before it could convene in March because almost all PBS legislators had defected. Umno’s Sakaran Dandai then became Sabah’s chief minister.”
What really happened was that many of the PBS assemblymen defected to the BN, forcing the collapse of the PBS government within days of its victory.
I cannot recall exactly when but it must have been early in the morning of Feb 20 or 21, shortly after the PBS had been announced the winner in the election.
My colleagues and I, who were covering the election for our respective organisations, had spent the whole night running around a deserted, suspense-gripped Kota Kinabalu.
Remembering the 1985 attempted power grab, Pairin had driven to the gates of the Istana to be sworn in as chief minister but was refused entry. His Land Cruiser was parked at the gates and he refused to leave until he was sworn in. He would stay there for two nights.
Meanwhile, all his elected assemblymen were locked up in his official residence, Sri Gaya, and their mobile phones taken away to prevent any attempt from the BN to contact them and induce them to jump ship.
All the BN needed was for two assemblymen to cross over and the PBS would have been reduced to a minority.
Dozens of reporters and cameramen were holding vigil at the Istana gates but in the wee hours, we left one of our colleagues to hold fort while the rest returned to the Hyatt Hotel, where we all stayed, to take a much needed rest. But it was not to be.
It was about 4am when I received a call in my room from a lawyer I had befriended — Abdul Rahman — and he was sobbing.
Abdul Rahman said there were rumours that the police would storm Sri Gaya and take the assemblymen away. I found it hard to believe that such a thing could happen; but this was Sabah, and with the power grab of 1985 still in mind, I dressed and went to see Abdul Rahman.
He wanted my colleagues and I to go to Sri Gaya and if such a raid did occur, at least we could witness it and tell the world about it.
Bone weary, my colleagues were woken and we all went to Sri Gaya. There was no police raid, of course, but tension was extremely high.
The next day, Pairin, who had waited at the Istana gates for more than 36 hours, was sworn in as chief minister, unbathed, unshaved, bleary-eyed and wearing the same clothes he had on two days earlier.
But barely days later, his government collapsed as many of his assemblymen defected and the BN formed the next government.
In his policy address at the PBS annual congress on Sept 23, 1997, Pairin had this to say:
“Of course, our most bitter experience as well as that of the people of Sabah as a whole was being forced out of government after winning the 1994 state elections. The fourth-term PBS government lasted only about two weeks before the mandate given by the people was stolen through undemocratic manoeuvrings of the BN. The resignation of the government was caused by defections of a majority of PBS assemblymen to BN parties. Some of the former PBS assemblymen also formed their own political parties and later joined the BN.
“The manner in which the PBS government was forced out of power and made an opposition party is certainly unprecedented in our beloved country of Malaysia. As leaders and members of PBS, we must all rise and take up the challenge to reverse this dark spot in Sabah’s history by ensuring that the party is returned as the rightful government of Sabah in the next election.”
A year later, PBS deputy president Datuk Dr Maximus Ongkili, now a federal minister, said: “We should consider what happened in Sabah in 1994 as history that should not be repeated. The federal government must not allow its machinery to be abused by irresponsible groups intimidating the voters, using phantom voters, buying PBS assemblymen, and closing the door of the Istana as was done during the last election.”
The PBS website still has this posting on the 1994 election where it states: “Having lost the majority in the state assembly, Datuk Seri Panglima Pairin resigned as Chief Minister on March 17, 1994 before a shocked Malaysian public. It was unbelievable that a case of a democratically elected government losing power within days after a general election due to party hopping by dishonourable assemblyman was happening for the first time on Malaysian soil.”
And all these happened when Anwar led the campaign in Sabah.
In 1999, after Anwar was sacked from his post by then Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, the new deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi led the BN election campaign in Sabah.
The Hongkong-based weekly, Asiaweek, reported: “Datin Seri Dr Wan Azizah Ismail, (Parti Keadilan president and Anwar’s wife) decries Barisan’s alleged misuse of public facilities. Yet the irony is that when Dr Wan Azizah’s husband, Anwar, was deputy PM, he reportedly used the same methods for his Sabah campaign.”
In a subsequent issue, Asiaweek reported on the BN’s overwhelming majority in the 1999 Sabah election: “Given the stakes involved, it is of little surprise that the BN pulled out all stops to win. For one thing, the polls were a test of Barisan’s legitimacy in Sabah. In the previous state election, held in 1994, victory had gone to rival PBS. Barisan ended up in power only because 26 assemblymen bolted from PBS to either join Barisan or form their own parties.
“Everybody realised that the government in 1994 was formed because people jumped,” says Karim Bujang, BN’s secretary in Sabah.
“The coalition’s mandate was therefore suspect; a victory this time around would establish beyond doubt that Barisan did indeed have the support of Sabahans.”
It was not surprising to see Anwar in the forefront of last week’s demonstrations by some non-governmental organisations and mainly opposition party supporters demanding electoral reform because if anything, Anwar is a politician through and through. And, as has been proven time and again, Malaysians have short memories.
But with historical perspective, it does seem strange that Anwar, who headed two of the most controversial election campaigns in Malaysian history in the last 15 years, would be the one asking for electoral reforms.
Umno members and many older Malaysians will also remember the 1993 Umno election where Anwar took on then party deputy president and deputy Prime Minister Tun Ghafar Baba, an election where money, the media and government machinery were blatantly abused to oust Ghafar and his team.
The problem was so severe that in three subsequent Umno general assemblies after that, then Umno president Dr Mahathir Mohamad decried the corruption within the ranks, and cried, asking Umno delegates to repent and reject those who used money to get votes.
It must be noted that the current Prime Minister, Abdullah, was on Ghafar’s losing team in 1993, and was dubbed Mr Clean by the media for his refusal to thwart the electoral process by using money.
Abdullah displayed his seriousness when after the 2004 Umno election, where allegations of money being used were widespread, he initiated investigations which led to one of his own staunch supporters and friend, Tan Sri Isa Samad, a cabinet minister, who had won the vice-presidency, being implicated and suspended from the party for six years.
It is interesting to go back into history and get a perspective on the demonstration of last Saturday.
Two others in the forefront of the march to Istana Negara to hand over the memorandum seeking electoral reforms were Parti Islam president Datuk Seri Hadi Awang and DAP chairman Lim Kit Siang.
Kit Siang has been at the helm of the DAP for more than 30 years until he passed the baton to Kerk Kim Hock, who subsequently left the party for health reasons although it was widely known he had major differences with Kit Siang’s son, Guan Eng. Guan Eng is now secretary-general of the party.
The Aliran magazine, which was one of those which signed the memorandum for electoral reforms, reported: “Guan Eng too cannot erase the talk of nepotism by virtue of being DAP supremo Kit Siang’s son. It didn’t help of course that the PAP in Singapore handed its leadership to Lee Hsieng Loong, the son of its own supremo, Lee Kuan Yew, at the same time. Therefore the image of a DAP being a highly regimented party that purges anyone seen as threatening Kit Siang’s hegemony has not been totally erased.”
That seems to be the perception.
After all, in the past, many had been touted as potential successors to Kit Siang. They included people like architect Goh Hock Guan, activist Fan Yew Teng, social worker Tan Sri Lee Lam Thye, lawyer Wee Choo Keong and Kerk. All eventually fell by the wayside and left the DAP. Maybe the DAP needs to reform its electoral process. But maybe Kit Siang believes it has been free and fair although others in his party don’t think so. Again, you cannot make everyone happy, can you?
What happens when the DAP wins an election through the electoral process that it wants reformed?
After a crucial by-election in Tapah which the DAP won against the BN, Kit Siang, was quoted by Asiaweek, which said he was ecstatic.
“It is a political earthquake,” Kit Siang said of the DAP’s stunning upset win in the May 17 parliamentary by-election.
The death of the incumbent MP caused the by-election in the semi-rural Perak state constituency. The result meant an astonishing vote swing to 39-year-old lawyer M. Kulasegaran, who demolished a previous government majority of 14,000 to win by 3,000. The DAP last held the seat in 1969. And it won this time despite the campaign efforts of then Deputy PM Anwar Ibrahim and other senior officials.
Kit Siang described the votes as “golden letters in the annals of Malaysian history”.
“It is an earthquake registering six on the Richter scale,” he joked. The government is not laughing, however.
And what happens when they do badly in an election?
The Asiaweek report after Kit Siang and DAP deputy chairman Karpal Singh lost their seats in the 1999 general election, despite the opposition Keadilan and Pas having an overall better showing, says: “Lim Kit Siang, who stepped down as DAP secretary-general on Dec 2 to take responsibility for the party’s poor performance in the elections, said in his resignation letter that the new political equation effected by the rise of Pas would pose a threat to a democratic secular Malaysia.”
The World Socialist website has this report on its pages: “Despite losing two longstanding leaders, DAP, which is based primarily among Chinese voters, hung onto 10 seats but failed to make any significant gains. Defeated leader Kit Siang described the result as ‘a catastrophic defeat’ with our traditional non-Malay and Chinese supporters abandoning the party.
“Dr Mahathir had been able to successfully play on the fears of Chinese and Indian voters that a vote for the DAP would only assist its electoral ally Pas and its plans for an Islamic state.
“Kit Siang’s comments underscore the highly unstable character of the opposition coalition: DAP has always opposed any call for an Islamic state and laws yet it formed an electoral alliance with Pas. In the aftermath of the election it is unlikely that the opposition parties will remain in a coalition for long.”
Therefore, it appears that Kit Siang did not blame the electoral process when his party won in Tapah; and blamed his partners, Pas, when he lost in 1999. Ah, well?
Perhaps, the most potent argument by the government that elections in Malaysia are actually conducted in free and fair manner, is the fact that it has lost states like Kelantan, Sabah, Terengganu and Penang at one time or another, almost lost Kedah in 1999, and also lost crucial by-elections like the one in Tapah and Lunas.
But certainly, there are weaknesses — which the government and opposition parties acknowledge — that need to be rectified.
In a general election, where ultimate power goes to the winner, no one will be satisfied, especially those who lose.
But even in developed democracies like the United States, as seen by George W. Bush’s highly controversial victory over Al Gore in the 2000 presidential elections, there are flaws. If the system had been perfect, maybe George Bush would not have become president; maybe there would never have been a war in Iraq and there would not have been all the subsequent consequences of that war which have impacted the rest of the world. Maybe.
In any democracy, a country must strive to be better in everything it does — in improving its institutions, its economy, the welfare of its people or in adapting to change.
And the current government despite its flaws and share of incorrigible politicians has repeatedly talked and sought improvements in the delivery systems, in strengthening institutions and in ensuring it is fair to all Malaysians.
We could do without Barisan MPs who make crude and disparaging remarks against women, or those who make racist statements; we could do without those who flout the laws by building palaces without seeking approvals; we could do without incompetent members of government. But then, we don’t live in a perfect world.
It is interesting to see what the coalition of NGOs and political parties want reformed.
In their memorandum to the king, they listed down eight aspects which they said need to be reformed, some of which, such as use of indelible ink and cleaning up electoral rolls of dead and untraceable voters, have already been adopted by the Election Commission, but were contained in the memorandum nevertheless.
One of the things they sought was that “at least 30 per cent of members of parliament must be women” and that “opportunities must be given for women and the disenfranchised”.
So far, only the Barisan Nasional, through Abdullah, has a stated policy of ensuring that women occupy at least 30 per cent of top posts in government. It’s hard to see Pas, which relegates women’s role in politics and government, to accommodate that policy though Hadi Awang was in the forefront of the march to the Istana.
In fact, none of the opposition political parties have the same representation — either in percentage terms or absolute numbers — of minorities and women as does the Barisan Nasional.
The DAP is mainly Chinese-based and Keadilan and Pas are almost wholly Malay-based. The BN, through its coalition partners, has members of almost all Malaysian communities within its ranks and minorities like the Orang Asli and Thai-Malaysian community are represented through senators in the Upper House.
The BN had the highest number of women candidates in the 2004 elections. Will we see Pas, DAP and Parti Keadilan Rakyat fielding more women candidates in the next general election? Let’s see.
The memorandum also asks for many other things, like a longer campaign period, closer and more effective monitoring of money spent by the different parties during the campaign, and public funding for political parties’ campaigns and for women and minority groups, and greater access to public radio and television. These are certainly reasonable requests which should be considered. But could not the same memorandum be handed over to the prime minister and the king in an organised manner without a march through the busy streets?
In conclusion, they ask that the king withhold consent for dissolution of parliament should the changes they seek not be implemented.
Who are these coalition members who signed the memorandum?
Some are recognisable names — like Aliran, Abim, MTUC, opposition parties like the DAP, Pas, PKR and Sarawak National Party (SNAP), but some don’t even strike a chord. Citizen’s Health Initiative? Group of Concerned Citizens? Community Action Network? Labour Resource Centre? Malaysian Voters Union? Save Ourselves?
They are all signatories to the memorandum and claim to represent civil society and other Malaysians.
Really? Then how come the rest of us have heard little or nothing at all about them before?
Maybe they believe they represent Malaysians and civil society. But who represents the tens of thousands of others who become victims of these marches and demonstrations, when traffic comes to a standstill, business gets disrupted and innocent bystanders have to run helter skelter to avoid the mad rush?
The 1998 and 1999 reformasi demonstrations showed how unruly the crowd can become.
They did march through Chow Kit to the Umno headquarters, breaking furniture and windows, and then to the then prime minister’s house in Sri Perdana, forcing a showdown with police. They did attack the vehicles of a TV3 crew, breaking its windows and thrashing the cars while the crew sat in fear inside.
They did force small traders to close shop and innocent bystanders to scurry and hide in fear when they marched through the streets.
They did beat up policemen and burn police motorcycles in their demonstrations then. When business stagnates, when people lose jobs, when investors fear to invest, who do they go to for recourse? Lim Kit Siang, Hadi Awang, Anwar Ibrahim or to Citizen’s Health Initiative?
If people again go back to history, they will note that the May 13 racial riots were sparked off by street demonstrations. If we go back to the riots in Sabah in 1986 when bombs were going off throughout the state and five people were killed in days of chaos, we will note they started from street demonstrations in Karamunsing. Therefore, it is only natural that both the authorities and Malaysians at large are fearful of the street demonstrations which during the reformasi era of 1998 also turned violent.
Maybe the organisers intend these demonstrations and street marches of “solidarity” to be peaceful. Whether by design, or whether by the law of unintended consequences, we have seen how these demonstrations led to chaos and mayhem.
Hopefully, there will be a time when the country can accommodate such protests and demonstrations which will run their course peacefully and it is the hope of every Malaysian, I should think, that the sooner this can happen, the better.
It’s funny that Thierry Rommel, the outgoing European Union ambassador, says that Malaysia is under “an effective state of emergency” when referring to the police action of using water cannon and tear gas to break up the crowd of demonstrators who refused to disperse despite repeated warnings by the police.
By his argument, we should conclude that Italy, a member of the EU that Rommel represents, is also under an effective state of emergency since last week.
Why? Well, we saw on BBC and Al Jazeera how Italian police used tear gas and water cannon to disperse rioting crowds protesting against the shooting of a football fan in Lazio by a policeman. Strange that Al Jazeera did not come to the same conclusions about Italian police and authorities as they did on Malaysian police in their reports.
After all, both the Italian and Malaysian police were enforcing the same standard operating procedure of police throughout the world — dispersing unruly crowds using water cannons and tear gas.
Maybe, coming from the Middle East, which must be a thriving hub of democracy, Al Jazeera has higher standards for “less developed” democracies like Malaysia. We must wonder why then the Bush administration is hell bent on introducing democracy to the Middle East.
Conclusion: Not everything in this world is free and fair.