Change slow in coming in Malaysia a year after historic vote

March 7th, 2009 - 9:14 am ICT by IANS  

By Julia Yeow
Kuala Lumpur, March 7 (DPA) A year after Malaysia’s political landscape experienced a dramatic shake-up with a historic election, the people’s soaring hopes seem to have coalesced into discontentment as anticipated change appears too slow in coming.

On March 8, 2008, Malaysia’s three-party opposition alliance captured the hopes and imaginations of government critics when it swept up control of five of the country’s 13 states and denied the ruling coalition a two-thirds majority in Parliament for the first time.

The election results came as a shock to the country, which has only known the governance of the formidable National Front coalition.

With the opposition’s strong showing came promises of change, from a clampdown on widespread corruption to a fairer distribution of wealth among Malaysia’s 25 million people.

“Last year’s elections gave Malaysians hope that there can be a change from the decadent politics that defined the ruling government for so long,” said Lim Kit Siang, veteran leader of the opposition Democratic Action Party.

The comfortable victory in the five states - central Selangor; northern Penang, Kedah and Perak; and eastern Kelantan - was a slap in the face of the National Front and a voter mandate for changes promised by the opposition.

However, one year later, hopes have turned to resentment as leaders from both sides appeared more concerned with sex scandals, tit-for-tat bickering and power grabbing than addressing a real and immediate problem: an almost-certain economic recession.

The opposition People’s Alliance, led by charismatic former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim, has been plagued by defecting members, internal squabbles and embarrassing scandals involving its lawmakers.

“The opposition has not been seen to do anything significant in terms of policies,” said Denison Jayasooria, a political analyst with the National University of Malaysia in Bangi, Selangor.

While the opposition lawmakers, almost all of whom are first-time elected representatives, appeared so far to be “ferocious in standing up” against government policies, their focus seems to have blurred, Jayasooria said.

“They are no longer just opposition activists,” he said. “They are elected representatives of the people, to serve the people.”

At a recent meeting of party leaders, Anwar himself acknowledged the challenges faced by the opposition.

“On this eve of the anniversary of our March 8 victory, I ask you to reflect on whether you have worked hard to fulfil this promise of bringing change,” Anwar said while maintaining that a lack of funding, support and the government’s unwillingness to cooperate are the main reasons for the lack of progress.

“In each of the opposition-ruled states, legislators have been facing a gargantuan task of sifting through decades of deep-rooted and corrupt practices,” said a senior opposition leader who declined to be named.

“It takes time to undo what has taken decades to put in place,” he said.

The opposition has also been unable to avoid internal controversies with four lawmakers defecting or resigning while another prominent legislator was forced to step down after a nude photo scandal.

But the biggest blow to the alliance has been the loss of the state of Perak in a recent controversial takeover orchestrated by Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak.

The takeover, which came after three opposition lawmakers defected, has led to a messy and yet-to-be-resolved political drama in the state, stemming from claims by both sides that they have the right to rule.

But while the political leaders are going heads-on in their fight to regain power, Malaysians are beginning to bear the brunt of the ailing economy and rising unemployment.

The country’s economy grew a dismal 0.1 percent in the fourth quarter, bringing full-year growth to 4.6 percent, falling short of the official target of 5 percent.

Economists have predicted a retraction of 1.19 percent for the first quarter of the year and warned that the country was headed toward a recession.

“We are unhappy because the government is not spending time to tackle these issues but are bickering politically,” said Andrew Lim, a stock analyst. “It’s making a mockery of the nation and the real problems we are facing.”

Jayasooria also slammed the ruling government for its “small-mindedness” and urged leaders from both sides of the political divide to come to an understanding and “grow up”.

“Today’s political leadership is weak, and the average Malaysian is going to suffer,” Jayasooria said.

“All the scandals, bickering, without addressing the substantive issues of the day is really tragic,” he said.

Jayasooria said that unless the government and opposition pull together and put aside their political agendas, they were doing a grave injustice to the voters who placed their hopes in them.

“What we thought was a new dawn of politics,” he said, “has instead become a sunset experience.”

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