The Merdeka Opinion Polls reflected this in their report just before the March 4 General Election. Interestingly, the ethnic issues (which have been highlighted with the recent Hindraf case and the street protests by the Opposition Parties in Kuala Lumpur), rated only 10% as among the concerns of the public. However, for one reason or another, the results of the General Election turned out to be such a big
surprise. Five out of the 13 states were won by the Opposition. We now have the states of Penang, Perlis, Kelantan, Kedah, and Selangor being governed jointly by an Opposition coalition of the Islamic Party (PAS), Keadilan Party (PKR), and the Chinese dominated Democratic Action Party (DAP). With this development, the Administration party—Barisan National (BN) has been effectively challenged in the
country's political influence and mandate. At the Parliament, BN is short of three seats to form its 2/3 representation as an indicator of its strong mandate.
Where did it all go wrong? Contrary to the Opposition's notion that they are successful in reforming Malaysian politics, the big losses of the BN can be mostly attributed to a very real "protest vote" against them and not necessarily as a "vote for" the Opposition. Perhaps, it is a timely wake-up call for the BN leaders, in as much as it has become a great opportunity for the other groups. Somehow, I cannot
help but think if it was the exploitation of the more often dangerous "racial" sentiments and their promises of a "welfare state" that have given more votes to the Opposition. During the two weeks of campaign, the "ceramahs" or public speeches or forum have given venues not really for very clear government platform discussions, but more of political mudslinging (mostly coming from the Opposition), and again,
of giving the public a racial Math that convinces the Chinese and the Indians that "a vote for BN is a vote for the Malays."
On the other hand, among the Malays, there is this tirade of discussions that "the Muslims in this country have become less Muslim and that we need a stricter Islamic government and laws." And considering that the DAP and PAS have not always had the best of friendship and alliance, I am quite skeptical on how both can actually
compromise on their viewpoints with regard to the position of Islam in politics.
Here in Penang, life seems to be mostly the same despite the Opposition government. Since, the state government is dominantly Chinese (DAP), it is really no different than the past BN government that was dominated by the Chinese Gerakan Party as part of the BN coalition. Penang is the only state in Malaysia that has a dominant Chinese population and where the Indians, Malays, and the other Bumiputra groups (indigenous and non-Muslims) are a minority. Even during the time of the BN state administration, the minority groups continue to express unhappiness regarding their marginalization in the areas of development, economy and housing.
Therefore, if the Opposition government wants to impress its citizens, it will be interesting how they will address these concerns and bring more satisfaction to the minority groups. In recent weeks, the new state government started off the debates on the abolition of the National Economic Policy (NEP) and this has become a hot topic among ordinary folks. Although the NEP program ended in late 1980s, this issue continues to gain mileage in swaying public opinion, especially in the status of the Bumiputras in this country.
On a daily basis, I think the Malaysian public has become more conscious of keeping up with state and federal politics. I also think that the media companies-the newspapers and television programs—have become more profitable these days due to this growing political consciousness. Certainly, the state of Malaysian politics and democracy today is a refreshing development. When asked about the current atmosphere of uncertainties of the country's future, most folks would say, "there is always the next General Election should we think that we want to give the power back to BN." Hopefully though, this political reform shall indeed result to positive change and make Malaysia a better and stronger nation. ("In the Neighborhood" is Ayesah Abubakar's column for Mindanews. Ayesah is the coordinator of the Mindanao Peace Program at the Research & Education for Peace Universiti Sains Malaysia or REPUSM in Penang, Malaysia. You may email her at email@example.com.)