Appraisal time for Abdullah

By Cindy Tham

KUALA LUMPUR: When Malaysia last went to the polls in March 2004, many voters were attracted by the “Pak Lah Factor”. Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi , who had taken the helm as prime minister only five months before that, was described as religious and dubbed Mr. Clean. He promised to be prime minister of all Malaysians, regardless of colour or creed; to fight corruption; and improve transparency and the public service delivery. The campaign message worked – he led the Barisan Nasional (BN) to a landslide victory.

As the nation heads to the polls on March 8, almost four years later, it is appraisal time for Abdullah and his administration – and it will be no picnic. Much has happened during that period, from bread and butter issues like rising crime and inflation, to growing concerns about civil liberties, the state of the judiciary and the position of the different political parties within their constituencies.

Ibrahim Suffian, Merdeka Centre for Opinion Research programmes director, says the urban middle-class electorate want to see how the politicians address concerns about inflation and job security, and expand business opportunities for the people. Such concerns are fuelled by the anticipation of an impending hike in petrol prices, and a slowdown in the US economy. Although rural folk also want to see how they can have a slice of the national economic pie, he says they are not as badly hit by the rising cost of living as urbanites.

But other than such bread and butter concerns, voters will also be evaluating how the candidates vying for re-election have fulfilled the promises made in the 2004 general election. “The more discerning voters will look at what the BN has done to fulfil its promises to fight graft and improve public service delivery, transparency and governance,” he tells MalaysiaVotes on Feb 16.

Political observer Professor Datuk Dr Shamsul Amri Baharuddin, who heads the Occidental Studies Institute at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, shares the same view in a phone interview on Feb 19. He says this general election is basically an appraisal of Abdullah’s administration, in particular whether he has lived up to his promises to deal with corruption and improve government service.

A Merdeka Centre voter opinion poll conducted in December 2007 found that the people were most concerned about inflation, followed by ethnic and inequality issues, crime and public safety, social problems and demonstrations. The telephone poll of 1,206 randomly selected registered voters in the peninsula was part of Merdeka Centre’s quarterly socio-political barometer surveys.

The poll also found that public satisfaction with the government’s efforts to solve the top three problems was generally low. Up to 70% of the respondents were not satisfied (includes those who were somewhat and very dissatisfied) with the government’s efforts to address inflation. Sixty-three percent were unhappy with how it handled ethnic and inequality issues, and 66% thought not enough was being done to fight crime.

For the other two problems, almost half the respondents were satisfied (includes those who were very and somewhat satisfied) with the efforts to address social problems and 65% were satisfied with how the government handled demonstrations.

The survey was conducted close on the heels of two public rallies in Kuala Lumpur in November 2007. One rally was organised by the Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections, known by its acronym Bersih, that called for electoral reforms. The other was by the Hindu Rights Action Force (Hindraf), which is seeking reparations from the British government for bringing the Indians into Malaya as indentured labour, and allegedly leaving the community here after independence to face discriminatory policies that keep the community marginalised.

BN walking on eggshells

These bread and butter issues as well as concerns about civil liberties will be among the hot topics this general election. Since last year, Abdullah has launched big development projects in several regional corridors, which promise to bring investments, economic development and create more jobs. Even before the prime minister dissolved Parliament on Feb 13, several BN leaders have been going around telling the people that only the BN government can bring development to their state or constituency – a line that has been used in many previous general elections.

Most people will acknowledge that they want to see development in their areas, but Ibrahim thinks that voters these days are not easily content with grand plans – they want to see the realisation of such plans. “Development programmes are long-term carrots,” he says. “The mere announcement of the corridors creates hope and expectations, but it is not enough to cause a significant jump in support for the prime minister. People are more discerning and will want to see the realisation of the projects before [they are convinced they should support him].”

In the Malay belt, especially the east coast and some northern states, the voters will be assessing how Abdullah and his administration handled the Hindraf issue. Ibrahim observes that some Malays do not really believe the Indians are as marginalised as they claim. He says the issue has caused some to be turned off by public demonstrations, which are deemed to be too confrontational and disruptive, and show an unwillingness to discuss the problem. “They also see this as a group of people pressing for Hindu rights in an Islamic state,” he adds.

“The BN is walking on eggshells,” Ibrahim says. It has to assuage the Muslim Malay voters that helping the Indians does not necessarily mean it will be at the former’s expense, he says. At the same time, the BN cannot ignore the obvious discontent from the Indian community.

Ibrahim observes that Abdullah may also be under pressure to strengthen his position within Umno, following his predecessor Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s incisive comments, in the past two years, on Abdullah’s leadership and decisions. “For the prime minister to get a trouble-free second term in Umno, he needs to demonstrate he has the ability to unite the Malays,” he says. “He needs to capture Kelantan.”

Shamsul says while there is no shortage of criticisms against Abdullah, no one has really challenged him openly – other than Mahathir. In order for anyone to actually challenge the president in Umno, the person would need the support of at least half of all Umno divisions, which is a huge number, he says.

“Don’t forget that Abdullah also survives on criticisms. He can handle criticisms better than Mahathir. Look at the royal commissions that he set up in response to criticisms,” Shamsul adds.

Following complaints about police conduct, Abdullah set up the Royal Commission to Enhance the Operation and Management of the Royal Malaysia Police in 2004. At the end of 2007, the Royal Commission of Inquiry was set up to look into a video clip showing lawyer Datuk V.K. Lingam allegedly brokering the appointment of judges in a telephone conversation with a senior judge, said to be former Chief Justice Tun Ahmad Fairuz Sheikh Abdul Halim. Both Lingam and Ahmad Fairuz have denied having the telephone conversation.

Critics doubt that the royal commissions are effective in bringing about reforms. Some of the key proposals by the royal commission on the police have yet to be implemented, in particular the Independent Police Complaints and Misconduct Commission.

Shamsul says that other than the national issues, several state elections are also expected to generate some excitement. These include the battle for Penang, with Gerakan, the DAP and MCA in the fray; the discontent with the local leadership in Kedah; and, of course, Kelantan, where PAS has governed for the past 18 years.

Abdullah himself has acknowledged that it would be tough for the BN to repeat its 2004 landslide victory, when it captured 90% of Parliamentary seats. According to the Merdeka Centre poll, Abdullah’s approval rating has dropped from 91% in November 2004 to 61% in December 2007.

But even with all the thorny issues that are being raised in this general election, political analysts think the BN will still be able to win two-thirds of the Parliamentary seats – the figure that is needed to make Constitutional amendments in the Dewan Rakyat. Indeed, since independence, other than in 1969, Malaysians have never denied the ruling coalition a two-thirds majority.

[Photo by Danny Lim]

More than bread and butter

7 responses to “Appraisal time for Abdullah”

  1. I must congratulate you for a new blog where we can get honest and up-to-date reporting on Malaysia. Hope more people to get on the blog.

    To comment on the above article, I sense that the people, especially in the urban areas, are getting frustrating with the way BN is running this country. I would say many will start voting for the opposition “to teach BN a lesson.” But I am not so sure about the rural folks. The bread and butter issues for them are: will there be enough “breads” for me; and will there be more “butter” to smooth my livelihood. BN will definitely capitalise on such sentiments, and win.

  2. Dearest Jac and Cindi , Congrats on your new news site and am sure with the both of you at the helm , we can expect good journalism . Feel free to call me if u guys need my help.Anything , anytime …..

  3. Dear Cindy, Jac and Danny

    Good luck with your new venture. It’s about time we had access to balanced analysis of breaking issues, in this case, Election 08. There seems to be an increasing trend in leaders – both BN and opposition – “sponsoring” their children as candidates this time around. So we need to watch out for more than one dynasty in the making.