Editorial: The real work has just begun

By Cindy Tham

UNTIL January 2008, Loh Gwo Burne was an unknown in the Malaysian public space. Today, the 34-year-old, who barely speaks Bahasa Malaysia, is the newly elected Member of Parliament (MP) for Kelana Jaya who will have to brush up on his command of the national language to speak up in Parliament.

Running under the Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) banner, Loh contested against Datuk Lee Hwa Beng (Barisan Nasional), who has been the local Subang Jaya state assemblyman for three terms and, who to many local folk, has worked hard to attend to their problems (although some quarters would argue that he has failed in some areas).

To the voters of Kelana Jaya – urban, middle to upper class, critical and Internet-savvy – it was a toss between an unknown and a familiar candidate. The majority of them chose the unknown. The decision was not so much an indictment against Lee but a burning need to send a strong message to the BN government.

Until the election, Loh’s main claim to fame in Malaysia was his unremarkable ability to press the record button of his new digital camera, to inadvertently record a telephone conversation in a senior lawyer’s house in Kelana Jaya, Selangor, in 2001. When PKR de facto leader Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim revealed that video clip in September 2007, it rocked the nation.

A Royal Commission of Inquiry was convened in January 2008 to look into the explosive 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 that conversation. Loh, whose identity was kept secret at the initial stage of the revelation, suddenly became a household name when he returned from Shanghai, China, to testify in the inquiry.

What Loh and his father Loh Mui Fah were doing in Lingam’s house that fateful night in 2001 was anybody’s guess. Loh, a consultant based in Shanghai, has not lived in Malaysia for many years. Somehow, these did not seem to matter to the voters of Kelana Jaya as much as the need to register the protest vote. On polling day on March 8, Loh received 30,298 votes, 5,031 more than the 25,267 Lee garnered.

Nationwide, the BN’s popular vote dipped to 51% compared with 64% in the 2004 general election. However, because of the first-past-the-post electoral system, it retained 63% or 140 of the 222 parliamentary seats. In 2004, with 64% of the popular vote, it won 91% or 199 of the 219 parliamentary seats.

The Lingam video case struck a chord with voters’ longstanding concerns about the decline in the judiciary. In addition, there was also brewing discontent over corruption, the rise in crime and the cost of living, and the disregard for civil liberties and the legitimate rights of minority groups.

The voters in Kelana Jaya, and elsewhere in the country, took their discontent to the ballot box. But the ballot box is only the first of many steps towards change. The real work has only just begun, for all sides.

For the BN government, it is time to examine honestly what went wrong rather than pass the buck. A dose of humility in acknowledging, after controlling two-thirds of Parliament for decades, that it has lost touch with the concerns on the ground is a start. It’s not too late to be jerked awake by the wake-up call as long as one does wake up.

Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi’s opinion, “We Will Heal Malaysia’s Divisions,” published in the Asian Wall Street Journal on March 11, tried to assure the international business community that Malaysia remains “a business-friendly and free market economy with powerful attractions for international investors”.

He also acknowledged that while the size of the BN’s majority would be considered a landslide in most countries, “the fact that it has significantly reduced and we have had setbacks in five of our 13 states indicates that we need to do more for those who feel disaffected”.

“As with any election in any democratic country, there is debate, sometimes heated; there can be divisions, sometimes fierce; then people make their own choices and democratic politicians have to live with the outcome. What matters most is that governments listen as well as lead, and so I will work hard to create more of a national consensus following our national democratic conversation,” he said.

“We are listening. I know there is discontent among some parts of our community. I accept it is our responsibility, as the newly re-elected government of all Malaysians, to find practical solutions to ease that discontent, to listen to grievances and to seek to remedy them.”

After the just concluded 12th general election, the BN ought to know that the voters, who feel they have taken back the ballot box, expect no less of the government than to walk the talk in fighting corruption and crime, and ensuring that every community’s rightful place in this nation is protected.

For the opposition parties, PKR, DAP and PAS, it is time to prove that they are not merely capable of delivering fiery and entertaining ceramahs or drafting promising manifestos. Over the next five years, especially in Kedah, Penang, Perak, Selangor and Kelantan where the opposition parties form the state government, they will have to honour their promises and demonstrate whether they can do a better job than the BN.

In addition, civil society and voters in general will watch and see if these states will introduce more democratic measures to the Malaysian landscape. For example, by bringing back local council elections and enacting a state Freedom of Information Act to promote transparency and accountability. These are not newfangled measures but something the opposition parties are well aware of.

PAS, which has ruled Kelantan for the past 18 years, has so far failed to deliver either. It looks like the change will have to come from the other opposition parties. PKR promises in its manifesto to restore local council elections. Its secretary-general Tan Sri Khalid Ibrahim, who is expected to be the new Selangor menteri besar (chief minister) after winning the Ijok state and Bandar Tun Razak parliamentary seats, has promised to explore several changes: the possibility of enacting a law to exempt the state government from the restrictions of the Official Secrets Act; introduce an open bidding system for state projects; restore local council elections; and set up a more egalitarian poverty eradication and wealth distribution system.

DAP secretary-general Lim Guan Eng, just hours after being sworn in as the Penang chief minister on March 11, said the new state government would restore local council elections and introduce open tender for state contracts. Lim won the Air Putih state and Bagan parliamentary seats.

To be fair to Loh who won the seat through the ballot box, he should be given a chance to prove himself as an MP. He himself has acknowledged that it is the challenging task ahead that matters now. “There is nothing to be proud of, for we have done nothing on our own accord; we have merely [taken] on the responsibility to look after the interest of the people and fight for the rights of the people. The elections were nothing, the real work begins today,” he wrote in his blog on March 11.

Time will tell if newcomers like Loh can make a good elected representative, if the opposition parties can deliver a more democratic government, and if the BN can regain the support it lost. One thing is for sure, civil society groups and the electorate will be watching and holding all of them accountable, and taking that to the ballot box again in the next general election.