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Friday, 26 April 2013

Malaysian election time: swinging change towards transformation?

The political choice for Malaysians is not whether to embrace change, but which kind of change they prefer.

IN life, change is said to be the only constant. In politics change is a given, even mandatory.

If a governing system does not change its style or policies the way people want, then the system itself may be changed. Such change may be democratic or autocratic, evolutionary or revolutionary, peaceful or violent.

Much will depend on the type and degree of change. Who will be affected by that change, and in what ways?

Will the promised changes be what people had been led to expect? What other changes are likely as a consequence?

Will the pros outweigh the cons of those changes? And if the people find the actual changes not to their liking, will those changes be reversible?

Such questions often arise at general elections. Malaysia’s coming 13th general election seems to have unearthed more of these questions than any other election in the country’s history.

This comes partly as a residue of the 2008 general election. In that “political tsunami”, more seats in the Federal Parliament changed over into Opposition hands than ever before.

At the time, many voters who opted for the Opposition had not actually wanted to change the Federal Government. They merely wanted to teach Barisan Nasional a lesson for non-delivery and general indifference since 2004.

Voters did so by clearly denying Barisan its two-thirds majority. This had come right after the 2004 general election, which had won Barisan 63.9% of the popular vote (more, if Barisan had contested all constituencies).

So in 2008, Barisan scored only 50.3%, an all-time low. The previous low count was in 1999, which saw Barisan win only 56.5% of the popular vote.

Will the general election this year see a swing of support back to Barisan as it hopes, or a further boost for the Opposition as it imagines? Will there be a pendulum effect in favour of Barisan, or a slide favouring Pakatan Rakyat?

As soon as Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak assumed the premiership in April 2009, he had seen the writing on the wall.

He opted for a major overhaul of policy and mindsets with the emphasis on transformation (change).

This spanned an Economic Transformation Programme that aimed for merit over entitlement, the Performance and Delivery Unit (Pemandu) within the Prime Minister’s Department introducing Key Performance Indicators, a change in national attitudes with 1Malaysia, focused aspirations towards a high-income nation and even abolition of repressive laws like the ISA.

The changes came thick and fast, including some that none had thought possible. The pace of changes exceeded anything that any Federal or State Government had seen before.

Even a movement like Hindraf, born in the crucible of street protests and energised by hunger strikes, came to deal with Najib’s Barisan.

Hindraf leaders P. Waythamoorthy and N. Ganesan had discussed their concerns and bargained with Pakatan and Barisan leaders, and opted to work with Najib.

Najib himself, coming into office in his mid-50s and the son of a former prime minister, personified change. One after another, Barisan stalwarts like Tun Dr Ling Liong Sik, Datuk Seri Samy Vellu and Tan Sri Rafidah Aziz quit the scene, following Tun Dr Mahathir’s lead.

Unlike this older generation, Najib engaged openly and repeatedly with the younger generation. Young adults are typically seen as energetic, idealistic and hungry for change.

The obvious subtext was that voters need not opt for a change in government, since the government itself had already launched a comprehensive programme of change. This approach seemed to coincide with the mood of the time.

The 13th general election will see 2.9 million new voters, out of a grand total of 13.1 million nationwide. That represents just over 22% of the country’s electorate.

Some of those new, mostly younger voters may not seek that much change. Many will want more of the changes they have seen, sticking with Barisan, while others may still want a change in the system itself by opting for Pakatan.

A divided Hindraf embodies this difference in approach. In seeking change, should one ride the wave of change in securing more changes, or switch to a competing outfit atop a platform of change?

Which is more important, adding to the momentum of change that had already begun, or opting for the promise of change? Each individual and group will have to make that crucial choice come next Sunday.

On nomination day, Barisan unveiled another surprise: the high proportion of fresh young candidates. In states like Penang, the percentage of new faces reached 70%.

In contrast, Pakatan parties are still led mostly by older people: Lim Kit Siang, Karpal Singh, Nik Aziz and Hadi Awang, with Anwar himself six years older than Najib.

Will the many young voters, seeking change, end up voting for the oldest political leaders in the country?

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