Published on March 11, 2008
At the outset, when Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi announced the snap election held on Saturday, it was clear the marginalisation of non-Malays would be the big issue, not to mention increased consumer prices and the restrictions on religious freedom. Now the verdict has been delivered: the ruling coalition, known as the Barisan Nasional, is losing popularity as voters dealt the party its most serious blow since independence in 1957.
The soft-spoken Abdullah has alienated ethnic minorities who have for years endured what they believe is discrimination against them. Ethnic Chinese and Indians make up about one-third of the population and many complain of official discriminatory measures that favour Malays in terms of education, jobs, financial assistance and religious policies.
So, over the weekend the Chinese and Indian voters decided to change sides. They voted for opposition parties. As a secularised Muslim society, Malaysia has been hailed as a model Islamic country with the world's most economically advanced Muslim majority. But controversies surrounding the burial rights of M Moorthy as well as Lina Joy's conversion from Islam and the disputes over the usage of the term "Allah" among Christians have caused great concern among non-Muslims.
For years, these people believed their government would not allow Muslim Sharia law to permeate into non-Muslim judicial circles. As a defence mechanism, non-Muslim groups decided to join forces and form many civil groups, including the Hindu Rights Action Front (Hindraf), to fight against the government's heavy-handed approach. They demand that their rights be protected. For instance Hindraf demands that the government protect the welfare of the Indian community. A series of protests and clashes between activists and police officers dominated headline news around the world last year. For decades, Malaysia has been seen as a peaceful country with relative racial harmony. However, the government's response to protests and other measures imposed during the period they were taking place has left a big bruise on one of the most respected Muslim countries.
Although the ruling coalition got enough votes to form the next government, it lost its two-thirds majority in the Parliament - a far cry from the previous election in which it won over 90 per cent of the seats. Interestingly, the opposition parties won more seats than they had anticipated. That was good news for Malaysians who want to see greater political pluralism and transparency in their country. Of course, the Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) and the Democratic Action Party (DAP) benefited the most from the growing dissatisfaction among Chinese and Indian voters. But they have to further prove that they can continue to articulate issues related to common concerns in their states so that they can be spread out to other localities.
For Anwar Ibrahim it was a personal triumph as well. Due to the corruption verdict against him, Anwar was prevented from taking part in politics before April of this year. That was the reason why Abdullah called the election before April. In retrospect, it was a bad decision because he did not need to do so until year's end.
It is hard to predict what kind of impact the election will have on the Barisan Nasional. Abdullah has repeatedly said that he would not resign as leader, but the pressure for him to step down will come from the United Malay National Organisation.
Anwar's PKR added 30 seats to the one it already held. He is determined to return to politics in a by-election once his political ban expires. If that happens, he could become the official leader of the opposition. He could then lead the opposition and make a bid for power. He said Malaysian voters have voted for a new era in which the government must be truly inclusive and recognised by all Malaysians, regardless of religion, culture or race and become a nation of one. With that kind of powerful message of equality and racial harmony, Anwar is positioning himself correctly to challenge the current powers-that-be in the country. It would not take long to find out who the winner would be.