The heat of the upcoming general elections is going upscale. From Penang to Klang Valley, people are enthusiastically talking about the wind of change. An online researcher called me up today and mentioned a possibility that this election, to a certain extend, contains similar sentiments like the one in 1986.
Two things are similar: first, there are some negative sentiments against the ruling coalition especially on the lack of direction on economy and a possible slowdown. In 1986, the economy was suffering from recession due to a global downturn. Currently, the economy should be flourishing but yet we are registering a mediocre growth rate of 5-6 percent. High oil and commodity prices should have spurred the domestic economy ahead but we are not witnessing such dynamism.
Since post-1997, Malaysia's attractiveness as an investment destination has taken a beating. Both Thailand and Singapore - lately Vietnam and Indonesia - have registered better FDI numbers compared to Malaysia, with Singapore leading by a mile. Even on a tumultous year of 2007, Thailand's FDI of USD10 billion was USD400 million more than a politically stable Malaysia.
Surely political stability alone cannot be the sole carrot in attracting FDI. However, this government continues to harp on political stability as a key competitive strategy. It is evident that Malaysia's reluctance to reform its socio-economic policy has been keeping away yawning foreign investors. Now, with so many better destinations to pick and more governments willing to do anything to please foreign investors, Malaysia cannot act like an attractive 18 year old virgin.
Abdullah Badawi's decision to bring back the New Economic Policy and sprinkled it with so much communal fervour that it won him some Malay Bumiputera supporters but alienated the others. So much negative sentiments generated against the much abused policy should at least merit a review from his administration. But he decided to revive and incorporate the policy in the 9th Malaysia Plan, which is unprecedented. Dr Mahathir Mohammad should have understood better what a potent political tool the NEP is and yet he had been very careful not to racialise the five-year socio-economic blueprint by keeping race and religion out of it.
Observers are beginning to doubt Abdullah's corridor projects. The speed of his announcements hardly generated any excitement within the domestic market. Foreign investors are not rushing into the country in a big way as they did when China opens up or Vietnam liberalises. Cynics opined that these announcements are politically motivated and will die an early death just like the election fever once it is over. But it may be a price too expensive to pay for a leader who is willing to pay anything to secure another decisive term at the office.
What is obvious is there is no positive policy reform embarked by the current administration during its first term. Most of its reforms initiatives did not go beyond the rhetoric stage. Institutional reforms promised continues to be lukewarm. Coupled with controversies besetting the judiciary, some government leaders and police force, Malaysia is facing a credibility crisis. A number of foreign chief executives, diplomats and local intellectuals I have spoken to have voiced their concern about a perceived national decline.
While negative sentiment about the economy is quite similar like in 1986, the difference this time is it is seen as a Malaysian sentiment rather than a Chinese community sentiment. Most of urbanites are faced with tremendous inflationary pressure and a weakening domestic service, retail and manufacturing sectors.
It is the right time for the government to let the people know they intend to address these issues and work out a concrete plan to enhance the skills of our workforce and at the same time trim bureaucracy. NEP, based on a rigid communal affirmative action, is no longer suitable for current time. The government must focus its attention and resources to help the bottom 40 percent of the society to climb up the social ladder through real empowerment and not handouts.
According to Nor Mohammad Yacob, the Second Finance Minister, the government spends RM81 billion a year on subsidies. The whole subsidy structure needs to be reviewed to ensure that we put our money where the mouth is. The country can no longer afford to live like a richman kid.
Next, like the 1986 general elections, Malaysians appeared to be quite polarised in their voting trends. There are several reasons to explain this dilemma. First, there are more Chinese Malaysians living in cities than rural areas. Awareness is higher in cities where access to information is greater. Inflationary pressure and other economic issues are felt worse in cities than rural areas. Hence, it is natural for urbanites to be more vocal, demanding and aware of their rights to good government and governance.
Secondly, due to a mediocre local economy, most Malaysians are beginning to feel the fatique of having to subsidize the education and health systems. Vernacular schools, which gained popularity since early 90's due to perceived Islamisation and Malaynisation in national schools, are either overcrowded or in dipilated condition due to lack of financial support from the government. This issue coupled with lack of economic and job opportunities and rising cost of living have contributed to a sense of marginalisation amongst some minorities in the country.
On the other hand and alarmingly, the pro-Bumiputera policy did not appear to benefit all Bumiputeras and Malays either. Worse, to cover their abuses and ineptness, some politicians are pointing fingers at others for being the cause of their failure to help the Bumiputeras who are really in need of assistance.
Hence, like 1986, majority of some communities will register their displeasure by voting for the opposition and meanwhile their gesture will be interpreted by the majority as a challenge to their supremacism - naively or intentionally.
In sum, the conditions are there for a repeat of the 1986 general elections. If the scenario repeats itself, Malaysians will need another two decades to undo the negative impact. Our nation building effort will have to go back to the drawing board again. This is how fragile our national identity is.
This election has two important objectives. First, it will be a test of our socio-political maturity. We have decided to live together as one nation since 1957 and we must reaffirm this choice by not voting based on skin colour but to choose whoever more suitable and qualified to represent our needs and interests.
Finally, this election will allow Malaysians to decide if they wanted to join the legion of successful developed nations or allow the country to descend into a perpetual decline. If good people continue to stay away from politics, it is inevitable that we will be lead by lesser men and women.
The fate of this nation rests on the hands of all Malaysians. Instead of deciding with your feet, perhaps you might want to let your vote do the talking this time. True Malaysians do not flee when are faced with testing challenges. We must reclaim our rights and our rightful choice to be known as simply Malaysian or Bangsa Malaysia.
Khoo Kay Peng