Once, when several of my colleagues and I interviewed a top Pakatan leader just over a year before the 8 March 2008 general election, I was taken aback when he proudly announced, “The corporates are coming back to support us.”
But then again, we needn’t be surprised. Big business tends to gravitate towards whoever is in power. And if a serious challenger emerges to the parties in power, corporate figures and developers are likely to hedge their bets by supporting both sides of the political divide. At the end of the day, for the corporate players, it doesn’t matter who is in power as long as the ruling parties continue with pro-business policies even though some of these policies may not be pro-people (such as the lack of welfare, environmental and labour protection regulations).
Many felt that March 8 was a great show of support for Pakatan. But the reality was Pakatan did not exist at that time. It was more about a people’s groundswell for change. It was not just the culmination of a decade of reformasi, but also the most visible sign that the struggle for justice and reforms in the previous decades had finally borne significant electoral fruit. For the first time, the political environment was conducive for a viable two-coalition system to emerge, where previous attempts had failed.
But it would be a mistake for us now to think that a two-coalition system in itself would be enough to bring forth sweeping changes to radically transform the country and everyone can now sit back, relax and leave it to the politicians.
Much has been written about why the Barisan did so poorly in the 2008 general election. Several obvious factors have often been cited: the corruption, the abuse of power, the sheer arrogance, human rights violations, the marginalisation of various groups, and grandiose projects that squandered public funds.
Less obvious reasons
But other more subtle reasons contributed to the overall disillusionment: the drop in the quality of life over the years and the prevalence of social problems including the rising crime rate. These are all inter-related.
The drop in the quality of life needs to be looked at more closely: longer hours at work, little leisure time, the stress and pressures at work, and the inability of wages to keep up with the cost of living. Thus, when petrol prices shot up, people were outraged and protested publicly. The absence of a minimum wage and the import of migrant workers generally suppressed wage levels and allowed Big Business to reap even higher profits.
House and vehicle prices shot well beyond the reach of many unskilled - and even many skilled - workers. Moreover, the rapidly diminishing space for healthy activities (like parks and farming), along with higher oil prices, and the corporate pollution and degradation of our rivers and seas, contributed to higher food prices - while polluting labour intensive manufacturers thrived. Even the quality of air we breathe is now suspect because of the persistent haze in parts of the country - partly due to weak enforcement and the actions of irresponsible industry and plantations, apart from the obvious cross-boundary haze from Indonesia.
Neo-liberal policies, including the privatisation of essential services such as health care and education, have led to a two-tier system: one system for the rich and another for the poor who are forced to pay more and more for good quality essential services. Such policies as well as the move towards a more regressive tax system (lower taxes for corporations and the rich), along with the suppression of wages mentioned above, have widened the gap between the rich and the poor over the years.
Research has shown that with wide-income differentials come a myriad of social problems (‘Spirit Level: Why more equal societies almost always do better’ by Wilkinson and Pickett, 2009) such as drug addiction, alcoholism and even mental illness (‘Mental Health, Resilience and Inequalities’, joint study by Mental Health Foundation, UK, and World Health Organisation, Europe, 2009). Social problems may also be caused by the alienation of workers by rapid industrialisation as well as the rising unemployment among youths. In many places, the gap between the rich and the poor has spawned a new urban underclass. And then, with greater disillusionment come the divisive problems of racial and religious chauvinism and intolerance.
Few Malaysians have actually thought through the problems plaguing Malaysian society in great depth nor do they recognise that many of these problems were created by policies that favoured Big Business and big projects, with little accountability to the public - in short, a heavily pro-business framework, with neo-liberal underpinnings.
But that didn’t stop many Malaysians from teaching the Barisan a lesson in the last general election. It was enough that many felt disillusioned that things somehow did not feel right - and for that, Barisan candidates were punished and fell like nine pins.
Thus, it was not so much a victory for Pakatan - Pakatan did not exist then apart from a loose electoral alliance among the key opposition parties that prevented votes from being split. It seemed more of a backlash by the people that swung the votes away from the BN. In the event, the Barisan lost five states (now four, after grabbing Perak back) and its coveted two-thirds parliamentary majority.
What kind of change?
What started off as a sense of disillusionment and disgust rapidly turned into a sense of hope with the formation of Pakatan Rakyat. With that came the anticipation that if the Pakatan could take over at the federal level in the next general election, most of the problems in Malaysia would automatically disappear. Anwar’s bid to seize federal power by 16 September 2008 by enticing BN reps to cross-over only heightened the anticipation that at long last, change was possible and was beckoning.
But what exactly was the change desired? Few seem to understand what this encompassed beyond the opposition parties’ election ceramah rhetoric that corruption would be done away with, undemocratic laws would be repealed, and poverty alleviated.
Most people had - and still have - little inkling of the Pakatan’s economic policies if they came to power. Would they be pro-business? Would corporations hold excessive power vis a vis the people? Or would the Pakatan’s economic policies be genuinely pro-people and empower the poor? Would they focus on improving public health care especially our general hospitals or would they contribute to the brain drain amongst medical professionals and to further misery for the poor by promoting “health tourism” and private medical insurance? Would the Pakatan introduce a more progressive taxation system or would it move towards a regressive tax system including introducing a goods and services tax that would disproporionately hurt the poor? Would it improve public transport and make it cost-effective or would it build more highways and resort to expensive public transport options?
Within days of taking over the state government in Penang, for instance, the Pakatan-led administration was confronted in the media by the business community, which wanted better infrastructure (more highways and a second bridge), faster approval of licences and controls on costs.
On the surface, these demands might seem innocuous. After all, who could complain if policies were introduced to promote development. But what kind of development? Corporate-led, profit-oriented unsustainable development or people-centred, welfare-oriented sustainable development? These two are not necessarily compatible.
What if pro-business polices conflict with pro-people policies? Would more highways and bridges (good for construction firms) lead to more traffic jams in the future? Would increasing the plot ratio density (which is good for property developers and which has recently been approved in Penang) lead to urban congestion and a reduction in green lungs and the overall quality of life? Would faster approvals of licences (good for manufacturers and developers) remove controls that protect the public interest and the environment? Would controls on costs (good for manufacturers) result in little emphasis on workers’ (including migrant workers’) rights and hardly any talk of a minimum wage?
On the bright side, the Selangor government has tried to take over the water concessionaires from private operators and stop tariffs from rising. Perhaps this is due to the greater influence of civil society voices inside and outside the state administration and its willingness to listen to them. The PKR-led Selangor government also immediately banned all hill-slope development when they came into power until last month when the government appeared to crumble to Big Business pressure and announced it would relax its stance. Their earlier prompt action had stood in stark contrast to the lack of any similar action by the DAP-led state government in Penang.
People vs Corporations
When Pakatan took over in several states, it had to contend with more than just financial constraints, a civil service used to BN rule, and missing files.
Making a bee-line to the doors of the state government were the corporate folks in suits. In Penang, among the first congratulatory messages to arrive was a huge floral bouquet bearing the DAP logo from the developer of the controversial Penang Global City Centre project, which eventually failed to get the green light to proceed, following a concerted protest by civil society groups. To be sure, developers and the rest of the business community often hedge their bets and gravitate towards whoever is in power.
What about the politicians? Whereas before the general election, the Pakatan politicians, in casual attire, were busy mingling with the rakyat, once they formed the government they donned formal business suit and opened their doors to a steady stream of visitors, many of them representing major business interests and their concerns. The Pakatan state governments, eager to keep the economy humming, wanted to be seen as “pro-business” to quell any uncertainty of the political transition within the business community.
But the interests and lobbying by these business groups are often incompatible with the public interest. Take the outright ban on hill-slope development announced in Selangor which is now being watered down to “guidelines” after the developers reportedly threatened to move their business to Johor. This watered-down approach is unlikely to impress residents in places such as Bukit Antarabangsa, scene of a landslide last year.
Over in Penang, the state government appears powerless or reluctant to curb steep hill-slope development in the Tanjung Bunga area, much to the disappointment of the Tanjung Bunga Residents Association (TBRA). Observers suspect the reluctance is due to the unhappiness it would cause to the influential developers’ lobby. Developers have supported a variety of state government initiatives financially or otherwise such as donations to Penang’s Partners Against Poverty programme, which reportedly received contributions from IJM Properties (RM1 million pledge), Hunza Properties (RM250,000 donation) and Hunza’s 25 business partners (RM10,000 each).
Over in Kampung Buah Pala, now demolished, the villagers had accused the state government of not doing enough to stop the sale of their land from being sealed. They were also upset that the state government did not try to re-acquire the land and save their homes from demolition after it was pointed out that the land title issued to the owner has a restriction that forbids third party transactions. Pakatan politicians had earlier promised to defend the village in the run-up to the general election and even in the months after.
Although this saga was a legacy of the BN administration, which approved the deal, the state government has tremendous power over land matters - which it seemed either reluctant or unable to use. Nor did the Pakatan administration reveal the findings of its investigative committee to probe the land deal, which was disturbing as the land was alienated at around RM10 per sq foot when the market price is believed to be around RM100 psf.
The villagers also complained that they were not allowed to re-locate their community to adjacent state land. The state government is believed to have feared that relocating the villagers there would set a “precedent”.
The business community also feared that any move by the state government to reacquire the land would set a similar “precedent” and encourage residents affected by future projects elsewhere to ask that the state government acquire the affected land. But what’s wrong in setting a precedent that is beneficial for ordinary people displaced from their ancestral homes?
Some suspect the real reason is that such a “precedent” would ruffle the developers in particular and the business community in general as it would make it difficult for them to evict settlers in future and force them to provide more generous compensation, thus eating into their profit margins. Instead, the state government tried to mediate and persuade the villagers to accept the developer’s vaguely worded offer of double-storey terrace houses as compensation. In the end, the pro-business orientation triumphed over the villagers’ traditional community-based way of life, which was more in harmony with the environment.
The demolition of Kampung Buah Pala has left other villagers across the country now feeling a greater sense of insecurity and wondering when their own villages would be demolished by developers. They can now see that the federal government and the state governments - whether BN or Pakatan - seem powerless or reluctant to intervene. Groups such as the TBRA and the Kampung Buah Pala villagers feel they have been brushed aside as their concerns take second place to what some perceived to be the pro-business orientation of the Pakatan state governments.
The Penang state government also appears interested in big ticket transport infrastructure projects such as the Penang Outer Ring Road - even though this was one of the controversial projects that cost the BN administration votes. Even when it comes to public transport, Pakatan administrations - like their BN counterparts - appear more interested in the more expensive options instead of exploring more creative and cost-effective initiatives to reduce congestion such as opening up pedestrian-only streets, bicycle lanes, bus rapid transit systems and trams. Pakatan state governments also seem keen on health tourism, which would benefit private hospitals the most, while diverting even more resources away from the government-run general hospitals.
The pro-business orientation is not much different from that found in BN-ruled states. In Sarawak, for instance, logging and plantation companies have brought tremendous grief to the Penan and other natives, who have been forced to set up blockades as their food sources disappear along with the vanishing forests.
A psychological breakthrough
Another breakthrough took place on 8 March 2008 - quite apart from the electoral one.
For the first time in a long time, people felt genuinely empowered. They had made the difference. Their votes had helped to change the country’s destiny. Even though that change is still ongoing, the journey continues with renewed vigour. A light at the end of the tunnel has beckoned - and there is no turning back - whereas previously a cloud of darkness had shrouded the path.
This post-election excitement was evident in the Penang Forum, a civil society event held to discuss proposals and recommendations for the state government. Many discussed these proposals animatedly, and the buzz the discussions created was infectious.
But by and by, a certain sense of dis-empowerment set in once again as the Pakatan politicians took over. Many of the hitherto politically uninvolved who had vigorously campaigned for change ahead of the general election through emails and SMSes trustingly let the politicians handle the governing. Some of those who voted for change even think they have already done their part and their next duty is only to vote for complete change in the next general election.
Even so, an important breakthrough had taken place. No longer do people feel cowed by the politicians and those in power. They know that politicians - whether from the BN or the Pakatan - can now be thrown out if they refuse to work in the people’s interests. Equally important, many are now no longer prepared to accept any public relations spin/nonsense or projects dished out that are against the interests of the people.
From the villagers of Tanjung Tokong who want to preserve their 200-year-old village against impending “development”, to the residents of Taman Golf in Ipoh who successfully stopped the construction of a sewage plant facing their homes, to the urbanites of Kota Damansara who are campaigning to stop the construction of a Carrefour hypermarket - there is a new sense of people power that politicians on both sides of the divide cannot afford to ignore.
No longer can the people be taken for granted. No longer are they willing to tolerate nonsense and the same old BN politics even if it’s in Pakatan garb.
The larger dilemma
But there is a larger dilemma facing voters who are hoping for change and for a new, more just and inclusive Malaysia.
Few of the Pakatan’s concrete policies were clearly spelt out to the people in the run-up to the general election, during which ceramah speakers basically told people what they wanted to hear. Hardly any mention of pro-business policies during those election rallies and what these entailed.
Many who had voted for change understand that Pakatan state governments face a number of serious constraints - funding, legal, enforcement and human resources - and they are thus sympathetic to the Pakatan’s shortcomings. Besides the Pakatan has only been in power for 18 months.
They are thus willing to suspend judgement on the Pakatan for the next few years - because they see the Big Picture: they hope that the Pakatan will capture federal power and after that, the country will experience a dramatic change for the better and everyone will live happily ever after.
Only thing is that it doesn’t quite work that way. Certainly, it is likely that if the Pakatan takes over at the federal level, an improvement in the human rights situation, especially in civil and political rights, could be on the cards and there probably would be less outright corruption.
But, at the same time, Pakatan has already displayed a number of shortcomings in the states it administers - in particular, its worryingly pro-business stance. These deserve to be highlighted and discussed and debated to gauge the extent such policies may harm the people’s interests.
But because of the Big Picture (i.e. looking ahead to the next general election) - does it mean the public should hold back from criticism of Pakatan out of fear that such criticism could undermine the fledgling coalition even before it can take off?
The problem with that approach is that the lack of criticism - the silence - shall certainly be construed by Pakatan leaders as consent. If Malaysians don’t make their dissatisfaction felt now, Pakatan leaders will think that they have popular support behind such a stance and that everyone is happy with their pro-business orientation.
Democracy, freedom and economic and environmental justice are rarely given to us on a silver platter. We cannot afford to sit back and give Pakatan a blank cheque. We have seen how that led to lost opportunity, environmental damage and squandered resources in the 52 years of BN rule.
In five states, the Pakatan was given the mandate to push forward the reform agenda. But reforms in favour of whom? Big Business or the ordinary rakyat?
Our scrutiny should be constant, and we need to be vigilant at all times, whether those in power are the BN or the Pakatan. We should make it clear that we consider this time until the next general election a probationary period for the Pakatan that puts them under constant scrutiny and pressure to deliver on democratic and pro-people economic reforms (as opposed to pro-business economic liberalisation) that do not harm the environment.
Civil society can serve as an important check and balance on any overtly pro-business stance that could sideline grass-roots democratic initiatives, progressive reforms and efforts to empower marginalised groups.
The public, especially marginalised groups and those at the wrong end of “development” and “pro-business” policies, must continue to step up to the plate and make their voices heard. After all, did not the people vote Pakatan into power in five states? Thus, the vote belonged to the people and not Big Business. Consequently, should not Pakatan serve the interests of these people instead of those who did not elect them? And if not, why is Pakatan so eager to pander to big corporate interests instead of those who voted them into power? What is it about Pakatan that seems to have clouded its vision and muddied its struggle for the people so soon? Is it money?
But if, on the other hand, voters give the Pakatan a blank cheque, by the time we reach the next general election, we might end up with a Pakatan that is little better than a BN clone or a BN Lite, so to speak, with a generous sprinkling of ex-BN political rejects who have suddenly “seen the light” along with others who have strong ties with the business community. And that would be a tragedy.