Malaysian vote a clear demand for change
Malaysia's leaders have been shocked by the losses the ruling National Front coalition suffered in elections at the weekend. They believed that their grip on power was so strong that no matter what the demands of their ethnically and culturally diverse constituents, their mandate to rule was assured.
The elections have shown otherwise. While the coalition has won a simple majority in Parliament, it has for only the second time in the half century it has governed the country lost the two-thirds majority that has helped ensure its continued re-election. This is a wake-up call to a leadership that has for too long abused its position. Its ignoring of the demands, rights and aspirations of its people has created discontent.
The secular constitution and inherited British common law legal framework was intended to bond the majority Malay and one-third Chinese and Indian population. Ethnic and cultural freedoms were enshrined; to satisfy Malays, the drafters retained Malay traditions and as compensation for economic disadvantage, privileges that were eventually to end.
Half a century since independence from Britain, those privileges have been expanded and institutionalised. The government has banked on Malay support to win majority rule so that it can strengthen its position for re-election through altering the constitution, changing electoral boundaries, making key appointments and preventing the opposition from getting a political foothold.
The groundswell of disapproval was obvious in the election results. Chinese and Indians have had enough of the discrimination inherent in a system that gives Muslim Malays preference in education, jobs and business. Inflation and worsening crime turned away more voters, including Malays. Politically motivated comments from leaders such as Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak that Malaysia was an Islamic, rather than secular, state, have caused confusion and alarm.
Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi is facing calls from within his United Malays National Organisation, the dominant ruling coalition partner, to resign. There are now doubts over whether the government will be able to push ahead with its ambitious agenda.
Malaysia has, as main opposition leader and former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim pointed out yesterday, reached a defining moment in its history. Malaysians have spoken and want a new era in which their government treats all Malaysians, regardless of race, language or religion, equally. Only this way can the nation move confidently forward.