Malaysia — saviour of democracy?

Posted: May 17th, 2018 | Author: | Filed under: elections, kuala lumpur, politics, thoughts | No Comments »

We have seen it many times: a weak democracy is headed by an corrupt authoritarian ruler who manipulates with electoral rules, staffs state institutions with cronies, restricts the autonomy of the courts, brings the press under his control by intimidation or takeovers, attacks civil society and jails political opponents. When an election comes, it is quite certain that the ruler is voted back to office with a substantial majority. We have seen this happening with variations in Russia, Turkey, Hungary and other countries. This is also what the scenario was going to be for Malaysia’s elections that took place on 9 May 2018.

The ruler in question, Prime Minister Najib had done all the above. There are multiple corruption allegations and investigations against him in various countries. 700 million US dollars were discovered in his personal bank account, his friends and acquaintances had spent lavishly on real estate and yachts in the West, and funded several Hollywood movies, including “The Wolf of Wall Street.”

His party United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) spearheading the political coalition Barisan Nasional (BN, National Front) had been in power continuously for 60 years, since the independence of Malaysia. During this time, the institutions and the party were in many ways one. The power was highly concentrated to the Prime Minister, that also fulfilled the role of the Finance Minister. No surprises, that the corruption investigations against him led nowhere.

The majority of the press were pro-government, although a number of independent publications remained. The business newspaper The Edge was forced to suspend publication for three months following its coverage of the Prime Minister’s corruption scandal under Malaysia’s tough anti-sedition laws. The popular head of the largest opposition party Anwar Ibrahim had been jailed for years for sodomy charges, which rarely get applied otherwise.

Before last week’s election, electoral gerrymandering had taken place to ensure more support for BN, the electoral commission had put in place many restrictions on campaigning that made it much more difficult for the opposition to reach people. 

Nevertheless, the election result was an unexpected win for the opposition Pakatan Harapan (PH, Alliance for Hope). How did it that happen? I try to flesh out some ideas for reasons.

  1. Malaysia’s opposition was united and consistent. The opposition parties had been gaining power already in the previous elections and were the ruling party in a few of the states (Malaysia is a federal state), such as Selangor, which surrounds Kuala Lumpur and the capital Putrajaya. The opposition had a strong moral leader figure in the jailed Anwar Ibrahim and, more importantly, his wife Wan Azizah Wan Ismail who founded the People’s Justice Party (PKR) that is one of the four constituent parties of PH and the one with the most seats in the new Dewan Rakyat.
  2. The civil society kept up the pressure. The Bersih movement advocating clean and fair elections and other civil society groups had played an important role in voicing the concerns of the people and challenging the government. The yellowshirt Bersih rallies attracted enormous crowds not only everywhere in Malaysia, but also other countries (I went to one of the big rallies in Kuala Lumpur in 2015).
  3. Women took a leading role in the opposition. The opposition had key roles for women, Wan Azizah now takes the important Deputy Prime Minister role, a first for Muslim-majority Malaysia. The Bersih movement was also lead by a woman, Maria Chin Abdullah, who ran as an independent in elections and won the parliamentary seat for the Petaling Jaya constituency. In addition to them, prominent women in Malaysia include feminist activist Marina Mahathir and human rights activist Ambiga Sreenevasan, opposition politicians Teresa Kok and Nurul Izzah Anwar (Anwar Ibrahim’s daughter).
  4. The fight was not pitting one ethnicity against others. Malaysia is a multiracial country, and even the key was the fact that the opposition had been able to get significant votes from the Malay majority in addition to the minorities.
  5. The opposition was willing to compromise to achieve its goals. It brought back the 92-year old former Prime Minister Mahathir to lead the opposition and be the candidate for PM. Mahathir was responsible for the economic success of Malaysia during the 80s and 90s, but also became increasingly autocratic, creating the system he now helped to topple. A popular figure, Mahathir provided key support among the ethnic Malays and brought credibility for the opposition. He has promised to rule for a few years and then hand the power over to Anwar Ibrahim, whom he had jailed in the past while PM.
  6. The corruption of the toppled PM Najib was too ostentatious for even many of his supporters to bear. In addition to the huge amounts of money, the shopping habits of PM’s wife Rosmah Mansor were extraordinary, comparable to Imelda Marcos, the former first lady of the Philippines.

It is too early to tell whether the election result will bring about real change. However, those elected have indicated their strong support for rule of law, democratic institutions and human rights. Although this is just the beginning, perhaps one day Malaysia will be the example of democracy and human rights delivering. As Nurul Izzah Anwar wrote:

“A new politics of hope has been awakened, not just for Malaysians reclaiming their nation, but for people the world over. Truth, justice, human rights and the rule of law can be restored in place of darkness, and it can be done through peaceful democratic means.”

One month in KL

Posted: August 8th, 2015 | Author: | Filed under: kuala lumpur, travel, vacation | No Comments »

This morning the roaring sounds of accelerating Formula 1 cars were added to the usual construction noise that serves as my wake-up call at my new apartment at the edge of the Kuala Lumpur City Centre area. For the first time, KLCC has been turned into a racing track for three days, with all the hassle and excitement such an event entails. The process of conversion of roads into racing tracks with all the required barriers makes it more difficult to get around in an already quite hectic traffic situation. Hopefully, once the race is over, I am able to also see the city streets without the barricades that are there now.

The city race is pretty exciting thing, but being in KL you almost think that it is normal that these kind of big things happen. Just in the past two weeks, the city hosted the International Olympic Committee to choose Beijing for the 2022 Winter Olympics. The last week saw the ASEAN foreign ministers summit with related meetings, with US Secretary of State John Kerry and EU foreign policy head Federica Mogherini attending. Last week British PM David Cameron held a state visit. Something extraordinary is always happening at KL.

Construction everywhere

At the same time the city moves ahead in its own rhythm: there is a lot of construction going on everywhere you go. The Klang Valley metropolitan area, the centre of which is Kuala Lumpur, is expected to have 10 million residents by 2020, compared to less than 7 million living in the area now. This sets special requirements for transportation and feeds the hunger for new high-rise condominiums, each trying to trump the other with even more extravagant architecture, even greater heights, or even more luxurious amenities.

The multicultural aspects of buildings at KL mean that many hotels and new high-rises lack floor numbers containing the number 4, due to Chinese superstitions related to similarity between the word ‘four’ and death. I probably would not want to live on floor ‘death’ either. In some hotels the Western superstition for avoiding the number 13 is also taken account, but in my high-rise for example there are two 13th floors, 13 and 13A (which is the 14th floor renamed). In the same way, there is no apartment units 4 or 14, just 3A and 13A.

New condos, some of which are far from KLCC, require also new, bigger malls for people to shop, eat, and entertain themselves. The KLCC area is already saturated by different kind of malls, each with a very different look and feel: there are the older, a not so nice ones, and there are shiny new ones. All newer bigger malls have at least a multiplex cinema in them, the Berjaya Times Square shopping mall also has an amusement park with a rollercoaster and a totally sickening Top Spin ride which seemed to never end.

It is difficult to avoid going to malls, because they offer both a refuge from the heat outside, and are also connected to each other so that they offer usually the most direct path from one point to another. Sometimes they are connected to public transport, but many times also not.

Public transport

Malaysia, being one of the more car-centric countries of the world, has been investing a lot in public transportation do combat the increasinlgy frustrating traffic jams. The Monorail line and two light rail transit (LRT) lines are part of RapidKL system. Both of the LRT lines are both fully automated driverless lines and they are being extended, while the Monorail line will also be extended in the future. In addition, a totally new 51km metro rail transit (MRT) line is being constructed with stage one opening the end of next year.

Additionally there are the two KTM Komuter lines which connect to the suburban areas around KL, as well as the KLIA Transit and KLIA Express lines which connect KL with Kuala Lumpur International Airport that is located 45 kilometres away near the shore. In addition, there are a number of bus lines, including free-of-charge GoKL lines going around the KLCC area (which also have WiFi) and a number of other regular bus lines some of which look really old.

Moving to other areas of Malaysia is usually done by intercity buses, which are comfortable, cheap and reasonably fast means of transport. High speed intercity trains are being introduced as well, with the first one to Penang and the Thai border just opened a few weeks ago, while the construction of a similar link from KL to Johor Bahru and Singapore is expected to start this year. For really faraway places, such as East Malaysia, you have to take the plane.

Getting to know KL

Posted: July 12th, 2015 | Author: | Filed under: kuala lumpur, travel, vacation | No Comments »

I moved to Kuala Lumpur for an academic leave. I sometimes write about my experiences here, but also check out my instagram.

My uberBLACK ride back to Plaza Rah from the restaurant I had wondered to because of the inaccurate address of another restaurant in Yelp took longer than expected yesterday evening. 35 minutes for a little over 2 kilometres means that the traffic at the part of KL I am staying was extraordinaly bad. The driver explained that next week is Hari Raya Aidilfitri, the big holiday to celebrate the end of Ramadan, so everybody is shopping for stuff this weekend. Next weekend, during the holidays, the city will be so deserted that I could cross the road without looking both ways, he said.

I have been in KL only three full days, two of which have mostly been spent apartment hunting, because I have to move out of the free accommodation at Plaza Rah provided so kindly by the university I am attending here on Wednesday next week. I finally picked the studio in a building which was closest to the university and although the building had just been finished and there was no furniture in the room yet, the nice real estate agent guy explained that everything will be ready by the time I move in. The building itself is quite something, like most new luxury condos in KL, with a lobby that has an art gallery feel to it. All of the luxury condos have a gym, pool etc as standard, one even had an infinity pool on top of it, offering stunning views of the KLCC skyline while swimming.

I am still getting to know KL, but everything is more close and compact than one would expect from a city of 1,6 million people, but people rarely walk anywhere. It is very hot and if you walk for a while you will become sweaty, so that makes sense. I have been mostly getting around with the monorail and light rail transit (LRT). The monorail is extra cool, because: a) it is not so common; b) it goes through the city centre above the streets, offering great views.

Yesterday I ended up spending half a day at the Bookfest@Malaysia2015 at KL Convention Centre, which this year celebrates its 10th anniversary. I only visited the English books hall, which was gigantic and where I bought eight books for ca 50 euros, including some about Malaysia. There were also authors speaking, including someone who was billed as the Godfather of Singapore Fashion.

KL makes you feel like you almost live in the future: the monorail, the skyscrapers, the congestion, the commercialism, the diversity of people. It also allows glimpses to the past: there are hawker stalls and small family houses that look beautiful in their wornout state.

tl;dr: KL is cool.