Archive for January, 2012

Musa Aman will be back in the saddle even after the 13th GE which is expected anytime now. As he returns to Sabah, a third term, as the longest serving chief minister of Sabah, and who has broken the 9 years jinx, after generating a hope for the better for the average man on the street.

I am reminded of what a former Chief  Minister of Penang a distinguished doctor a political strategist par excellence the late Tun Dr Lim Chong Eu had once told my late father and me when we visited him after he lost the 1990 Padang Kota state seat to Lim Kit Siang of DAP. As Chief Minister of Penang since 1969 he was able to generate a growth rate of ten per cent and more, brought in top Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in Billions of US$ and thousands of  jobs were created when he brought in big name electronic multinationals like Intel, Motorola and many more. “And still people voted me out,” he acknowledged.

“It was a rude awakening for me. I then realised that a high economic rate of growth is no indicator of human development.”

Dr Lim Chong Eu then gave me the memorable gem: “We were wrongly advised that we should take care of GDP and it will automatically take care of urban poverty. This is not correct. We need to take care of poverty and it will automatically take care of economic growth”. This is exactly what Musa Aman did. And true to what Tun Dr Lim Chong Eu had said, people of Sabah had voted Musa Aman back to power in 2008 with almost 98.33% success, winning 59 out of the 60 seats contested. Musa Aman invested in the people, and the people paid back.

A high growth rate of 5 per cent between 2004 and 2008 is not the reason why Musa Aman had been voted back in 2008. Restoring the right to freedom and good governance was certainly the first step. Simultaneously he followed it up with various development initiatives, which mainline economists would wrongly classify as populist measures. Providing free milk, food supplements, textbooks, uniforms, shoes to school-going children, and reserving seats for women in JKKK and local bodies was part of the social engineering that he undertook. Program Pembangunan Rakyat Termiskin (PPRT), was introduced to assist the hardcore poor. The programme established a register on the profile of hardcore poor households and contained a package of projects tailored to meet their specific needs, such as increasing their employability and income, better housing and educational assistance. Direct assistance was given to the hardcore poor who were disabled and aged. In addition, the hardcore poor were provided with interest-free loans to purchase shares in a unit trust scheme (ASB-PPRT) so that the dividends can supplement their income. With the foundations now well laid out, the challenge Musa Aman faces in his third term are not only formidable but if attempted in a more realistic and holistic manner can even chart out a new future for the country.

Unlike most other political leaders, I found Musa Aman to be more receptive and sensitive to the needs of the poor and marginalised. While the Sabah verdict amply demonstrates his willingness to improve the lot of the masses mainly the natives. And the 2012 state budget amounting to RM4.048 billion the  highest and biggest budget ever allocated and announced in the history of Sabah Government is a clear example that Musa Aman cares for Sabahans.

With 80 per cent of the population involved in farming, Sabah’s future revolves around agriculture. Except for rice which is still imported,  Sabah is trying to attain self-sufficiency in food production and produces surplus vegetables both highland and lowland vegetables, surplus of poultry and eggs, surplus of marine fish, surplus  of milk, but, the fact remains that the State still has a large proportion of population which is poor and there is still poverty. The challenge therefore is on how to bring a synergy between agriculture and food security; on how to turn agriculture economically and ecologically sustainable in a manner that it does not lead farmers in distress to sell off their land to ‘outsiders’ and become landless and at the same time provide food and nutrition for the masses. A healthy agriculture is also the first line of defence against poverty.

Sabah therefore needs to discard the Green Revolution approach. It has to stop poisoning its soils, contaminating the water bodies and the environment and pushing more and more farmers out of agriculture. Sabah needs to shun the industrial model of farm growth, and build an ecologically sustainable farming model driven by a futuristic vision. Agriculture has to be re-designed and linked with its own traditional time-tested public distribution system – where the communities have been in control and have managed the food needs in a kampong.

Instead of chemical fertilisers, vermi-composting as a cottage industry has to be encouraged on a massive scale. This will restore soil health, increase crop productivity, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. It will also generate more rural employment. Chemical pesticides need to be eliminated besides its so expensive, I know I was in this industry in the past. Sabah can learn from the ‘Non-Pesticides Management’ system of agriculture from Indonesia and Thailand. No chemical pesticides are applied in over 50,000 hectares in Indonesia, and yet the crop yields are very high. Driven by its increasingly successful adoption by farmers, Indonesia plans to raise the area under no-pesticides agriculture to half-million hectares by the year 2014. If this can happen in Indonesia, there is no reason why Sabah cannot learn from its success.

Sabah can create history by showing a development path that is not only sustainable in the long-run but also brings prosperity and happiness to the masses. Musa Aman can surely create history by showing the world what true development means. And his time begins now.

Can you win a general election without having a debate and winning it? Curiously, Najib Tun Razak and Barisan National seem to think so but the principal opposing alliance Pakatan Rakyat’s Anwar Ibrahim do not seem to think so. My take is, Najib Tun Razak and Anwar Ibrahim  should debate about “more food, less fear, for future Malaysia.” But this is not going to happen.

The government has a vested interest in fudge. After all, there can be no opposition if there is no position. Its best hope is to muddle through the 13th General Elections and return with roughly the same numbers through a strategy of least resistance. What is less comprehensible is the response of the Barisan National. It looks befuddled before fudge. Instead of raising issues, its spokespersons throw pebbles. If you cannot clear a haze, the haze has won the day. The Pakatan Rakyat has been more successful in creating the tension of a debate, but its resonance is limited to a couple of pockets, while the Third Front is too thin to be considered a net, let alone a magnet.

This is going to be a cold election. Neither candidate nor party will be able to waft on hot air. If the Barisan National wants to succeed, it has to remember a key fact: the young voter is outgrowing communal rhetoric. He wants more food and less fear. At the moment he is getting the reverse.

The UMNO has one advantage: Malays, its main vote bank, do not vote for something; they vote against someone. This suits the UMNO perfectly. It feeds fear to Malays, and offers development to other electorates.

Success breeds imitation, but change, the slogan which dazzled the US when Obama became President of America, will be insufficient in Malaysia. Frustration has stripped the Malaysian voter of illusions. Offer him change, and he will demand to know to what. Promise him a job and he will ask where, when, how and to whom. Americans gave Obama a pass on delivery systems and destination. The relevant slogan is not the one that ousted Pairin Kitingan’s  Sabah government in 1994 state election despite PBS securing a victory, but the one that laid out Pairin 18 years ago: It’s the economy!

Since no government in its senses would want to contest an election on the economy when jobs are disappearing in cities and farmers are finding hard to sell their produce because of the escalating prices on seeds, fertilizers and chemicals and even the rising animal and poultry feed prices is hitting poultry processors hard, the Barisan National/UMNO seems poised to offer a virtuous trinity of vitality (Khiry Jamaludin), morality (Najib Tun Razak) and nobility (Rosmah Mansur). The voter will, however, check for substance behind the advertising. The chief minister of the biggest Barisan National state, Sarawak, Taib Mahmud, has become synonymous with illegal land grab, a thousand plots of land acquired in recent years by the state, much of which have been passed on to Taib’s close relatives and cronies at dirt cheap premiums. Many of these plots of lands, which total more than 1.5 million hectares, were in fact NCR lands, secretively sequestered from the natives. Taib has lost the plot. Or, more accurately, he has sold the plot.

The arithmetic of a cold election will be determined by the sum total of regional numbers. The formation of the next government could depend on how well the allies, rather than the principals, do. The Pakatan’s partners seem more confident than the Barisan Nationals’ friends. But such is the perceived fluidity of options that Anwar Ibrahim, Tuan Guru Hadi Awang, Lim Kit Siang, see themselves as possible occupants of Putrajaya. They may not agree on anything else, but they believe that neither the Barisan National nor the Pakatan Rakyat will cross the 111-seat mark necessary to become the plank on which a government can rest. The politics of the 90’s and the 20’s has seen the rise of flexible morality leading to an explosion of opportunity in March 2008 GE12.

Will the politics of the 2010’s be different? Yes. There is likely to be fatigue in West Malaysia with the insular dynamics of regional parties in Sabah and Sarawak, trapped in concentric rings of family and state; and a yearning for political formations that offer more than stagnant regional horizons. The next government in Putrajaya, like this one, might be less than the sum of its parts, rather than more. There are no institutional methods of re-nourishment once the leaders of small parties in Sabah and Sarawak become vulnerable to age or accident.

You might then, with good reason, consider 2008 the semi-final election. The finals will take place in the elections after this, probably this year 2012, when the Barisan National and the Pakatan will square off in most parts of the country, sufficient to give one or the other over 111 seats. They will have younger, if not newer leaders, creating the base for Sabah and Sarawak to be the kingmakers in Putrajaya.

The debate will not change, because the problem will not have been resolved. Whoever wins the argument on food and fear in 2012 will control the decade.

In the next ten years, development will become the main political issue with different social groups demanding their share of the Sabah growth story.

The clearest evidence that the political paradigm is changing came from Musa Aman’s sweeping victory in the 2008 Sabah assembly elections. He cooked up a storm with a development plank that pushed traditional politics, both of patronage and identity, to the margins of irrelevance and gave him numbers that all political leaders dream of but rarely get.

It was a personal triumph for Musa Aman but the real significance of his win lies in what it says about the emergence of development as a key political issue in today’s Sabah.  So when the Sabah 2012 Budget was unveiled, it was the Biggest Ever budget in the history of Sabah and it amounted to RM4.048 billion, recording an increase of RM979.62 million or 31.92% as compared with the 2011 Budget of RM3.068 Billion, and this increase is all to be spent on development of the state. With the economy projected to continue growing at between 5-9% annually over the next decade, there is every reason to believe that development and governance issues will increasingly dominate public discourse with different social groups demanding their share of the GDP pie.

The Barisan National party’s politics of patronage of vote banks had currency in an underdeveloped economy. Race and religion-based identity politics took over as the process of economic and social empowerment began with the opening up of the economy.

Today, after a period of rapid growth, politics is set to enter another phase, which is likely to be defined by battles for a more equitable distribution of wealth and resources. The lessons from Sabah are slowly being assimilated. Musa Aman’s mastery over the emerging new idiom reaped him huge electoral dividends.

Now Sarawak’s  Taib Muhamud is seeking to emulate Musa Aman as he scrambles to set his house in order before the 13th General Elections although he just won the Sarawak state polls, but losing much support in the urban areas. Like Musa Aman next door, he too is concentrating his energies on targeted development projects for marginalized native communities. Dayak villages are at the top of his list, but he is also trying to ensure that roads, electricity, water, schools and primary health care centers reach areas populated by extremely backward natives and minorities.

In fact, Sarawak’s utilization record of funds allocated for development of minority concentration districts is one of the best just like Sabah — almost 60%.

It is important to understand the nature of the development politics taking shape.

It’s not just a simple matter of building roads or providing electricity. The question to which voters are demanding an answer is: development for whom?

Musa Aman’s success lay in the focused manner in which he took development to different social groups to create a wider constituency beyond the narrow race and religion base. This is identity politics of a different kind in which mobilization is not merely on the basis of race and religion but also on economic, gender and age subgroups.

The coming decade will see an acceleration of the factors responsible for altering the political dynamics in the country. The three important ones are the mainstreaming of marginalized social groups, the communications revolution and increasing urbanization.

The biggest success of Sabah democracy has been empowerment of natives and communities that existed outside the social pale. The spread of adult franchise, a series of affirmative steps like communal land titles, a slew of welfare measures and the growth of market forces are changing the feudal nature of social and economic relations. The rise of native-based parties like PBS, UPKO, PBRS  and even the spread of Jeffrey Kitingan’s STAR Sabah chapter which is allign to Sarawak’s State Reform Party and Jeffrey’s own UBF (United Borneo Front) which promotes the Borneo Agenda, are all signs that those at the bottom are demanding to be heard.

Besides, increasing connectivity in Sabah and Sarawak has only strengthened the process of empowerment. Mobile phone connections have already zoomed beyond 3 million and are expected to cross 5 million by 2015 in Borneo States, while internet penetration, according to industry estimates, will cross the 60% mark by 2020. It means people in every corner of the Borneo States are rapidly getting connected and acquiring independent means of accessing information. It also means that voters can no longer be fooled by mere rhetoric and empty promises. They want delivery and are acquiring the means to monitor it.

The third factor, urbanization, has the potential to take politics beyond race to include class. More than one third of the population is likely to be living in cities and towns by 2020 and their concerns and issues will be shaped by their urban environment and the growing disparity between the rich and the poor, between those who live in gated communities and drive shiny, big cars and those who live in kampongs without basic civic amenities and have to make do with shoddy public transport.

A transforming Sabah means a changing polity. Those who keep pace with the times will emerge as the powerhouses while others will fall behind. The visible process of fragmentation into subgroups, subregions and subcultures gives regional forces an advantage over national parties which have to work with a larger canvas.

Regional satraps like Musa Aman or Taib Muhamud or Pairin Kitingan or even Jeffrey Kitingan (except Jeffrey Kitingan, while the rest who despite belonging to the Barisan National are really regional chieftains) are better connected to the grassroots. They also have the flexibility to knit together an electorally successful social alliance specific to their state without having to worry about the bigger national picture.

The Barisan National was compelled by local Sarawak considerations to allow scam-hit Taib Mahmud to continue as chief minister even as it fought a high-pitched battle over corruption allegations during the recent Sarawak state elections 2011. Taib’s victory underlines the continuing relevance of the satraps.

The Barisan National Sarawak in its glory days was an umbrella party of strong regional leaders. Its decay began when Taib Mahmud started cutting them down one by one till the Chinese based SUPP party stood decimated as can be seen in the recent Sarawak State polls 2011. Today, regional chieftains have created their own political units while Baru Bian and Wong Ho Leng survive in national party like the PKR and DAP only because they have been given almost complete autonomy.

Yet, as Musa Aman understood and as Taib Mahmud seems to be realizing, regional leaders have to expand their political horizons beyond race and religious identities to remain on top. They have to put together broader social coalitions while national parties will have to put aside their dreams of single-party rule and contend with political coalitions to run Putrajaya. This is one reality that is unlikely to go away even as the political frame expands to include issues of development and governance and Royal Commission of Inquiry (RCI) on Illegals getting Malaysian Identity Cards to become voters.

Past tense In politics, every player works and waits for a big moment. A real leader emerges when there is perfect harmony between his ideas and the people’s mood. But, at some point, he has to fade away. The leaders who make desperate attempts to cling to their receding turf often face humiliation. Taib Mahmud, once the giant of Sarawak politics, was rejected by the urbanites and even in one or two rural constituencies in the recent Sarawak State Elections 2011.

So, lets see what is there in the cards come the 13th General Election which should take place anytime before March 2013, and, with Anwar Ibrahim now acquitted from sodomy2 charges, things might move quite differently.