2008 in review Pt I – to new governments

(four parts:  part one – to new governments)

2008 began with unsual energy.

Coupled by the auspicious ‘8’  for the first time in the new millennium, and the events of late 2007, Malaysia was ready.

What exactly was not certain, but as they transpired they took everyone unawares. The adage that Malaysia is a house of cards has been bandied about for decades, but the manner in which the cards scuttled to the ground was something to behold.

The absolute lack of temerity in the Hindraf camp led the spirit of resistance to a blatant hope from Umno, that things would be quickly back to ‘same old same old’ in time. So much was the conviction that the Abdullah Badawi government were willing to let talk of early polls fill the air.

The Umno math

The analyst in Umno – if one can call them that – were fairly confident that the electorates brief fling with Hindraf and Bersih will dissipate once the distance between the events and the present grew.

The stock-take leading up to the most auspicious Chinese New Years would have been, in their estimation:

There is urban dissent, but that was the case in elections of 86, 90 and 99 – and in all of them, the mixed ethnic seat formula caused enough stalemates for BN to not lose ground too much. Lose Bukit Bintang, but keep Lembah Pantai. Cringe at Ipoh not coming through, but remember the seats of Bandar Kulim and Taiping coming through.

The Indians have Hindraf, but it is not a political party and the votes will follow. Afterall Mahathir Mohammed – if you must, the oracle of reason – had said betraying his own Indian-ness, that the ethnic minority have no race majority in any parliamentary or assembly seat and should be grateful that his benevolent Umno was willing to yield them the odd seat. MIC will get the obligatory vote – they have no other choice.

The economic outlook was positive at the time, and there was fear of a worse snapshot in the second half of 2008.

There was the 5 months Umno subterfuge period – from branch elections, to division elections leading to national nominations (acting as primaries) that culminate with the December party assembly and election. Since Umno elections decide national leadership, the general election is only a formality one endures before the real politicking of seeing who can mouth off xenophobia and hysteria.

So the math led to a March date. Surprised many when parliament was dissolved within the traditional CNY celebration period.

Surprising still was the near two week campaign period.

The march to March

The scenes at the Singgahsana Hotel in PJ on a pre-nomination gathering was lukewarm at best. Anwar Ibrahim showed up earlier, but the other speakers were not necessarily setting the place on fire.

Actually it was not the size of gatherings that was the triumph for the yet to be formed Pakatan Rakyat coalition parties – it was their willingness to agree to an electoral pact, no three way contests caused by them.

The chances for the mixed seats grew.

What was the remaining question was if PAS votes translate to DAP votes and vice versa.

Anwar delivered on getting PKR to provide the buffer between the two old parties, the rest was up to the rakyat.

There was no election machine at any of the Pakatan office, barring PAS. The Islamists are after all your typical ranting were and still are the most organised party in Malaysia. Their ability to get a whole stream of volunteers working seamlessly under a chain of command is impressive.

It was genuine breakthrough seeing the Semenyih PSM candidate Arul being ushered in conservative PAS holds in the interior by party elders. Same things were occuring elsewhere. There were widespread reporting – not in your NST and The Star – of the parties really working things through at the grassroots level, and the drums of Hindraf omnipresent.

On the phone with the communication team for PKR in Pahang, encouraging reports followed. They acknowledged the double edge of having the deputy prime minister and a higher rural population did make Pahang tough going, but they were awed by the throngs of people showing up for the ceramahs, as one comment encapsulated the upswing, “These people were standing on the edge of the jungle, appearing from nowhere to hear Anwar speak.”

Tony Fernandes’ campaign for Shahrizat Jalil in Lembah Pantai, along with other BN made multi-millionaires was telling of the fear rising in Umno, based on primary campaign reports.

My own belief grew when reliable MCA voters gathered in the rain at Pandan to see Anwar – in Ong Tee Keat’s seat no less. Ong ended up winning, but found his healthy 5 digit majority whittle down to 3,000.

Change was in the air. I sensed it driving up and down the country – it was not going to be ‘same old same old’.

Election day

The polling station in Jalan Kuching was alive, as there was a large early turnout.

I recollect telling the AFP correspondent that the opposition would win between 80-90 parliamentary seat when he laughed me off. Based on him being on the campaign trail for 10 days, he felt that the opposition would be at best gain 15 seats, with PKR on a low 4 or 5.

We put a case of coca-cola on the line.

What was paradoxical was the complete disinterest by BN observers at the polling stations. The BN observer asked me if PKR candidate Tian Chua was about. She went on and told me that she was a PKR member, just coming in to help her sister and earn the RM50 as a BN observer.

By the time polling was closed, and counting upon us in the room, the level of trepidation grew.

The result in my room was awesome. Tian Chua was running away from Gerakan leader Lim Kheng Yaik’s son. The results in the other rooms were similar. Then the news from other polling centres started flooding in, with the same gloss.

If Tian Chua was about to win Batu – the historically Gerakan seat – anything was possible.

And by the time we got to a restaurant to compare results, calls from Penang were coming through that the state has fallen.

Nothing prepared most Malaysians for it.

By the time it was 10pm, internal communication channels have confirmed – since no local TV station was willing to – that four states have collapsed on the west coast.

The TV was repeating the Borneo results, and the solemn faces of government commentators telling the story even if their script did not.

The days after

In the days that followed, mainstream media were stuck for words or direction.

The news was about the formation of government in Penang, Kedah, Perak and Selangor – my home state.

There was a prolonged process in determining the Perak MB as the Perak royal house refused to have any of the DAP’s assemblymen – all not Muslims – to become the chief minister.

PAS ended up the beneficiary as its Nizar got the plum role despite being the junior member in the coalition.

All of March after the election was about getting the five governments functioning, and forming a proper parliamentary front after securing 82 parliamentary seats.

Both tasks were difficult. The PKR members who were ex-Umno had government experience, but so did they have the misjudgement of Umno with them.

The party with the most learning curve to deal with was DAP. From just being the opposition, they had to run one state and become major partner in the running of two other states.

March ends

The month had enough excitement for the whole of 2008, and possibly the next few years. But the pace of change did not end there. The country with its new found change, was not in rest.

But within the first quarter, the country shook itself up to levels unknown. Malaysia was to embark on months of uncertainty, enough to get all previous Umno prime ministers to collectively do the rain dance with living ex-pm Mahathir – who was about to get into the act.

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