KUALA LUMPUR, June 11 — The Barisan Nasional (BN) government is damaging its own reform agenda by taking Bersih leaders to court instead of enacting real electoral reforms that could instead boost its performance in the next general elections, Time magazine has said.
The influential international current affairs magazine said that Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak (picture), who is styling himself a reformer, still has a long way to go to convince better-educated voters with more sophisticated demands and expectations to give him a stronger mandate in the 13th general election that must be called by next year.
“The steps he has taken so far, however, haven’t done much to improve BN’s image as increasingly corrupt, ill-equipped to deal with global economic complexities and out of touch with the aspirations of significant segments of the population.
“If voters are more dissatisfied now, they are also more frustrated: few can see how real change can be achieved as long as the BN controls access to the media and elections continue to be riddled with irregularities,” its Asian correspondent Robert Horn wrote in an article published yesterday.
He noted that Najib, who was credited with repealing the Internal Security Act controversial for allegedly suppressing dissent, had instead decided to “suppress” Bersih’s leaders over a giant rally for freer and fairer elections in the national capital last April 28.
The Najib administration has taken an unprecedented step to sue the rally organisers, including the highly-decorated Datuk Ambiga Sreenevasan, for allegedly causing damages to public property worth RM122,000, which Time said “will only serve to stoke a political pressure cooker, deepen divisions and undercut the legitimacy of the government.”
“This is nothing less than a battle for the political soul of Malaysia,’” the magazine quoted Phil Robertson, the Asian deputy director of prominent world rights watchdog Human Rights Watch, as saying.
Najib has been actively mounting a series of social, economic and governmental changes to catapult this middle-income nation of 28 million people into a high-income bracket by 2020 since taking over as prime minister from Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi mid-term in April 2009, just over a year after the BN suffered its biggest defeat at the polls.
It lost its traditional two-thirds hold in the 222-seat Parliament and ceded four states, including wealthy Selangor and Penang, to opposition parties now led by his former Umno colleague Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim.
The magazine noted that Najib’s adminitration has found it increasing tough to meet those expectations since the start of the world economic crisis in late 2008.
It cited Singapore-based political scientist Farish Noor highlighting a “growing anxiety” among the middle classes in Malaysia “who feel their jobs and economic opportunities are threatened.”
The magazine also cited World Bank data on the Gini coefficient, a measure of wealth inequality, that states the gap between rich and poor in Malaysia is larger than it is in neighbouring Thailand; it pointed out that inequality has been a factor driving civil unrest and political violence there in the last few years.
Strong economic growth is crucial for the Najib administration’s plans to cut the fiscal deficit with public debt at RM455.7 billion or 53.8 per cent of GDP at the end of last year, just shy of a statutory ceiling of 55 per cent.