EDITORIAL: Malaysia's vision of itself at stake in next election

Bangkok (The Nation/ANN) - Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak toyed with idea of calling an election for more than a year before finally dissolving parliament on Wednesday. Voters will soon get the chance to decide whether they want to continue with the status quo or enter a new era of more inclusive politics. Najib was waiting for the occasion that would give him and his party, the United Malays National Organisation, and the ruling coalition, Barisan Nasional, the best chance of winning. Unfortunately, time might not be on his side.

In recent years, Najib has seen many successes, especially on the regional stage. Malaysia helped broker a peace agreement between Manila and Muslim rebels in the Philippines' Mindanao. That was one of the most oft-cited success stories last year - until Sulu militants from the southern Philippines tried to claim territory in Malaysia's Sabah in recent months. Then, he turned to Myanmar and the Middle East, eagerly wanting to demonstrate his leadership. Most recently, he worked with former Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra to start a peace dialogue with insurgents staging attacks in Thailand's South. He also managed to push the Global Movement of Moderates as an Asean agenda last November. All these activities have been aimed at raising the profile of Najib as one of the region's most dynamic leaders.

But ordinary Malaysians could not care less about this. They want a better economy with less corruption. They want to claim their share of the prosperous economy, which is being divided up among cronies of the powerful. They also want to see all races given the same treatment. The idea that being a "bumiputra" (son of the soil), as ethnic Malays are known, should give a person better opportunities or status than other Malaysians is outdated and should be discredited. But UMNO has been using this platform to win Malay votes.

Times have changed. The opposition party, led by Anwar Ibrahim, is challenging the ruling party with a new template that is inclusive. Malaysians of all races working in harmony is an idea that could win at the polls this time. The Malays now understand that to make a stronger nation, they have to treat other races equally. Eventually, a richer and better Malaysia is good for everybody. That should be the aim.

Old political habits die hard, especially at the "kampung", or village, level. UMNO and the BN still use the same tactics, preaching the benefits of a united Malaysia. Chinese-Malaysians and Indian-Malaysians know full well what the BN is up to. First-time voters - about 22 per cent of the total electorate - could be game changers. The young generation wants to see a more dynamic nation that is inclusive and where opportunities are based on merit, not race. It will be interesting to watch the poll's outcome this time as young voters will set the future path of Malaysia.

Najib's future is uncertain to say the least. It is highly unlikely that the opposition party, Pakatan, will win an outright majority. But for UMNO to lose more seats, after losing ground in the 2008 election, would clip Najib's leadership of UMNO. Other leaders would be happy to see him slip. One thing is clear: Malaysian politics are not what they used to be. Soon the world will find out if voters seek the status quo, or choose change.

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