Water cannons in Cambridge

Sabri Zain's Cambridge Diaries

Malaysia preaches democracy to the US
November 13th, 2000

The global spectacle of the US presidential elections has prompted a variety of responses worldwide - ranging from shock and outrage to amusement and ridicule. But, if the pronouncements from government ministers and the local media is anything to go by, the response from Malaysia can only be described as undisguised glee.

Days before Floridans piled into their polling booths to punch in the wrong holes on their ballot forms, Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad had already indicated exactly whom he wanted to see lose. "If Al Gore becomes president, I'm sorry - it would be a little difficult for us to have good relations," he said early this month. Describing Gore as 'uncouth', he added, "Al Gore needs to be taught some good manners."

The well-mannered Mahathir is no doubt still smarting from the humiliation he received from Gore at the 1998 APEC Summit in Kuala Lumpur, which was held against a backdrop of almost daily street protests against Mahathir. Gore told an APEC dinner meeting that he heard cries for democracy and 'reformasi' (reforms) "here today - right here, right now - among the brave people of Malaysia."

However, the outcome of the presidential race - or rather, the lack of it - now gives Mahathir the satisfaction of seeing his tormentor taught that lesson. As an added bonus, it was also perfect ammunition for the Malaysian government's crusade against that Evil Beast, Western-style democracy.

First into the breach was law minister Rais Yatim, who lamented that "a country that is supposed to practice the best democratic system in the world cannot even determine who is to become its new president . the US must now recognize its weaknesses and realise that its system is not the best in the world."

He added that this "failure" should open the eyes of the world to the fact that "the days of the US interfering in the affairs of other countries have ended."

It probably gave him immense satisfaction saying this just two weeks after seven 'interfering' Congressmen tabled a resolution in the US Congress criticizing his government's handling of the trial of former deputy premier Anwar Ibrahim and the crackdowns on Anwar's supporters. As far as Rais was concerned, "the US has forfeited the right to criticize other countries."

International trade and industry minister Rafidah Aziz went one up on the law minister by suggesting that Third World countries send their representatives to future US presidential elections as observers. "I am amazed that no country could send observers to monitor the elections there." In true Mahathir-style diplomacy, Foreign Minister Syed Hamid Albar joined in the chorus a few days later, suggesting that Kuala Lumpur should have sent observers to the US vote.

Strangely, neither Rafidah nor Hamid failed to echo a similar call made by Malaysia's Opposition for independent international agencies to monitor the country's tenth General Elections last year. The request was, of course, flatly refused.

Taking its cue from the leadership, the pro-government mainstream media eagerly joined the feeding frenzy. "It's the Third World's turn to teach the teacher the basics of democracy" screamed a headline in the New Straits Times. "The US hoisted on its own petard" cried another. "Florida a Third World democracy" declared an editorial from the Utusan Melayu, likening its elections to a Hollywood script gone woefully wrong. The Star continues on the banana republic theme, with one commentator suggesting that, if the elections outcome should go to the courts, the Malaysian Parliament should table a resolution demanding a fresh trial if it is not happy with the verdict - particularly if Gore wins. "The brave people of Florida are crying out for 'reformasi'," he remarks cynically.

Needless to say, lurid details of election fraud, voter intimidation, legal squabbles, media manipulation, street demonstrations and money politics in the US filled the pages of what is usually a restrained, docile and self-censoring Malaysian press.

In all honesty, much of the criticism of the US presidential election system is probably warranted. However, despite the righteous howls of outrage from Malaysian ministers and the media, none of them have yet made a convincingly favourable comparison to Malaysia's own system of picking the country's leadership - and for good reason. Despite the disaster that has resulted, the US presidential election system, imperfect though it is, did at least directly involve the 100 million or so ordinary American citizens who cared to vote - probably one of the reasons why the system is imperfect.

Malaysia's prime minister, on the other hand, is determined by the 2,000 delegates who elect the President of the ruling United Malay National Organisation (UMNO). In the run-up to the party elections last May, the UMNO leadership tried to impose a no-contest ruling for the top post. More recently, its Supreme Council submitted a proposal to extend the terms of top party leaders to five years instead of the current three - further strengthening their grip on power. Another proposal to widen the right to vote among the party's grassroots membership was ignored. Not exactly models of the democratic process, by any stretch of the imagination.

Despite all this, UMNO itself has experienced its share of disasters when, as in the current US presidential elections, the vote difference between the respective opponents gets too close for comfort. In an unprecedented challenge during the 1987 party elections, Mahathir narrowly held the UMNO Presidency by a wafer-thin 43 votes. Claiming voting irregularities, his vanquished opponents took the matter to the courts. The outcome resulted in UMNO, the leading partner in the country's ruling coalition, being declared an illegal political party. Let's see the Democrats and Republicans try and beat that.

The Malaysian government's conduct during the country's general elections also leaves much to be desired. While the Malaysian media is today making much of the 19,000 votes invalidated in Florida's West Palm Beach County, there was hardly a whisper of protest when 680,000 registered Malaysian voters were told that they could not vote in the tenth general elections last year. The eager coverage of money politics, election fraud, phantom voters and intimidation in the US elections over the past weekend is a veritable flood compared to the scant mention of similar accusations by Malaysia's Opposition parties in the months following the country's elections.

Also featured in the press was the fact that Americans were being forced to take to the streets to demand their democratic rights. Not mentioned anywhere was the fact that similar protests would probably be violently scattered by riot police, truncheons, tear gas and water cannons here in Malaysia, as was evident in the 10,000-strong demonstration that took place on the Kesas Highway on November 5th.

Trying to scamper up that increasingly slippery slope of the moral high ground, the local media even criticized the role of the US media in influencing the outcome of the result. These were the same newspapers that last year carried horrific full-page advertisements warning voters of impending anarchy, riots, looting and racial strife if Malaysians were silly enough to vote for the Opposition.

This year's presidential elections probably does reveal the sheer hypocrisy of the US when it slaps the wrists of the developed world for not achieving the heights of democracy it claims to have attained. The system is imperfect and it is flawed. But Malaysians themselves would be even worse hypocrites if they think they have done any better. If we think the American electoral system is a farce, what can we say about an ostensibly democratic system that is propped up by a sheep-like, subservient press, policed by truncheon-waving thugs and dedicated to perpetuating the thousand-year reich of one dominant party, one dominant leader?

Between the absurd hilarity of one farce and the cruel cynicism of the other, the most I can say is that they're both too close to call.