Lessons for the BN to learn from Tunisia

On Dec 17 in the North African country of Tunisia, in the small provincial town of Sidi Bouzid, an unemployed 26 year old graduate set fire to himself in frustration after his fruits and vegetables were confiscated by police for trading without a license.

His suicide sparked mass unrest and protests which spread from region to region until it reached the capital, Tunis. In less than a month the longstanding President would flee into exile and a government would fall.

The suicide of the young man resonated with the people frustrated at the high unemployment, slack economy, corruption and lack of democratic freedom. His death ignited a shouldering cauldron which had built up under President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali who had reigned for 23 years. His autocratic regime became synonymous with corruption, growing wealth disparity, political repression and tight censorship.

As with all corrupt regimes unchallenged in a one party system, the ruling oligarchy grabbed economic largess for themselves causing the economy to stagnate and decline.

Life became harder for ordinary Tunisians faced with rising costs of living amid high unemployment and stagnated incomes. An abusive police force and security apparatus kept the population in line.

There was of course no way that the ruling regime could be removed by free and fair elections, not that there were any. Tunisia has been governed by the same party since independence from France in 1956. The incumbent President, only the second since independence had been re-elected five times with enormous majorities in every election. Political repression kept the opposition small, fragmented and ineffective and tight censorship in the government controlled media and the internet sought to control the flow of information.

At first the government labeled the protestors terrorists, trouble makers and extremists. The police reacted violently by fatally shooting dozens of protestors. When the protests could not be stemmed curfew was imposed and schools and colleges closed.

The government promised the creation of 300,000 jobs and ordered down the price of some basic foodstuffs but protests continued unabated.
In a desperate last attempt to placate the populace the President promised a raft of changes including investigating corruption and more democratic freedom. He ordered the police to stop shooting protestors and declared he would not stand for re-election when his term expires in 2014. But it was to no avail. Only the fall of the authoritarian regime could stop the protests and so it did.

A mirror of Tunisia
One important lesson from Tunisia is that in the globalized world governments can no long depend on press censorship to maintain its hold on power. Although news of the protests was blacked out in the tightly controlled press news spread quickly through the cyber world especially via facebook.

What happened in Tunisia is important for us all because it is the culmination of what Malaysia is becoming. Malaysia is almost a mirror image of Tunisia politically, socially and economically, only that the latter has been carried to further extreme. But if the present course of the BN government is not corrected we will reach the Tunisian situation in the near future.

BN or more accurately Umno has governed Malaysia for 53 years and its rule is synonymous with political patronage, an euphemism for corruption. The political patronage is so ingrained that it forms the backbone of Umno’s political structure and has become so endemic that no public project can escape it.

To compound the unsustainable pilfering of public funds, the competitiveness of the economy is degraded by racial policies which introduce economic distortions and cause the flight of productive and skilled human capital upon which any economy heavily depends. The country is unable to transition to a high income economy, least of all by massive infrastructure spending under a grandiose sounding Economic Transformation Program.

The long term effect on the Malaysian economy has been devastating. In the 1970s we were on par with Singapore, South Korea, Hong Kong and Taiwan but these countries have outstripped us now in economic performance, per capital income and currency value despite our considerable advantage of abundant natural resources. We are now content to comparing ourselves with Vietnam, Philippines and Indonesia which are fast catching up.

Our salaries have stagnated for the past 15 years while others have transitioned into high income economies. Rising cost of living against depreciating real income have pushed backs against the wall while our income disparity is the highest in Asia. A population unable to pay real world prices for oil and food staples coupled with a government increasingly unable to maintain subsidies is a cocktail for future social unrest.

The seeds of destruction
Along with economic mismanagement comes political repression as corrupt regimes try to cement their hold on power by ensuring that a democratically competitive environment does not take root. Efforts are made cull dissent by draconian laws, persecution of opposition politicians, deceitful propaganda and tight government control of information. In Malaysia yet another front is opened by playing on racial and religious sentiments to maintain political power at the expense of nation building.

The winds of change blowing after the unexpected results of the 12th general election did not change Umno’s ways in the least but only made them more cunning and more desperate to cling on to power by whatever means necessary even if it means making full use of subservient courts, enticing opposition lawmakers away, inciting racial and religious tension or a charm offensive with a hollow 1Malaysia propaganda.

The only way for the country to change course is the creation of a two party system where competition for electoral votes will put the brakes on corruption and abuse and lead to a more people-centric government. However a two party system will not be created unless BN is defeated at least once.

Elections in Malaysia are never on a level playing field with an Election Commission biased towards the incumbent government and able and willing to assist in tilting the odds with more tricks than Zimbabwe. For Pakatan Rakyat to seize power in the looming 13th general election is an uphill task and some may say a far stretch.

It is not at all certain that a regime resolute on clinging on to power and willing to use whatever unprincipled means can ever be toppled in democratic elections. The result of BN’s unbroken rule will be continuing corruption, persistent economic decline, increasing income disparity and deteriorating economic conditions for the masses.

But all decadent regimes sow the seed of their own destruction. In the end it may not be elections which topple BN from power but pent-up social forces epitomized by the Tunisian revolt and embodied by the illumination words of John F. Kennedy, “Governments which make peaceful change impossible make revolution inevitable.”


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