REPRINT Aminah wiped the sweat from her brow as she crossed the busy road to the rundown bus station in the hot afternoon sun. She had just bought a few packets of nasi lemak for herself and her children for lunch; the cheapest type of empty rice with a pinch of sambal. No chicken, no cuttlefish, not even a piece of cucumber. It was all they could afford these days. “If I as a graduate teacher finds the cost of living so tough, what about the less educated ones?” she thought grimly. She remembered the days when teachers could drive their own cars as she clambered onboard the rickety bus spewing foul black smoke. It seemed like a distant dream in a faraway time but yet in reality not so long ago, she thought.
In a noisy coffee shop near his office Chin finished his plate of chicken rice washed down with plain water he brought from home. Actually it should be called “cucumber rice,” he thought as he ate it with chilly and cucumber but omitted ordering any chicken to save money. He had just started working as a graduate engineer with a salary of RM2000 a month and a bond of 2 years. His father had looked resigned when he told him the news. He had merely remarked that 30 years ago he had started working as a fresh graduate with exactly the same salary and even then it was already hard going.
As Siti walked pass the huge poster recruiting Malaysian maids for Indonesia she wondered what went wrong. “We voted for BN, we believed their promises of high income but now we can barely survive with the stagnant income and ever increasing cost of living, she thought bitterly. Toll, petrol, diesel, electricity and water rates keep increasing and GST will soon be increased from 10% to 15%. On top of that there are EPF, tax, and healthcare deductions on her monthly salary making her meagre pay as a bank officer even more meagre. “This government is no longer afraid of losing elections,” she thought.
A Maid Exporting Country
It is the year 2020 and Tun Mahathir had just flagged off the first batch of Malaysian maids for Indonesia. There is no lack of eager women willing to take on domestic drudgery in a foreign land to escape the poverty in rural Malaysia. Reports of maids horrifically abused in Jakarta did not faze them. They are able to earn twice what a teacher earns and save most of it. Indonesia had progressed fast in the last decade and outstripped Malaysia in economic performance and income while Malaysia went backwards.
The year 2012 was a pivotal year. In the general election of that year the dominant political party BN was challenged for the seat of government by a united opposition called Pakatan Rakyat. It was a grossly unlevel playing field as always but that election represented the only time when there was a chance to unseat BN which had ruled the country since independence. As fate would have it this did not come to pass. BN still won the election, helped no doubt by the built-in gerrymandering advantages and a fair dollop of good old fashioned cheating. PR had support but not enough to overcome the unlevel playing field and the cheating.
After their victory BN sought to make sure that its power will never be threatened again. A vile propaganda campaign against PR was unleashed accusing them of everything under the sun from traitors to saboteurs. Opposition leaders were harassed with all sorts of frivolous charges, some were imprisoned and elected lawmakers enticed to hop to BN with wheelbarrows of money. BN sponsored thugs broke up opposition meetings as police looked the other way. In the end the parties forming PR broke up under extreme pressure and went their separate ways. For extra insurance an opaque biometric system of registering and vetting voters was implemented to make cheating easier.
Decline and Degeneration
Now that BN had neutralized any threats to its power all principles of good governance were thrown out of the window. Corruption scandals erupted which made the NFC RM250 million scandal of a decade ago looked like pilfering pocket money. Cronies were awarded sweetheart deals for infrastructure works which guaranteed them huge profits at no risk with the costs passed to the people.
When the government ran short of money subsidies were withdrawn, taxes raised and new taxes devised. Toll, electricity, water, telephone and internet services went up like clockwork while petrol and diesel were taxed instead of subsidized. The economy faltered and unemployment shot up. EPF money was plundered until it could no longer pay a lump sum to retirees but only a fixed allowance a month in the guise of “safeguarding retirement funds.”
Life became harder for the ordinary people while a small band of ruling party elite became super-rich. The ringgit depreciated causing inflation to poke at people’s lives like sharp thorns. What was amazing was the dizzying pace of decline. It had taken less than a decade for the middle class to be decimated and impoverished. People could still remember when they could afford to go for holidays and eat satisfying restaurant meals.
In the face of growing dissent draconian laws were bulldozed through parliament and enforced by paramilitary units. A large secret police spied on the people and terrorized dissidents. Malaysia would soon be known as the Zimbabwe of the East.
An Opportunity Lost
Those who could packed up and left, those who couldn’t stay behind to wonder at what sort of government they had elected. Actually to say that they had elected BN is unfair as choice had been effectively removed from voters. The system had been manipulated and corrupted until it is practically impossible for BN to lose. The ruling party had seen to that.
There was a time back in the 13th general election of 2012 when removing BN was still possible; difficult but possible. If only the people hadn’t been so taken in with the distribution of election goodies, if only they had rejected the racial poison disseminated by BN, if only the Indians had voted with the Chinese to reject BN instead of being led astray by false leaders, if only the rural Malays had seen through Umno’s lies, if only the overseas Malaysians had come back and voted, if only…if only….
Yet, there were fence sitters who refused to support PR saying they were not good enough. They criticized PR as being quarrelsome and inexperienced despite the huge corruption scandals and abuses of BN. They demanded that the opposition be perfect before giving their votes. They wanted good governance but they were not prepared to take the risk.
If BN had lost power once, just once, we would have created a two party system. BN would be forced to reform itself outside the corridors of power and the people would have a choice. Both coalitions would have to compete for the people’s votes and be more accountable in governing. There would be real democracy instead of a pseudo-democracy where the ruling party has no fear of losing power.
But it is too late. The chance had come and gone. In 2020 when we were supposed to be a developed nation we became a maid exporting country instead. Malaysians can only look wishfully back to the past and forward to an uncertain future with resignation.