Malaysia's ruling coalition sets out to buy a by-election

Did Somebody Say 'Money Politics?'

By Kim Quek (From Asia Sentinel)

In a daring bid to bribe the electorate of Malaysia’s Kuala Terengganu constituency, Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak dished out 583 government contracts on January 10 in a “lucky draw” to every small Malay contractor present at the town’s state secretariat building.
The government of Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi is in a no-holds-barred fight to hold the seat against a resurgent opposition in a January 17 by-election. It became vacant when Razali Ismail, who represented the United Malays National Organisation, died suddenly in November. It is the second by-election since disastrous national elections last March that cost the government its two-thirds majority for the first time since Malaysia became a nation. The first, in Penang, was won resoundingly by Opposition Leader Anwar Ibrahim. Badawi himself is expected to quit as prime minister after internal UMNO elections in March, having been forced out by critics within the party. Although loss of the constituency to the opposition would not affect the balance of power in the Dewan Rakyat, or parliament, loss of another seat would be regarded by party stalwarts as a severe blow.
Although support for the governing Barisan Nasional and the fundamentalist Parti Islam se-Malaysia is said to be split about evenly, UMNO insiders are extremely concerned that Wan Ahmad Farin Wan Salleh, a former deputy home minister, a close Badawi ally, is a weak candidate.
The contracts described by Najib, valued at RM30,000 to RM 200,000 (US$8,400-US$56,000) each, claimed to be for infrastructure works in the local township, were distributed at random by having the contractor to come to the stage to click on a computer. Upon pressing the button, a contract would be awarded, details of which would instantly appear in a big screen in the hall. Thus the contractor would walk home with his "prize" (a contract with a pre-determined price), with no questions asked on his track record or suitability for the works assigned.
Najib, who launched these innovative awards, claimed this “a world record”, saying that “In this lucky draw, everyone wins. Every one gets a contract.” He further added that if the Barisan wins in the coming Kuala Terengganu by-election, there would be more and bigger such contracts, so that the Class F contractors (confined to Malays, for small contracts) would “continue to make money and the country’s economy would continue to grow.
A Kuala Lumpur-based political activist close to UMNO disputed the account, saying the award of contracts was nothing new. The contracts, he said, are for local businessmen to build roads, schools and other infrastructure during a time of worsening economic conditions. The procedure, he said, was done for transparency. But, he added, “it’s definitely for the elections as well.”
But while Najib may be entitled to claim he has scored “the world’s first” for having satisfied every one of the hundreds of contractors present, few can share his pride over such a bizarre method of disposing government infrastructure projects. For a start, infrastructure works contracts are usually awarded gradually over a period of time, as and when the needs for such works arises, as determined and initiated by the engineers and the local authorities. These contracts are never awarded in a torrent of hundreds within a single day anywhere in the world. Granted that this may be part of the stimulus package announced earlier to counter current economic hardship, there is no possible justification to cram such a staggering number projects in one go, especially when these are confined in a small township like Kuala Terengganu. Needless to say, massive waste and redundancies will be the inevitable consequences.
Then, what about the track records and skill compatibility of the contractors with respect to the projects at hand? Without proper interview and scrutiny of the awardees, how can the government be certain that the projects are awarded to the right contractors?
Next, there is the question of price. Without tenders or negotiation, how can the government ensure fair pricing? In fact, over-generous pricing is expected, or else Najib would not have said: “I see everyone present here is jubilant and clapping his hands, every one has got a government contract, how can they be not grateful to the government and not strongly support Barisan Nasional?” (Sin Chew, Jan 11)
For this move, the Barisan was promptly condemned by the National Institute of Electoral Integrity as abusing government machinery to dish out financial benefits during an election campaign. But it is but one of an endless series of similar monetary inducements amounting to tens of millions of ringgit in the form of cash payments and allocations handed out by the Barisan in the Kuala Terengganu constituency since the runup to polling.
On the same day (Jan 10) as Najib handed out the “lucky draw”, he also handed out RM8 million to 20 religious schools, which are mainly located in Terengganu state. Recognizing the minority 8,787 Chinese votes -- 11 percent of the total -- as pivotal in this election, the Chinese community has been bombarded almost daily with allocations and cash payments totaling no less than RM12 million, such as:

All these financial bonanzas, handed out within the few days since nominations on January 5, are clearly intended to induce voters to vote in favour of the BN candidate, and therefore could be construed to constitute “bribery” as defined in paragraph 10 of the Election Offences Act 1954, for which the culprits are punishable as prescribed in paragraph 11 of the same act.
The election commission under the new chairman Abdul Aziz Yusof, who vowed to ensure a clean and fair election, has remained silent, as has the newly formed Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC), which prides itself as a replica of the famed Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) of Hong Kong,.
Such a monetary assault on the electorate, combined with the daily brainwashing by the Barisan’s propaganda machines, also known as the mainstream media (local newspapers and TV channels), has once again made a complete mockery of our election as cornerstone of a democratic system of government.
With all the institutions tasked to uphold the rule of law either unwilling or incapable of fulfilling their constitutional roles, it is now left to the 80,000 voters of Kuala Terengganu to play as guardians to uphold justice and democracy by disciplining the wayward ruling party with a negative vote.
In this connection, it is heartening to take note of how neighboring Kelantan has valiantly fought off similar assaults by UMNO/BN for the past two decades. Under the corruption-free administration of PAS, the people of Kelantan, who are almost completely Malay Muslims, have successfully overcome persistent coercion and temptation presented by the UMNO/BN federal government through abuse of federal authority and improper monetary inducement. No doubt, their devotion to Islam, which abhors corruption as a grave sin, must have been an important factor that contributes to their moral courage.
Will the Terengganu Muslim constituents, who form 88 percent of the Kuala Terengganu electorate, prove to have the same moral strength as their Kelantan brothers? And will the minority Chinese constituents gaze beyond the immediate monetary gains to vote for change – a change that would mean the rejection of a defunct political power and one step closer to turning a new leaf for the nation?
Coming at a time of power transition following the political tsunami of the 2008 elections, the outcome of this by-election will have a significant impact on the country’s political development. It is therefore earnestly hoped that the people of the constituency will rise to the occasion to make the right choice for the nation.

Kim Quek comments regularly on Malaysian political affairs.