More than a hundred black balloons – symbolising oil and inflation – loomed over chants of ‘Pak Lah turun’ (step down) and ‘Pak Lah lembek’ (weak) in the latest demonstration at the Petronas towers yesterday (March 26).
The 19 people detained were the largest since the pro-Anwar Ibrahim protests of 1998 and 1999.
Persistent public unrest especially over the fuel price-hike stands in stark contrast to PM Abdullah’s unveiling of the Envo Diesel initiative and the National Automotive Policy (NAP) last week. The former aims to provide a cleaner energy (palm oil substitute) alternative and correspondingly save on diesel imports, reach out to remote areas, and boost the palm oil industry. The latter promises to reduce vehicle prices, increase the competitiveness of national car, Proton, and developMalaysia as an automotive hub.
Current public and opposition-party opinions also contrast with hitherto unrivalled popularity of Pak Lah. Insinuations of the latter being ‘weak’ then would be political suicide. But such a label (‘lembek’) is now whispered within the ruling Umno circle, and loudly proclaimed on the streets by Parti Islam SeMalaysia– (PAS) and Malaysian Trades Union Congress– (MTUC) led opposition groups.
PM Abdullah secured a resounding victory in the March 2004 general election, in large part for his promises to create a cleaner and more open government. Earlier this month witnessed the launch of a nationwide public opinion polls on major issues involving education, public transport, water supply, schools and public welfare for the first time in Malaysia’s history. And last week, Abdullah reported to parliament a record of 485 arrests for corruption last year, an increase of 43 per cent as compared to 2003.
Are Pak Lah’s efforts to promote a ‘clean and green’ government enough to stymie the present crisis? According to parliamentary opposition leader Lim Kit Siang, ‘Abdullah seems to be losing the fight for the soul of his premiership.’
In an effort to improve the police force’s tarnished image and monitor police abuses, Abdullah has been pushing strongly for an Independent Police Complaints and Misconduct Commission to be established. He has also been outspoken on the recent tudung issue affecting the police force (a similar controversy involved the schools earlier this month) – a move that is perhaps indicative of pressure from the conservatives. Abdullah’s efforts did not pay off however, as several key Umno lawmakers in parliament last week blocked Abdullah’s plan for the independent commission.
A bigger test of Pak Lah’s leadership awaits him as the nation gears up for the announcement of the Ninth Malaysia Plan (9MP) this Friday (March 31).
With a 25 per cent increase in budget (to RM200 billion) from the last Plan, Abdullah has the muscle and opportunity to win back public support and silence his opposition through paving the steps for Malaysia to become a developed nation by 2020.
Pak Lah also faces the challenge of fully stepping out of former PM Mahathir’s shadow, The latter has in recent months been making noises and snide comments on the fuel price-hike controversy and Proton’s fate in the Approved Permits (AP) scheme.
The Mahathir legacy of Putrajaya, the Petronas Twin Towers, the F1 Circuit, the Kuala Lumpur International Airport, fast highways and huge ports also adds pressure to what some may regard as Abdullah’s softer or worse, weaker rule.
Abdullah’s clean and green stance certainly requires more time and patience to see fruition. “I know it is not a bed of roses for all of us all the time,” he defends his personal governing style, “but regardless of what some people say - whether I am firm or soft - any action I take is guided by only one thing, and that is fairness and justice for all.”
Official: Proton car prices may be reduced (The Star, 24 March 2006)
Fuel of the future (Editorial, New Straits Times, 25 March 2006)
Abdullah faces questions over his leadership (The Straits Times, 25 March 2006)
Current reduction in car prices not significant enough, says Najib (The Star, 26 March 2006)
Tudung part of cops’ parade uniform (The Star, 26 March 2006)19 arrested as police break up KL protest (The Straits Times, 27 March 2006)
Five-year plan a test of Abdullah's leadership (The Straits Times, 27 March 2006)
* This article follows from the March 14 SEAPSNet entry, Race, religion and rising fuel prices - Growing discontents with Pak Lah?