After Anwar’s win, is real change probable?

KUALA LUMPUR, Aug 28 — Opposition leader Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim's impressive showing in a Penang by-election carries deep significance, which politicians raised in a culture of patronage and race segmentation ought to ponder.

The win was by a margin bigger than his wife's in the March general election. It came on top of misgivings induced by a sexual allegation against Anwar, dramatised by his accuser, a young man, swearing his truthfulness.

Leaders of the ruling Barisan Nasional, especially in Umno, will make of the poll atmospherics what they will. They could rationalise that Permatang Pauh was a family seat, that Anwar was an artful campaigner rolling on a momentum. They would be remiss in thinking only in those terms. What they will find hard to wave away is re-confirmation in the result that a tidal shift in Malaysia, in favour of an inclusive Malaysian nation, is well under way.

Urbanites, including more and more disaffected Malays, signalled their discontent powerfully in the March parliamentary elections, although Malays in the rural hinterland largely still hew to the race line.

This is the last, enormous divide to be breached. It will determine whether Malaysia becomes progressive-modern or backsliding-part modern. The field is wide open to contenders with the nerve and the ideas to make the races believe in one another. All political parties, not just Umno and its BN partners but also the race-based constituents of Anwar's Pakatan Rakyat, have work to do to undo the decades of indifference towards the concept of Malaysian-ness.

Anwar claims he can persuade enough BN MPs to cross the floor for Pakatan to unseat the BN government. Now that he is ready to take his seat in the Dewan Rakyat, scheduled for this morning, his credibility will be tested on the record. The defectors, if they eventuate, can just as easily be lured back to BN; such is the elasticity of Malaysian political allegiance.

Anwar is setting the ideological agenda by pledging to build a more equal nation. In Penang, he spoke of the people wanting change for freedom and justice. “They are saying they don't want to be taken for granted any longer,” he scolded. Umno as the linchpin of BN has also been grappling with the issue since it got shaken out of its slumber in March. Its difficulty has been how to protect Malay interests without making non-Malays feel like guests in their land of birth. It has to do a better job of it.

But Malay racial sentiment in the rural swathe is resurgent again after the electoral drubbing. The Islamic Pas, a member of Pakatan, has not been above playing up race. The bloc that can draw these divisive energies towards the political pulse centre will win the day. It is anybody's contest. — Straits Times Singapore

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