IPOH, Perak - The battle of Malaysia's ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition
to regain control of the second-largest state on the Malaysian Peninsula may
have come at a heavy price to its long-term credibility and raises questions
about new Prime Minister Razak Najib's emerging brand of leadership.
Any semblance of democratic norms rapidly vanished this week when police
entered the Perak state assembly hall and physically dragged away the
opposition People's Alliance House speaker, in full ceremonial regalia, so that
a candidate from the BN could take over the position.
Prior to the incident, rival assembly members were locked in a stand-off, with
assembly members from the People's Alliance
calling for fresh state-wide elections for Perak and the BN claiming its right
to lead the assembly after three defections this year gave it a slim majority
The defections, which came under questionable and controversial circumstances,
sparked a constitutional crisis when the assembly speaker refused to recognize
the defections and declared the three seats vacant. However, the Election
Commission refused to endorse the holding of by-elections to fill the seats,
nor would it allow the People's Alliance to dissolve the house to hold fresh
Meanwhile, the assembly's privileges committee, made up of People's Alliance
members, in apparent retaliation, suspended the BN's candidate for the Perak
chief minister's post and his team of six assembly members appointed to other
Perak government committee positions. That set the stage for the police raid on
the state assembly building, where 69 People's Alliance supporters, including
10 elected representatives from the federal parliament and other state
assemblies were detained.
Later people wearing black T-shirts to protest against a "black day" for
Malaysian democracy were targeted as police had obtained a court injunction
forbidding anyone from entering a 500-meter radius of the assembly building.
Half a dozen riot police trucks blocked the main entrance to the assembly, and
even opposition members of parliament were turned away from the opening
ceremony of the assembly's sitting.
Perak was one of the five states, out of a total of 13, which fell to the
People's Alliance in last year's watershed general election - the worst
performance ever for the BN, which has ruled Malaysia uninterrupted since
achieving independence from the colonial British.
Before taking power last month from premier Abdullah Badawi, Najib was widely
seen as the driving force behind moves to restore the BN's power in Perak,
including orchestrating the defections. A similar power grab unfolded in the
state assembly on Thursday as speaker V Sivakumar refused to budge from his
seat, even for lunch or to go the washroom, for fear the BN would install a new
That did not stop the BN assembly members from electing a non-assembly member
to the seat, leveraging their 31-28 majority even though Sivakumar had rejected
their motion and ordered the 10 suspended BN assembly members out of the
assembly. But Sivakumar soon found his microphone was switched off and the
situation verged on farce when the new BN appointed speaker R Ganesan put on
ceremonial attire and sat on the aisle, even though speaker Sivakumar was still
BN lawyers argue that they had the numbers to elect a new speaker and had given
adequate notice for the motion to remove Sivakumar. The BN was worried that the
house would legally have to be dissolved for fresh state elections by May 13,
when a six-month deadline for the house to hold a fresh sitting would expire.
People's Alliance leaders argue that the BN's actions in the assembly on
Thursday were "illegal, illegitimate and unconstitutional". The proceedings
were held even before the issue of who is chief minister of Perak could be
decided by the courts.
It all adds up to a constitutional and legal imbroglio, prompting many to call
for fresh state elections to resolve the impasse. However, in view of its poor
showings in recent by-elections, it is a prospect the BN seems reluctant to
face. One joke making the rounds is that the people of Perak are fortunate to
be served by a bounty of two chief ministers and now two state assembly
Najib's administration and his Perak colleagues may have won the power-play in
Perak through the use of police force, but it will have come at a heavy cost in
public perception and potentially longer-term support for the BN and Najib's
previous "One Malaysia" call to national unity. Many Malaysians who watched
events unfold over the Internet saw uncensored police entering the Perak state
assembly and physically removing the Perak speaker, his legs trailing on the
floor as he was dragged out of the chamber and then held in a nearby changing
room for a number of hours.
Najib had received an earlier democratic blow when the BN lost two of three
hotly contested by-elections held on April 7. Another by-election in Penanti is
scheduled for May 31 and the BN is still of two minds about whether to field a
candidate in a constituency that lies in People's Alliance leader Anwar
Ibrahim's home turf on the island state of Penang.
Meanwhile, the controversy in Perak is expected to continue in the courts,
though once ensconced in the seat of power the BN will not easily be dislodged
with the machinery of power behind it. Najib's apparent zero tolerance of
public protests and vigils, however, will remove an outlet for public
disaffection over the lack of democratic reforms and raise the political
At least two dozen people were detained in Kuala Lumpur, Kuching and Penang on
Thursday evening when they attended vigils to express their concerns about the
police raid in Perak. Less than one month on the job, Najib has shown a
willingness to use force to ensure his political way and stirred strong doubts
about his self-stated political reform credentials.