AS a journalist, your friends and contacts think you are always in the know about many things — politics included. When will the 13th general election be held? Will there be a change in government? There are two questions I am frequently asked these days.
Compared with a year ago, the first question is obviously much easier to answer as the window for the general election to be held is getting narrower by the day. March — after the Chinese New Year holidays — is now the favourite month.
Will there be a change in government? This is a tricky one. While I have my preference, I would put it this way: Since independence in 1957, this is the first general election the Umno-led Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition is contesting where the feeling — among some in its ranks — is that it could really lose.
This is also the first time some within the opposition, in the form of the Pakatan Rakyat (PR) coalition, believe they could really form a new federal government.
Umno, after having been on the defensive earlier, issued a stern warning to the opposition during last month's general assembly that it is as "united and strong" as ever and ready to continue ruling the nation. And the party faithful are not only talking about winning but also getting back BN's two-thirds mandate in Parliament that it lost in the 2008 election.
While this may reflect the self-confidence of the delegates and party members, it is the big "if PR wins" catchphrase — followed by various negative scenarios painted by past and present leaders — that makes many voters think Umno is a party that is not certain of a BN victory.
In past general elections, there was never a "if the opposition wins" notion. In recent months, however, including at the recent party general assembly, Umno has been giving the impression that if BN loses, the rakyat will suffer tremendously, in a bid to convince the voters — old and young, the Malays, Chinese, Indians, Ibans, Kadazans and others.
The other scenarios it paints if PR were to win are: the country will become bankrupt, there will be racial riots like in May 1969 and the Malays will lose power and become beggars in their own country. Umno also warns that Islam will be marginalised, the nation will lose its sovereignty as it will be pawned to foreign powers, the stock market will plummet and foreign direct investment will slow down.
To some political observers, resorting to fear tactics and political scaremongering are an indication that it is not a confident Umno that is entering the ring. Such tactics have been part and parcel of election campaigns in the past, but never so blatantly.
Will the country go bankrupt? Rhetoric aside, this is unlikely if PR or BN can manage the nation's finances and resources well and keep debt under control. In fact, the notion that "Malaysia could go bankrupt" came from the government itself. It was Minister in the Prime Minister's Department Datuk Seri Idris Jala who issued a warning that the country risked going bust by 2019 if it did not cut subsidies and rein in borrowings.
Will there be racial riots like those in May 1969? Why should they happen when no responsible Malaysian wants them to happen? Aren't politicians responsible for raising such a possibility? To most voters today — those born after 1969, as well as the older generation — it was an unfortunate event in our history, a lesson learnt, and one that needs to be avoided.
When asked by an audience at a forum organised by a Malay daily on the possibility of another May 13 should PR win the polls — as alleged by certain quarters in Umno — former inspector-general of police Tan Sri Musa Hassan ruled it out. According to him, the factors that contributed to the 1969 racial riots, such as communism, no longer exist. Communism is dead and buried in this country, but try telling that to the politicians who still propagate the idea that the communists are out to destroy the nation and that some of them can be found within the opposition.
Will the Malays lose power? Umno might, but the Malays and bumiputeras — the largest community in the country — will still be well represented by Pas, PKR, the bumiputera parties of Sabah and Sarawak and Umno itself in Parliament — where the seat of democracy lies. They can still work together to pursue the common interests of the community, notably those that are protected by the Constitution.
How about the Malays becoming beggars in their own country? I am still trying to figure this one out because how could that happen when Malays remain the dominant force in the political equation? As for the risk that Islam will be marginalised — by whom? How could that happen, given the position the religion holds in the Constitution, Muslims making up the majority of the population and having the highest birth rate, as well as the mutual respect we have for each other's religions?
So if most of Umno's "if PR wins" scenarios are unlikely to happen, why harp on them to the extent of overshadowing the good points the party raises in the political campaign? Why give the opposition a chance to say Umno is not a changed party and will never be, contrary to what its president and Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak is portraying?
To some political observers, these "fear" statements were not without their strategic basis and could indeed indicate that the general election will be closely fought. In a situation where every vote counts, it is the fear factor that could swing the crucial votes. In politics, when the battle is hard fought, there is no need for gentlemanly conduct.
For the opposition, the scare tactics could be a rallying point for party members and supporters as they show that Umno-led BN views PR as a formidable foe. They also instil self-belief in the coalition members that they could actually capture Putrajaya.
But to the more rational members of the opposition, the 14th general election is a more logical target to take over the federal government. This is based on the fact that another five years will strengthen PR as a coalition as PKR, Pas and DAP — notably the younger leaders — understand each other better and bridge their differences. The coalition may also attract new parties.
Another five years will also mean that PR state assemblymen and parliamentarians as well as the younger leaders will gain more exposure and the chance to develop their leadership qualities — certainly more than what can be offered by the hierarchy-entrenched Umno and BN. For the 13th general election, what is more important for PR is to ensure that the two-party system is here to stay and embedded in the minds of voters.
The rakyat would certainly prefer a two-party system, which can offer a viable alternative administration and provide strong checks and balances. The two-party system will give the rakyat the opportunity to divide and rule the political parties instead of the other way round. It will give the people a chance to be the masters and the politicians to be their servants, not vice versa, as has been the case so far in Malaysia.
Azam Aris is managing editor at The Edge. This story first appeared in The Edge weekly edition of Dec 10-16, 2012.