Enthusiasm vibrating in his voice, the poet and activist A. Samad Said tells the Courier-Mail he is pretty sure the government in Malaysia will be booted out after tomorrow’s national election. “I feel very confident,” he said. “It’s been great, every day of the campaign has been great.”
A one-time poet laureate in Malaysia, the 78-year-old lives with his wife in a small apartment in Kuala Lumpur, surrounded by towering stacks of books – literature, in English mostly, from Russia, Germany, France, and Britain. He has a modern laptop to search the internet and to stay in touch with his guitarist son. His life was beautifully self-contained until a few years ago, when he was co-opted to become co-chair of the Malaysian Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections, known as “Bersih 2.0” (which means clean in Malay).
At the time, Bersih’s leader, a Malaysian lawyer of Indian descent named Ambiga Sreenevasan, had become the target of veiled racial attacks. While she was admirably stoic in enduring the sometimes ridiculous affronts, Ms Sreenevasan asked Samad Said to give the movement a Malay face, and one that most would hesitate to criticise. After some cajoling, Samad agreed. Bersih’s thousands-strong protests in recent years have been met with stern government resistance, including water cannon and mass arrests.
Now, with his distinctive flowing white hair and beard, the poet has been seen publicly calling for political change. Like many of his fellow Malays, he believes the nation’s rulers – led by prime minister Najib Razak – must be replaced to rid Malaysia of the rampant corruption and misrule that has dogged the country for decades. Samad has asked Malaysians to take their chance and vote in a new government to repair the “broken machinery” of the nation’s healthcare, education and democracy administration.
Bersih is trying to ensure a free and fair election. The movement has been running a voter education campaign, and it has encouraged Malaysians to become citizen observers to reduce voter fraud. In recent days, Bersih announced it had captured vote-buying on film and heard complaints of electoral roll irregularities and the government abuse of state-run media, as well as moving voters around the country to influence the election result.
It seems the ruling coalition, Barisan National, which includes smaller Chinese and Indian Malaysian parties and which has been in power in one guise or another since Malaysia won independence from Britain in 1957, is determined to hang on to the reins.
But a growing “it’s time” factor has been encouraging and energising the opposition coalition, Pakatan Rakyat, led by the indefatigable Anwar Ibrahim. Ibrahim battled through Malaysia’s courts, facing allegations he sodomised a male aide as well as corruption charges, before he was finally cleared in 2004. He, too, has declared he is confident his three-party alliance can win the election, inaugurating a tectonic shift in Malaysian politics.
Samad thinks change in is the air. “The most important thing is regime change,” he says. “This party has had five decades in charge, and they are mostly people from the royal families. Mahathir (the former Malaysian prime minister) might not be, but his behaviour is like royalty. Najib is from royalty too, he doesn’t hear anything. His pictures are everywhere: it reminds me of Kim Il Sung (the late North Korean dictator).”
Substantial minorities of Malaysia’s population are of Chinese and Indian descent. Race riots erupted in the country in 1969, leaving hundreds dead, and since then the government has ensured ethnic Malays enjoy favourable treatment: with university entrance quotas and discrimination in business. Samad believes the government is playing on the notion that racial tensions will emerge again.
But even ethnic Malays, known as “bumiputera” or sons of the soil in Malay, appear to be increasingly fed up with their opportunities, their income, and the ever-growing chasm between rich and poor in Malaysia. Malaysians have become disaffected, and rumours of the mind-boggling wealth of the ruling elites sweep through Kuala Lumpur’s poorer areas.
The government in recent years moved to change Malaysia’s notorious Internal Security Act, which permits the detention of suspects for unlimited periods of time, and the draconian Official Secrets Act, which permits the prohibition of criticism. But Samad pooh-poohs the idea that anything much is new. “They say it’s finished, ISA, OSA, but only the names have been changed,” he says. “The situation is very bad, it’s still dirty”.
And many Malays have no chance of monitoring the political situation, he says, because much of the media is not seen as impartial. “The mainstream media is in his (the prime minister’s) hands,” Samad adds. “But awareness is rising.”