Pak Lah’s popularity hits new low

Malaysiakini.com | 01-Aug-2008, – More than half of the 1,030 Malaysians throughout Peninsular Malaysia surveyed in a poll said they were unhappy with Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi’s performance.

About 54 percent of those surveyed expressed dissatisfaction with the prime minister, while 42 percent said they felt otherwise – resulting in more Malaysians disapproved of him than approved.

This is the first time that Abdullah’s popularity has plunged to below 50 percent from a record high of 91 percent in late 2004 – months after he won his first term as prime minister.

His approval rating was at 61 percent just before the March 8 general elections. In April, it went down to 53 percent and currently it is at 42 percent.

The opinion poll was conducted between July 4-16 by the independent Merdeka Center for Opinion Research and aimed at gauging voters’ perceptions of current issues, the state of the economy and leadership.

Conducted by telephone, it targeted Malaysians throughout the peninsula who were randomly selected and structured along the national electorate profile to achieve proportional balance in terms of gender, ethnicity and state.

The survey’s margin of error is estimated at plus or minus 3.1 percent.

Merdeka Center executive director Ibrahim Suffian said the decline in Abdullah’s approval ratings over the past few months is not only restricted to the widespread anger over rising food and fuel prices.

The continuing ‘bickering’ and political uncertainty – both within and outside Abdullah’s Umno – has also been a source of concern, he said.

“The public wants to see him find ways to bring the country back to an even keel,” he told Malaysiakini.

Similar trends were found when the respondents were asked regarding their level of satisfaction with Barisan Nasional.

It found that 54 percent were either “somewhat dissatisfied” or “very dissatisfied” with the BN government, while 44 percent said they were either “very satisfied” or “somewhat satisfied”.

A clearer divide was discernable when respondents were asked regarding Umno and whether they thought it reflects the “aspirations and needs” of Malaysians.

Only one out of three, or 36 percent, responded positively while the majority (58 percent) expressed their dissatisfaction with the party.

Pakatan did slightly better

Among other highlights of the survey was the question on whether Deputy Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak would make a good prime minister, with almost half saying no.

While 34 percent of the respondents said yes, 47 percent answered no.

The opposition Pakatan Rakyat state governments, in comparison, fared slightly better in terms of the respondents’ level of satisfaction.

Two out of three, or 57 percent, said they were either somewhat satisfied or very satisfied, while 32 percent said they were “somewhat dissatisfied” or “very dissatisfied”.

On the related issue of whether they agreed with the action taken by the BN federal government to disburse development funds to a federal body rather than directly to the Pakatan state governments, only 30 percent gave their approval.

Over half, or 54 percent, on the other hand, said they were either “somewhat” or “very” dissatisfied with the action.

To a question comparing Barisan with Pakatan in terms of the likelihood of either fulfilling their election promises, respondents were almost equally divided.

However, more expressed lack of faith in Barisan in delivering in its promises.

While 55 percent said they were not confident that Barisan would fulfill its promises, 42 percent of the respondents said they were not confident that Pakatan parties would fulfill their promises.

In the section on ‘general directions and the economy’, respondents projected a clear concern towards the state and direction of the economy and worried about their own financial situation.

Economic problems important

A large majority indicated that they perceived the country was going in the wrong direction. Only 28 percent felt satisfied with the way things are going in the country.

Almost two-thirds, or 59 percent, perceive economic problems to be the most important facing Malaysia today, with only 24 percent viewed the economy “favourably”.

Only one in five, or 19 percent, viewed the economy favourably when asked to compare the present situation to 2005.

About one-third, or 34 percent, of the respondents answered positively when asked to relate the economic outlook to their personal income, prices of consumer items and services, and job and business opportunities.

Only 10 percent of respondents said political issues were the most important challenges facing the country.

Reflective of the level of cynicism towards the government’s reduction of subsidies, a large majority (62 percent) said they believed the savings where channeled to benefit “people with political connections”.

Only 23 percent said the savings went to make the lives of ‘ordinary Malaysians” better. Fourteen percent did not know while one percent gave no response.

Poll: Malaysia PM’s popularity falls to new low

International Herald Tribune | KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia, 01-Aug-2008, : Public confidence in Malaysia’s political and economic future has dwindled dramatically in recent months, with the prime minister’s popularity hitting an all-time low, a survey showed Friday.

The independent Merdeka Center research firm found that only 28 percent of registered voters polled in July felt encouraged by the country’s direction, a severe fall from 68 percent in late February.

The center said its nationwide survey of 1,030 adults was conducted by telephone July 4-14 and had a margin of error of 3.1 percentage points.

Fifty-four percent were displeased with Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi’s performance, compared to 42 percent who were satisfied — Abdullah’s worst approval rating since he took office in 2003, said the center’s director Ibrahim Suffian.

The results follow a public backlash over the government’s decision to hike gasoline prices by 41 percent in June and persistent uncertainties after Abdullah’s ruling coalition lost its longtime political dominance in March general elections.

“People feel bad about economic issues. They are concerned that the political bickering in this country is not helping to generate solutions,” Ibrahim told The Associated Press.

Only 8 percent of respondents said current consumer prices were acceptable and 20 percent expect the economy to improve next year, highlighting the impact of inflation that spiraled to 7.7 percent in June. It was the steepest climb in more than 27 years.

Abdullah announced Friday the government will set a new retail price for gasoline once every month starting Sept. 1, with a subsidy to keep the price lower than the global market rate.

In another blow to the government, 66 percent of respondents thought that a recent sodomy accusation against opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim was politically motivated to disrupt his career, the Merdeka Center said.

Anwar insists the accusation by his 23-year-old former aide was part of a government plot, but Abdullah and other leaders deny any conspiracy. Police completed their investigation into the allegation Thursday, but government prosecutors have not announced if Anwar would be charged.

Only 11 percent of the Merdeka Center’s respondents believed the sodomy accusation, compared with 55 percent who thought it was false. The others were unsure or did not respond. Only 31 percent were confident that police would handle the case in a fair and transparent manner.

UPDATE 1-Malaysia links petrol prices to market, with subsidy

Reuters UK | KUALA LUMPUR, 01-Aug-2008 – Malaysia will implement a new petrol price formula from Sept. 1 that links retail prices to market levels, although it will maintain the current level of subsidies, Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi said on Friday.

“After studying the issue carefully, the government would like to announce effective September 1, 2008, retail petrol prices will be aligned based on monthly market rates and subsidies will be maintained at 30 sen per litre,” Abdullah said in a statement.

Abdullah’s government has come under pressure since it cut petrol subsidies earlier this year and support for him has dropped to just 42 percent, according to a poll by the Merdeka Center for Opinion Research published on Friday.

The cut in subsidies won plaudits from economists as it reduced the strain on government finances. Before the cut subsidies accounted for a third of government spending.

Malaysia raised petrol prices by 41 percent and diesel by 63 percent on June 4 as part of a broad overhaul of the country’s energy pricing system aimed at cutting expensive subsidies.

Malaysia’s annual inflation rate hit a 27-year high of 7.7 percent in June and was likely to stay above 7 percent in July due to the impact of the fuel price hike, the government said this month.

Abdullah said that from next month, petrol prices would be determined on the first day of every month. At a time of falling crude oil prices, that would lead to reductions in the pump price. (Reporting by Niluksi Koswanage and Soo Ai Peng; Editing by David Chance and Alan Raybould)

2 notorious cases challenge Malaysia’s modesty – By Thomas Fuller

International Herald Tribune | KUALA LUMPUR, 01-Aug-2008,: Government censors in this majority Muslim nation uphold an ethos of modesty by snipping sex scenes from films and ordering entertainers to avoid outfits that reveal too much on Malaysian stages – bare belly buttons and figure-hugging outfits are off limits.

But these days Malaysians looking to avoid R-rated content might be advised to read past news reports about their own leaders. Top politicians are embroiled in two scandals involving accusations of sodomy and the gruesome murder of a Mongolian mistress.

Reports on the finer points of a rectal examination and revelations about the sexual preferences of the dead mistress make other sex scandals that once shocked people here – such as Monica Lewinsky and her blue dress – seem almost Victorian.

This is not the first time that sex and politics have publicly collided in Malaysia. The trial of Anwar Ibrahim, a former deputy prime minister, for sodomy in the 1990s featured, among other highlights, a blood-stained mattress being hauled into the courtroom.

This time, wider use of the Internet has helped disseminate documents, facts and rumors that would otherwise have been filtered out of mainstream news media tightly controlled by the government.

The two scandals encompass much more than just sex. They are part of a broader clash between two men vying for power: Anwar is facing new allegations of sodomy at a time when he is vowing to unseat the governing party, while the other scandal involves Anwar’s principal political rival, Najib Razak, the deputy prime minister and anointed heir to Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi.

What is worrying for many Malaysians is that the gloves appear to have come off in the high-stakes fight between Anwar and Najib.

Testimony in the murder trial revealed that immigration records of the Mongolian woman and her friend had been deleted.

Malaysia’s political opposition says the case highlights the impunity of the police and high officials in government as well as a lack of independence in the judiciary. A police officer took the stand and said she was tortured by police investigators – her own colleagues.

Witnesses in both cases have dropped from sight, including a private investigator, Balasubramaniam Perumal, who alleged in a sworn statement issued shortly before disappearing that the dead Mongolian woman was Najib’s mistress.

The statement by Balasubramaniam, which has been widely circulated online, contradicted Najib’s repeated assertions that he never met the Mongolian woman, Altantuya Shaariibuu.

Balasubramaniam spent two months writing and revising a 16-page declaration about the case, based on conversations he had with the murdered woman and Abdul Razak Baginda, an aide to Najib. Balasubramaniam retracted the allegations in a hastily convened press conference and then disappeared.

“It’s obvious what has happened here. You don’t need to be a rocket scientist,” said Americk Sidhu, the private investigator’s lawyer. “Somebody needed him to shut up.”

Balasubramaniam’s wife and three children are also missing. The family’s two Rottweilers were left behind in their cages.

“A lot of very dark things are happening now,” said Raja Petra Kamarudin, one of the most influential and prolific Malaysian bloggers. Raja Petra was formerly a political associate of Anwar’s wife, Azizah Ismail, in her National Justice Party.

Although a number of gruesome facts in the Mongolian case have emerged in court over the past year – Altantuya, for example, was shot and her body obliterated with explosives in the jungle outside Kuala Lumpur – Raja Petra asserts that only a fraction of what happened is being admitted into court.

Citing sources in military intelligence, he issued a sworn declaration in June alleging that Najib’s wife, Rosmah Mansor, was present at Altantuya’s killing. Government prosecutors say Altantuya was killed by two commandos who also served as bodyguards to Malaysia’s top leaders.

“I don’t think Malaysia can afford to have a prime minister who has a huge question mark hanging over his head: Is he, or not, involved in the murder of this girl?” Raja Petra said in an interview.

Najib has called the allegation in the declaration “total lies, fabrication and total garbage” and a “desperate and pathetic attempt to discredit and taint my political image.”

The government charged Raja Petra with criminal libel, a law that lawyers say has not been used in recent memory in Malaysia and which, unlike civil defamation, can carry a two-year prison term. Separately, Raja Petra has been charged with sedition and his house raided several times.

Raja Petra was also responsible for leaking a medical report last week relating to the sodomy case. Anwar’s accuser, Mohamed Saiful Bukhari Azlan, a 23-year-old former campaign volunteer, went to a hospital in Kuala Lumpur hours before lodging a police report charging that Anwar had sodomized him. But the medical report, which also circulated widely on the Internet, says he complained of a piece of plastic being inserted into his anus. The doctor who wrote the report, Mohamed Osman, said he found “no active bleeding, no pus, tear or scar.”

Since then, Osman also has disappeared, although the hospital says he will be back Monday.

Anwar, who on Thursday announced that he would run for Parliament in his quest to unseat the government and become prime minister, said in an interview that he expected to be arrested soon. He has refused to give a DNA sample because he believes it will be used against him. “There’s nothing stopping them from fabricating evidence again,” Anwar said.

Although Malaysians enthusiastically share the latest developments in both cases, some have grown tired of the graphic details.

“A good word is disgust – whether it’s sodomy or blowing up the Mongolian lady,” said the Reverend Wong Kim Kong, executive adviser of the National Evangelical Christian Fellowship, an umbrella organization of protestant churches. A narrow majority of Malaysians are Muslim but the country has sizeable Christian, Hindu, Buddhist and Sikh minorities.

Wong said the constant barrage of allegations made by bloggers, paired with the government’s steady denials, have left Malaysians pining for clarity.

“People just cannot trust the word of any of these people,” Wong said. “They cannot distinguish who is telling the truth.”

The scandals come at a time of great political uncertainty in Malaysia. The governing party of Abdullah and Najib and the ethnic-based system of politics that it represents is in disarray. There is simmering resentment between the majority Malays and the minority Chinese and Indians, and corruption within government is rampant, despite promises by Abdullah to clean up the system.

Anwar has vowed to remake the country’s politics and revoke the authoritarian laws that, among other things, ban students from protesting, keep the media controlled and allow the government to lock up dissidents without trial. But Anwar remains a polarizing figure who is not trusted by many in the elite.

“I think there will at some point be a crisis of legitimacy,” said Ibrahim Suffian, the head of the Merdeka Center, a polling agency. “‘The leaders seem to feel that they can get away with a lot of things so long as the masses are satisfied with the economic opportunities given to them.

“But the economy is so bad that people are losing faith. There is a feeling that maybe it’s time for major changes.”

 

Malaysia opposition says aiming to seize power – By Jalil Hamid (Reuters)

Reuters | KUALA LUMPUR 02-Jul-2008 – Malaysia’s opposition is maintaining its target of toppling the government by mid-September, despite the sodomy allegation against leader Anwar Ibrahim, his wife said on Wednesday.

The opposition, spearheaded by Anwar’s People’s Justice party, has been wooing defectors from the ruling National Front coalition in its bid to seize power for the first time in Malaysian history.

“Well, optimistically, I think we can keep to the (September) deadline unless we really cannot,” said Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, who is also the parliamentary opposition leader, in an interview. Any change of power would be smooth and peaceful, she added.

Opinion polls showed most people believe Anwar, aged 60 and the father of six children, did not commit sodomy against an aide after he was jailed on a similar charge seen as politically motivated a decade ago. That conviction was later overturned.

A survey by the independent Merdeka Center research firm found just 6 percent of respondents believed the allegations and nearly 60 percent viewed it as politically motivated.

“It’s going to be an uphill battle for the government because you are facing a more cynical public,” said the firm’s pollster, Ibrahim Suffian.The survey polled 225 ethnic Malays.

A separate poll by the independent news website, Malaysiakini (http://www.malaysiakini.com), showed 94 percent of its respondents believed Anwar was the victim of a conspiracy. The government has denied having anything to do with the case.

The former deputy premier said the sodomy accusation pre-empted his plan to announce he was contesting a parliamentary seat in a by-election. Police are investigating the allegation, but no charges have been filed.

Winning a seat would be the first step on the road to Anwar’s wider ambition of leading the opposition to power. The opposition alliance made historic gains in a March 8 general election, winning five of 13 state governments and coming within 30 seats of taking control of the 222-member parliament.

PITY THE CHILDREN

Wan Azizah, a 55-year-old eye doctor by training, said she still had faith in Anwar despite this second sodomy claim in 10 years. He was jailed for six years on a similar charge, but the Federal Court overturned the conviction in 2004.

“The first time it didn’t work. So they are trying to do it again. It’s not right, it’s a complete fabrication. Politically, Anwar was gaining strength. It’s a desperate measure,” she said.

Sodomy, even when consensual, is punishable by up to 20 years in jail in mainly Muslim Malaysia.

Wan Azizah said she pitied her children who have to endure the agony again. “It saddens me, bothers me, upsets me,” she said.

The political uncertainty has weighed on the stock market, with the benchmark index losing around 3 percent so far this week. It closed down 1.8 percent on Wednesday.

Ratings agency Fitch, said it was monitoring the impact of the political situation on economic policies.

“The concern that we have would be that the political situation begins to affect the policy outlook. There is not really much evidence of that just yet,” James McCormack, head of Asia sovereign ratings at Fitch, told Reuters.

“It appears to us there is a political transition of sorts under way in Malaysia. The question is how fast does that move and how significant is it. And I think some of those answers are still unclear,” he said.

The sodomy case emerged at a time when Abdullah’s UMNO party has been riven by dissent after its poll setback in March.

More than 7,000 people turned up at an impromptu rally on Tuesday night in the biggest show of support for Anwar since the aide complained to police at the weekend about an alleged assault at a luxury Kuala Lumpur apartment last Thursday.

Anwar told them he would not sit quietly and allow a repeat of what happened to him 10 years ago. “We will fight. When we take over the country, the first thing we will do is to bring down the price of fuel,” he said.

(Additional reporting by Faisal Aziz; Editing by Bill Tarrant and Ben Tan)

Sex scandal could galvanise support for Malaysia’s Anwar: analysts

AFP | KUALA LUMPUR, July 1, 2008 (AFP) – Sodomy claims against Malaysia’s Anwar Ibrahim could actually galvanise support for the charismatic opposition leader, analysts say, due to the widespread belief they are politically motivated.

The allegations, which Anwar says are a plot to prevent him from seizing power, are a re-run of events of 1998 when he was sacked as deputy prime minister and jailed for six years on sodomy and corruption counts.

Anwar fled to the Turkish embassy in dramatic scenes over the weekend, saying he feared a government assassination attempt after being hit with “fabricated” new accusations by a 23-year-old male aide.

Now he has emerged, promising a showdown with the ruling coalition which he has vowed to topple with the help of defectors, after stunning March elections that handed the opposition a third of parliamentary seats.

Observers say that whatever the truth, the Malaysian public is tired of dirty politics and deeply sceptical of the new claims — a mood that will spell trouble for the government if the case against Anwar collapses.

“If people see there is no credibility with regard to the investigation, the government will be in a very difficult position,” said Mohammad Agus Yusoff, a political analyst with the National University of Malaysia.

“It will be a very dangerous political game if it’s not true.”

The Merdeka Centre research firm conducted a small survey that found just 10 percent of respondents believed the allegations, and nearly 60 percent viewed it as politically motivated.

“This whole episode may have benefited Anwar more than it has damaged his reputation,” said the firm’s pollster Ibrahim Suffian.

The affair could further undermine Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, who is facing calls to quit after the March elections which were followed by an unpopular fuel price hike that triggered a series of public protests.

“It has some likelihood on backfiring on the government, depending on how they handle it,” Ibrahim said.

The scandal has erupted at a torrid time in Malaysian politics, with Abdullah’s party in disarray after the polls, and his heir apparent deputy premier Najib Razak forced to deny links to the sensational murder of a Mongolian woman.

It also comes as the nation’s justice system is in the spotlight after a number of explosive stories, including a senior judge’s claim that he was sent on an indoctrination “boot camp” to promote pro-government decisions.

Anwar has said he has no confidence in the justice system, after his experiences a decade ago when he was badly beaten by the police chief and appeared in court with a black eye.

Bridget Welsh, a Southeast Asia expert from Johns Hopkins University, said the scandal could either delay Anwar’s plans to seize power by casting doubt over his ability to govern, or conversely jump-start his ambitions.

“Him being under attack only inspires more people to come to his defence and to rally around him, because people will potentially see this as an unfair accusation,” she said.

Many observers said the authorities would tread more cautiously this time, after the saga of a decade ago.

The nation’s highest court eventually overturned Anwar’s sex conviction but the episode damaged the nation’s reputation and reverberates to this day.

“I would not expect the Malaysian government to be so foolish as to arrest him again and ignite a groundswell within society,” Welsh said.

“But the reality is is that mistakes often are made… What happens here will decide the path of Malaysia in the future.”

Merdeka Center