Other key issues sidelined by buzz over Sedition Act

Other key issues sidelined by buzz over Sedition Act
Young couples holding keys to government-backed apartments which were given out at last week's Umno Youth meeting. The low-rent flats will help them for two years as they save to buy their own homes. Youth chief Khairy Jamaluddin noted the importance of helping young voters struggling with the rising cost of living.

The recently concluded Umno general assembly was dominated by news on the Sedition Act.

This is a pity because two key speeches during the five-day meeting that point to the current concerns of Malaysia's biggest political organisation did not receive much attention.

One was the sober message by Deputy Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin that a mere 2 percentage point slip at the next general election would see the Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition losing federal power.

The other was the speech by youth chief Khairy Jamaluddin, who suggested practical policies to help the younger generation struggling with a fast-rising cost of living - a group which will form about half of total voters in 2018.

Prime Minister Najib Razak, as Umno president, received praise from his party for saying that the contentious Sedition Act will be strengthened instead of being repealed as he had promised two years earlier.

He was slammed by the opposition and political activists for this U-turn.

Amid the noise about the Act - which allows the government to detain and take to court those who raise issues on race, religion or the Malay royal houses - it is easy to forget why Umno is doing this.

The party received only 47 per cent of the popular vote in the general election last year, versus 51 per cent garnered by the opposition.

This was caused by a big swing away from Umno-led BN by Chinese voters and urban Malays.

BN retained federal power only because the 222 constituencies that make up the number of seats in Parliament, are weighted towards rural areas where Umno's core Malay base is located.

Rightly or wrongly, Umno feels that retaining the Sedition Act would help its hold on power at the next general election, which must be held by 2018, as questions about Malay rights and non-Malay rights will be stifled.

The expanded Sedition Act aims to protect further the "sanctity of Islam", include new provisions to protect other religions, and make it illegal for activists to call for Sabah or Sarawak to cede from Malaysia, Mr Najib said.

According to respected pollster Merdeka Centre, surveys show the public were split on whether to repeal the Sedition Act, but most did not consider it a major priority.

BN, a coalition of 13 parties, has other concerns about how to maintain its hold on power.

This was revealed by Tan Sri Muhyiddin, who said that of the 133 constituencies won by BN, 44 are considered "grey seats", where a small swing away would lead to losses. A minimum of 112 seats is needed for BN to remain in power.

A drop of merely 2 percentage points will mean the BN will have 103 parliamentary seats, fewer than 112 and the BN will lose, Mr Muhyiddin said. But he said, a 5 percentage point vote gain, to 52 per cent of total votes, would lead BN to win again its two-thirds majority.

"Do or be dead," said Mr Muhyiddin in his concluding speech at the assembly on Saturday.

In his speech on Tuesday while opening the Youth wing meeting, Youth and Sports Minister Khairy, 38, was more specific when he asked the government to help young workers so as to improve BN's vote bank.

Of the total number of voters of some 15 million by 2018, about half will be what Malaysia calls its younger generation - those below 40 years old. Malaysia's total population today is about 29 million.

He asked the government to offer a "new deal" for younger voters and zeroed in on policies to reduce the debt burden facing those stepping into the workforce.

He urged the government to build more homes for young couples, train more young entrepreneurs in rural areas, and help new workers with salaries below RM4,000 (S$1,500) own their first cars by removing government duties.

Said Mr Ibrahim Suffian, chief of Merdeka Centre: "If we follow the trendline with the next cohort of young voters coming in, BN cannot afford to lose young Malays."

But Umno has a problem with letting young people rise, said Mr Muhyiddin, Umno's deputy president.

It is a party of old "warlords" who block the young and their new ideas, rather than make way for them.

Opposition strategist Liew Chin Tong, in giving his opinion of Mr Khairy, noted Umno's problems with young people too.

"The trouble with Umno is that it considers the fringe as its centre, and all the rest are considered liberal - which is a bad word for Malays nowadays."

This article was first published on December 1, 2014.
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