The Straits Times, February 16, 2012
This Saturday, two political archrivals from Malaysia's ethnic Chinese community will face off in a formal debate - an unusual event in a country where political discourse tends to veer towards mud-raking.
Democratic Action Party (DAP) secretary-general Lim Guan Eng and Malaysian Chinese Association president Chua Soi Lek will debate in Mandarin and English at a forum on the political future of the Chinese.
The debate appears to be an acknowledgement that voters in the country are tired of mud-slinging through anonymous blogs and name-calling in Parliament, and are demanding higher standards from their leaders, analysts said.
It is also happening at a time when snap elections are widely expected and the opposition - for the first time in Malaysia's history - has a shot at winning power.
'There is more interest in knowing how they will govern if they come to power,' said political analyst Ong Kian Ming, a lecturer at UCSI University. 'The opposition also now has an actual track record in running state governments, so there are more policies to be compared.'
Ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) leaders also appear more willing to stick their necks out to defend their record, instead of relying on BN-controlled newspapers and television, which many Malaysians now regard as propaganda machines.
Saturday's debate, on the topic 'Is the two-party system becoming a two-race system?', is part of a forum organised by the government-funded Asian Strategy and Leadership Institute.
It comes two weeks after another much talked-about debate in London. At a meeting organised by Malaysian students in Britain, Umno Youth chief Khairy Jamaluddin battled opposition Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) strategic director Rafizi Ramli. It was attended by more than 1,000 Malaysians and watched by thousands more over the Internet.
Last July, as tensions rose over a street protest led by electoral reform pressure group Bersih, the Election Commission's deputy chairman Wan Ahmad Wan Omar debated Bersih chief Ambiga Sreenevasan.
Datuk Ambiga was perceived to have done better, but Datuk Wan Ahmad won respect for his willingness to participate.
Before that, the last major political debate was in 2008 between opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim and then Information Minister Shabery Cheek, over a hike in petrol prices. Datuk Seri Anwar, a former student leader known for his speaking skills, was widely seen to have got his points across more effectively.
Analysts said Malaysians have grown tired of the kind of gutter politics that has marred the landscape for so long. 'My take is that people really want to see a healthy exchange of ideas,' said Mr Rafizi. 'The younger generation especially believes that there can be civility in political discourse.'
His debate with Mr Khairy was surprisingly good-natured. Mr Rafizi cheekily asked Mr Khairy to consider joining the opposition, suggesting that it was better suited to his talents as Umno appeared unable to reform.
Mr Khairy gracefully declined, then asked Mr Rafizi whether the three disparate parties in the opposition Pakatan Rakyat alliance can truly hold together for the long term.
The civil nature of the debate won the two men kudos.
Some observers think the opposition is likely to benefit more from any debates, since they can tap into public unhappiness over the rising cost of living and the slow pace of political and economic reform. The opposition also has a better raft of speakers.
But Mr Rahman Dahlan, an Umno MP from Sabah, said the BN could turn the tables by demanding debates on opposition pledges and policies. For instance, he said, the opposition's promise to increase oil royalties for oil-producing states could bear some scrutiny.
Last September, Mr Rahman agreed to a debate with DAP veteran MP Lim Kit Siang over a proposed dam to be built in his constituency in Sabah. But it was called off because of a scheduling clash.
'People now want more engagement with politicians, in a meaningful manner,' he said.
The ultimate debate, of course, would be one between Prime Minister Najib Razak and Mr Anwar. Opposition leaders have called for one but there are no signs that this will happen.