THE year 2009 has been a breathless one of political upheaval for Malaysia and The Nut Graph offers its take on 10 highlights of 2009.

Eight by-elections. The year opened with the Kuala Terengganu by-election, followed by Bukit Gantang, Bukit Selambau and Batang Ai simultaneously. Of these four, the Pakatan Rakyat (PR) won all except Batang Ai in Sarawak, proving that East Malaysia still remains the Barisan Nasional (BN)'s "fixed deposit" despite growing discontent about local corruption, marginalisation and abuse of native customary rights.

The PR won predictably in Penanti, thanks partly to a BN boycott, and in Permatang Pasir, thanks to a defective BN candidate. But PAS's slim win in rural Manik Urai was a reminder of how effective the BN's unabashed use development promises could still be. In Bagan Pinang, the BN won through a popular but "tainted" candidate to ensure a win at all cost, even sacrificing its own credibility.

The Perak coup. It took three disgruntled elected representatives switching allegiance for the BN to wrest the state government from the PR. But Perakians had little say in the takeover, which was sanctioned by the palace and upheld by the courts.

The fall of Perak spawned a constitutional crisis and numerous lawsuits on landmark issues. Perak has come to epitomise the worst excesses of raw power, through the use of the civil service, police, and the judiciary, to prevent fresh elections. A poll has shown that 74% of people surveyed want a re-election, a demand the BN has consistently ignored.

The sixth prime minister. Datuk Seri Najib Razak took office on 3 April and was well received by the public in his first 100 days. Notably, those who were satisfied were mostly Malay and Indian Malaysians. The Indian Malaysians were probably soothed by Najib's quick moves to release Hindraf detainees, allow speedy registration of the new Malaysian Makkal Sakti Party, and increase allocations for Tamil schools.

On the economy, Najib liberalised aspects of the New Economic Policy, revived plans for a goods and services tax, and ambitiously charted 6% annual growth until 2020. He's made 1Malaysia his administration's tagline, which, despite criticism, is generally accepted as a broad ideal for racial unity.

To boot, Najib toned down the rhetoric of Malay supremacy and told Umno at the party general assembly to be "champions of the rakyat". There are promises of more reform, which include disclosures on political funding. Najib's continuing challenge is to walk the talk, despite his own party.

But civil society has given Najib an "F" for his human rights track record. Freedom of expression, the right to dissent, deaths in custody, detention without trial, and stalled police reform are among the KPIs on democracy he has yet to fulfil. Read also The RAHMAN Factor

Teoh Beng Hock and the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC). Found dead outside the Selangor MACC headquarters, the young DAP aide had been interrogated overnight, despite being a witness, and despite the Police Lock-up Rules. Whether Teoh fell or was pushed off the building is the subject of an ongoing inquest which was stalled by a second autopsy. Demands for a Royal Commission of Inquiry have been rejected until after the findings of the inquest.

Teoh's death demolished the MACC's credibility, months after being formed through a revamp of the Anti-Corruption Agency and an act of Parliament. Following a suit, the High Court ruled that interrogations could only take place during office hours, but this has been overturned by the Court of Appeal. Denying any pressure, MACC chief Datuk Seri Ahmad Said Hamdan went into retirement five months early.

The Port Klang Free Zone scandal. Its cost overruns presently amount to RM7.5 billion, involving government loans. With interest, it could rise further to RM12 billion. But who is going to pay? So far, a former engineer, project architect, and two former Port Klang Authority officials have been charged. But what about former cabinet members or ministry officials who flouted Treasury guidelines and misled their colleagues? How far back does this scandal go, and will those in authority then face justice? At the heart of the scandal lies a crisis of public governance. Whether the full can of worms is opened will speak of the government's commitment to fight corruption.

The MCA leadership crisis. President Datuk Seri Ong Tee Keat may have used the PKFZ scandal to shore up his credentials as a clean and righteous leader, but was that really the point in the MCA's war of personalities? Once enemies, Ong and his deputy president Datuk Seri Dr Chua Soi Lek are now team-mates in fending off vice-president Datuk Seri Liow Tiong Lai, Youth chief Datuk Wee Ka Siong and Wanita head Datuk Paduka Chew Mei Fun. The game now is self-preservation, hence the disagreement over the timing of fresh party elections. It is doubtful if the outcome will have much of an impact on Chinese Malaysians who are largely supportive of the opposition.

PAS-Umno unity talks. It was opposed by PAS's own grassroots but naturally welcomed by Umno. In the end, was the unity talks idea just chest-thumping by president Datuk Seri Abdul Hadi Awang and deputy Nasharuddin Mat Isa? If not political cooperation, was it to strengthen the position of Islam and Malay nationalism? Or did it reflect the leaders' insecurity over PAS's second-fiddle position in the PR? PAS may have solidified its commitment to the PR through the recent Common Policy Framework, but that is no guarantee the idea of PAS and Umno joining hands will not be suggested again.

Kartika's whipping sentence. Not the first woman to be sentenced to caning under syariah for drinking beer, Kartika Sari Dewi Shukarno was, however, the first to plead guilty. She made international headlines for Malaysia, and highlighted contradictions between civil and syariah law. But her sentence has yet to be carried out. Kartika's story illustrates Malaysia's continuing tension in straddling both the Islamic and secular forms of governance.

Women and the law. Two little-known laws involving marriage were brought to the fore this year. Indonesian model Manohara Odelia Pinot was issued a perintah kembali taat by the Syariah Court upon application by her Kelantanese prince husband. Her failure to return would result in her being branded "nusyuz" or disloyal and rebellious.

In civil law, Section 498 of the Penal Code allows a husband to prosecute another man for enticing his wife. This is what the husband of TV personality Daphne Iking decided to do. The argument for these laws is that they are meant to protect a marriage. But if that is so, why do such laws not cut both ways? Isn't a man nusyuz if he abuses his wife? Doesn't a wife have a part in being "enticed" by another man? Don't wives in an abusive or loveless marriage have the right to make their own decisions?

In contrast, laws to protect women failed to work in the case of Penan women and girls. Despite reports and testimonies of rape and sexual abuse collected by a government taskforce, police said they didn't have enough evidence and could not take further action.

These three examples demonstrate that the laws of Malaysia do not necessarily protect women or ensure their equality.

World rankings. Downgrades for Malaysia were recorded for 2009 in several indices. Transparency International's 2009 Corruption Perception Index saw Malaysia slide from 47th to 56th place out of 180 countries. The placing was the lowest ever in recent years of steady decline.

Malaysia was also downgraded from the Tier 2 Watchlist to the Tier 3 blacklist on the Trafficking in Persons 2009 report. It said Malaysia had become a destination, and, to some extent, a source and transit point for human trafficking.

In Reporters Without Borders' Press Freedom Index, Malaysia slipped slightly from 132 to 131 this year, a status-quo verdict indicating a lack of progress. In the Global Gender Gap Report 2009, Malaysian women were worse off in 2009 at 101th place, compared with 96 in 2008, 92 in 2007, and 72 in 2006.

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