Thanks guys for engaging with me on this topic. I hear Cheah Weng Sun's skepticism of any progress in the direction of SEA nations. I think this view is shared by many middle class Malaysians. There has been such a feeling of helplesness and resignation towards the progress of democracy in SEA.
In Malaysia, I have a little amber of hope, partly because of the turn of events in the last 9 years beginning with the expulsion and persecution of a malay holding the second highest office in Malaysia. Suddenly, the nation was not divided along racial lines (at least politically) but along the ruling elite, who are in BN's favour and the masses, who are ordinary folks trying to make ends meet. There were chinese dominated parties like DAP who supported and fought for Anwar's release. There were budhists monks who visited Anwar's family to offer prayers for his release. In 1998, there was a malay (islam) opposition leader in Parliament and the BN and UMNO were caught off foot as now, their threat of May 13, 1969 (racial fighting) which they have used to win elections since 1969 no longer works.
The second reason for my optimism is that the people's needs are much more sophisticated now. Although many still talk about making ends meet especially in the rural heartlands, the growing middle class talk about issues of justice, freedom of expression, corruption and quality of life and the environment. I presume that this is the natural progress of any nation seeking economic prosperity. The government therefore have to focus on these issues which many "genuine democracies" in the west cherish as part of their heritage.
The thrid is that the post-Mahathir era is definitely more liberalised. Definitely not as combative as before. 10 years ago, I daren't write about these issues in public forum for fear of persecution from the Special Branch. Even in the government controlled newspapers (I call them Berita BN) these days there are articles critical of the government institutions. It is in this environment that the opposition is able to make their stand heard more and begin to gather some form of support.
The main issue for many who have fled Malaysia for greener pastures is the racial discrimination. That is plain and simple. My contention is that this can only get better (it is now that bad) unless the ruling elite is wanting to see racial riots and civil unrest. The racial climate in Malaysia exist because of the racial policies of the BN government. It is a political party that exist to keep peace among the racial groups. Their popularity depends on how well they "play the game of balancing". When the ordinary malay folk see that its not the chinese stealing their rights to wealth but the "well connected" Dato from the ruling elite their eyes are suddenly opened. Is the recent protest and bloodshed against the petrol hike a fight between the "peasants" and the "politbureau"?