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Election 2008: Crossing the rubicon

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Can we dare to hope that the era of race-based politics is over with the emergence of voters thinking as Malaysians, wonders Tommy Thomas, in a wide-ranging analysis.

Congratulations to the voters and citizens of Malaysia! To the voters, for their unprecedented and bold step in rejecting racist politics of an unimaginable scale and magnitude. To the citizens, for the calm and measured manner in which the results were accepted, despite continuous provocation and propaganda of the vernacular mainstream media.

Tribute is also due to Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi in graciously accepting the will of the electorate, and for resisting the temptation to resort to emergency-type authoritarian rule. Was May 13, 1969 banished from the national consciousness, and forever passed into historical oblivion?

It is proposed to consider in the first part, the results of the 12th General Elections held on 8 March 2008 and the reasons for the worst ever performance by Barisan Nasional, and in the second part, the prospects for the second Abdullah Badawi administration. I am not sufficiently familiar with the political situation in Sabah and Sarawak: hence, my comments will be largely confined to West Malaysia.

Stunning results

What is known to all is that for the first time in 50 years of independence, the Barisan Nasional lost its two-thirds’ majority in the Federal Parliament, winning 140 out of 222 seats, that Pas retained control of Kelantan and four more states fell to the opposition.

In any system of parliamentary democracy, 140 seats would provide a safe, comfortable and workable majority. But since 1957, successive leaders of the Alliance and Barisan Nasional have placed such great emphasis on securing and maintaining a two-thirds’ majority in Parliament that the only measure of success is not forming a simple majority government like elsewhere, but one enjoying a two-thirds’ majority.

Thus, by Barisan Nasional’s own yardstick, the results were a calamity. Because of its psychological dimension, the failure to secure the requisite two-thirds’ majority demanded by and of all Barisan Nasional governments has meant that Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi begins his second administration on the defensive.

A deeper analysis of the results will indicate that out of the 165 seats in the Federal Parliament that were at stake in Peninsular Malaysia, Barisan Nasional only won 85 while the three opposition parties won 80 seats. In the peninsula, the Barisan Nasional only secured 48.7 per cent of the popular vote, while the opposition secured 51.3 per cent.

It may not be totally accurate to state that only 5 out of the 11 states in Malaya are controlled by the opposition, what happened in Kuala Lumpur must also be taken into account. Kuala Lumpur after all is the commercial capital of the nation: the jewel in the crown. The opposition won 10 out of the 11 Parliamentary seats in Kuala Lumpur, with Zulhasnan Rafique winning the sole Barisan Nasional seat in Setiawangsa, and being immediately rewarded with the Cabinet post of Minister of Federal Territories. All in, 497,741 votes were cast for the 11 seats in Kuala Lumpur. Barisan Nasional only secured 188,875 votes (that is, 37.9 per cent) while the opposition secured 308,377 votes (62 per cent).

Barisan Nasional’s share of the popular vote was also substantially reduced in Kedah (46.4 per cent), Penang (40 per cent), Perak (46.2 per cent) and Selangor (43 per cent). The opposition had to rely on voter support which transcended race, religion, gender and age in order to gain such substantial increases in the front-line states of the peninsula at the expense of Barisan Nasional.

What is even more striking is that in 30 Parliamentary seats, Barisan Nasional won by small majorities, ranging from 51 votes in Sarikei, Sarawak to 3070 votes in Stampin, also in Sarawak. The 30 seats that saved Barisan Nasional only gave it a combined majority of 56, 822 votes. Bearing in mind that to form a simple majority government, only 112 out of 222 seats are required, the opposition parties having already won 82 seats, by coincidence needed a further 30 seats to govern the nation, and in these 30 seats Barisan Nasional’s majority only totalled a mere 56,822 votes. Thus, the closeness of this historic general election turned on a mere 56,822 votes! Twenty two of these truly marginal seats are found in the peninsula and the other eight in East Malaysia. Out of the 22 seats in Malaya, nine are in Perak and three in Penang.

These statistics conclusively establish that Malaysia entered into uncharted waters in the wake of its 12th General Election. Past patterns of voting were not followed. First, the swing was so great that thousands of Malays voted for the DAP and thousands of Chinese and Indians voted for Pas. PKR, a non-racial party, is the greatest beneficiary. From a one-seat party, it was propelled into the largest opposition party and the second largest national party, after Umno, winning 31 parliamentary seats with 18.4 per cent of the popular vote. Secondly, the practice of voters, particularly among the Chinese community, of supporting opposition candidates for parliamentary seats and Barisan Nasional candidates for state seats ceased, Instead, they now supported opposition candidates for both parliamentary and state seats in very large numbers.

The BN’s debacle

Common causes

The causes for Barisan Nasional’s poor showing have popularly been mentioned to include “bread and butter” issues such as its mismanagement of the economy, particularly its ineffectiveness in dealing with inflation and the rising cost of living. Its mismanagement of law and order, which has seen unprecedented crime rates and the clear failure of government institutions such as the police and the law enforcement agencies to cope, has also been cited as a major factor.

Then there are the hugely unpopular policies of the third level of government, local government councils, which have approved excessive development without any concern for the environment, the accrued rights of adjacent land-owners and in wholesale disregard of overall planning laws. The small and medium businessmen, invariably Chinese, often faced insurmountable difficulties in “doing business” and “making money”.

The typical Indian Malaysian voter suffered from a marginalised and discriminated complex. Anwar Ibrahim’s sustained campaign after his release from imprisonment in 2004 persuaded sufficient Malays that the NEP did not assist them, but instead only benefited a small coterie of Malay entrepreneurs enjoying close links with Umno. All these factors doubtless weakened Barisan Nasional.

Fed up with Umno’s dominance

In my opinion, however, the most important reason why 51.3 per cent of the popular vote was cast for the opposition in West Malaysia, enabling it to capture 80 seats in Parliament was the repugnance of these voters towards the hubris displayed by Umno after holding continuous and unbroken power since 1955, that is, for 53 years. In this sense, Malaysia is not unique. The PRI in Mexico, the LDP in Japan and the Congress Party in India all suffered similar fates after lengthy uninterrupted power. Power not only corrupts, it also breeds arrogance.

However genial Prime Minister Abdullah may appear, the perception was that he was powerless to stop the aggressive postures of the Umno power-brokers, whether when they took extreme, insensitive actions like unsheathing and kissing the keris or when making racist remarks without concern for the sensitivities of the minority races. Such inflammatory behaviour was not replicated by Pas and PKR leaders who, in contrast, appeared tolerant. The decimation of MCA, MIC and Gerakan was punishment by its traditional supporters because these parties had failed to stand-up to Umno’s dominance of the Barisan Nasional.

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From its establishment in 1952 to contest the Municipal Elections of Kuala Lumpur, the Alliance was never a partnership of equals. Umno has always been the dominant party. But during the early decades of independence, the myth was perpetuated that the MCA and the MIC enjoyed some degree of power; its leaders certainly had the ear of Tunku Abdul Rahman, Tun Razak and Tun Ismail. Even after the May riots of 1969, the non-Malay parties were represented on the NOC, and agreed to the establishment of the NEP.

But in recent years Umno’s dominance was so extensive that none of the other 13 component parties in Barisan Nasional have been able to contradict or soften its strident tones on ethnic and religious issues. Thus, eve of election threats by Barisan Nasional leaders that if non-Malay voters rejected the MCA, the MIC and Gerakan, the Cabinet would not contain their representatives did not have any effect (unlike in past elections) because the majority of non-Malay voters had already determined that having MCA, MIC and Gerakan representatives in the Cabinet was of no benefit to them, and that rejecting such ineffective leaders would produce no negative practical results.

Indeed, these threats may have been counter-productive. Hence, Umno’s pre-eminence not only injured Umno, which only won 65 parliamentary seats in the peninsula, but also damaged the MCA (15 seats), the MIC (3 seats), Gerakan (2 seats) and PPP (none).Umno leaders were fond of citing the mandate doctrine, that is, that having been elected at the 2004 General Election, they could act as they wish and were not accountable for any government policy or statement, and the electorate’s only recourse was to reject them at the next General Election. And that is exactly what happened to many of them on 8 March 2008.

Umno’s fundamental tactical error in the months leading up to the general election was its decision to discount the non-Malay vote on the premise that a large majority of Malay voters would support it. The premise proved entirely wrong. One cannot understand how Umno failed to take into account the obvious fact that Pas and PKR were focused on wooing Malay voters, who were thus presented with a stark and real choice. Umno’s strategic decision of concentrating on securing substantial Malay support at the expense of alienating non-Malay voters was best exemplified by its treatment of Hindraf and the Article 11 issue.

Hindraf and “Makkal Sakthi!

In 11 general elections since Merdeka, the Indian Malaysian community was proportionately the greatest supporter of Barisan Nasional, and was rewarded by a disproportionate number of parliamentary and state seats. Overnight, however, the Hindraf movement destroyed Indian Malaysian support for Barisan Nasional. P Uthayakumar, more than any other Indian leader, bravely articulated the plight of the marginalised Indian of Tamil origin (as opposed to the small, but successful, members of the Sikh, Malayali and Jaffna communities).

The Tamilian’s sense of hopelessness and powerlessness in a land of plenty (which attracted 3 to 4 million immigration workers) was demonstrated by their simplistic and naïve belief that litigation in a British court of law would result in the Queen of England paying each of them compensation for past injustices!

The heavy hand of government in dealing with the Hindraf march and the detention of their five leaders under the dreaded Internal Security Act, 1960 (ISA) completely alienated the Indian community, inspired the Chinese community who quietly supported Hindraf in their own way and ironically, from Umno’s perspective, did not drive droves of Malay voters to Umno as the traditional protector of Malays when they are threatened. The Malay electorate was more sophisticated and more understanding of the plight of the hardcore poor Tamil Malaysians. “Makkal Sakhti” or people’s power, inspired by Cory Aquino’s movement that toppled the brutal and corrupt Marcos regime in the mid-1980s was the rallying cry at all opposition ceramah.

Umno’s brushing aside of freedom of religion issues, compounded by terribly unjust Court decisions, led to a significant Article 11 movement which galvanised the Chinese community, always jealous of its educational, cultural and religious rights. Umno’s insensitive and intolerant position on religious issues, and MCA and Gerakan’s inability to stop the rhetoric pushed Chinese Malaysian voters to the opposition. Longevity in power results in a belief that one has a divine right to rule; Umno certainly suffered from this complex, thereby losing touch with reality and the wishes of the electorate.

Abdullah’s kitchen cabinet

Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi did not learn the lessons of the 11th General Elections in 2004, which gave him 119 out of 219 Parliamentary seats and 64 per cent of the popular vote. Promises were not kept, and the “nice guy” image was slowly eroded by what seemed to be drifting, dithering leadership. The areas that the Prime Minister deserved praise – the opening up of democratic space for every Malaysian and the disappearance of the climate of fear associated with Mahathirism – did not win him votes. Dr Mahathir’s constant sniping and Abdullah’s elegant silence damaged Abdullah at the polls.

Without doubt, the greatest millstone around Abdullah’s neck was his son-in-law, of Khairy Chronicles notoriety, who was blamed, rightly or wrongly, for the PM’s every action or inaction. In the short space of four years, he became the most hated man in Malaysia, earning epithets like Rasputin and “budak nakal”. The expression “kitchen cabinet” literally meant in Malaysia, the Prime Minister’s son and son-in-law deciding matters in the father’s kitchen.

The dreaded Fourth Floor was savagely mauled during ceramah, to the obvious delight of the cheering crowds. These young, raw, inexperienced advisers established an impenetrable Berlin wall or Praetorian Guard around the Prime Minister, who thus was deprived of advice from experienced, politically savvy Umno stalwarts such as Musa Hitam and Tengku Razaleigh, ironically leaders of Team B in the 1986-1987 Umno power struggle, and of which Abdullah was then a senior member.

Despite these factors, Barisan Nasional may still have obtained a two-thirds’ majority in Parliament and not lost five states (and Kuala Lumpur), especially because of past gerrymandering of the constituencies, which substantially benefited Barisan Nasional at every election. But there were two new powerful forces: Anwar Ibrahim and the Internet.

Anwar the glue

Without doubt, the greatest star of this General Election was Anwar Ibrahim, who skilfully galvanised the frustrations felt by the three major communities in the Peninsula and brilliantly exploited the underlying tensions in contemporary society. Additionally, Anwar acted as the glue that held Pas and DAP together, ensuring straight fights between the Barisan Nasional and the Opposition alliance.

Anwar charmed the Malay heartland into accepting that the NEP is not the only economic option open to them, and that its abuses were all due to Umno’s greed. His energy recorded heights never seen in Malaysia at the ceramah across the nation, which he criss-crossed on numerous occasions during the 11-day official election campaign. Rather than engaging him, Barisan Nasional dealt with Anwar by two principal methods: ignoring him and demonising him, both of which failed miserably. The sustained attack against Anwar by the mainstream media on the final days of the campaign not only failed in its objective: it backfired and resulted in thousands of undecided voters opting for the opposition. Anwar’s restrained conduct after the elections marks him as the nation’s Prime Minister in waiting.

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Internet’s democratising impact

Next, the major impact of the Internet. For decades, Malaysians were starved of alternative views: the national newspapers are licensed, owned, controlled and directed by Barisan Nasional or by businesses aligned to Barisan Nasional, while radio and television are controlled by Angkasapuri. The internet, blogs and YouTube dramatically revolutionised the availability, accessibility and speed of information, and the airing of alternative views and news.

In an instant, news not only became democratic but also egalitarian. Malaysiakini crashed on polling night because it could not handle the traffic. Raja Petra’s Malaysia Today was compulsory reading, and thousands watched opposition ceramah through YouTube. Jeff Ooi raised RM113,000 in two weeks from online donations through his blog Screenshots. Lim Guan Eng delivered an address to the nation on the eve of polling through YouTube.

Even if technology is very much an urban phenomenon, rural voters were rapidly educated on issues raised on the internet by their urban relatives, usually their children. The Barisan Nasional’s principal failure was to rely wholly on the discredited mainstream media and, by default, conceding the internet to the opposition. Because content matters to the more discerning internet user, Barisan Nasional’s failure to engage in debate and discussion proved fatal.

The prospects

Will Abdullah survive?

On the morning of 9 March 2008, barely 12 hours after the results were announced, Dr Mahathir called for Abdullah to step down. This was followed by a letter from his son, Mukhriz asking for the Prime Minister’s resignation. Abdullah’s decision not to refer Mukhriz’s letter to the Disciplinary Committee of Umno but to send it to Umno Youth was incomprehensible. Umno Youth did not take any action against Mukhriz, although he repeatedly stated that he stood by the letter. Tunku Razaleigh then announced his decision to stand for President of Umno. The signal is therefore as a lion wounded at the polls, Abdullah is vulnerable to attack from any direction by all and sundry.

Three major decisions awaited Abdullah in the new administration. First, the formation of the Cabinet, secondly, Perlis and finally, Trengganu. In all areas, he displayed the same style of leadership, which was not acceptable to more than half of the peninsula’s voters. His dropping of BN Secretary General Radzi and Wanita Umno chief Rafidah was unfathomable.

Although Rafidah has had more than her share of critics over the years, her technical ability in defending Malaysia’s interests in international trade issues is of world class standard. Her exclusion was perceived as punishment for attacking Khairy in her post-election analysis. Radzi’s replacement as Umno Secretary General, Tengku Adnan (of Lingam tape notoriety) and the return of Muhammad Taib (of cash into Australia notoriety) into the Cabinet and as head of Selangor Umno are hardly consistent with good political governance. Although the appointments of Zaid Ibrahim and Amirsham Aziz are imaginative, the overall impression of the new Cabinet was tepid.

The mainstream media focused on the problems facing the opposition in forming state governments in Perak and Selangor. What they largely neglected to inform Malaysians were the problems faced by Barisan Nasional in Perlis and Trengganu. In each of these states, Barisan Nasional had a comfortable majority and there was no question of any opposition asserting an alternative claim to forming a government.

Instead, it was an intra-Umno dispute in Perlis, which saw the Raja of Perlis exercising his constitutional right in appointing Isa as the Menteri Besar, despite Abdullah’s choice of Shahidan. The problem is much graver in Trengganu. Exactly two weeks after the elections, and in a state where 24 seats were won by Umno, with only one candidate being nominated by Umno (unlike Perlis), Idris Jusoh had still not yet been sworn in as Menteri Besar. Hence, there was a constitutional crisis in Trengganu, and the mainstream media were absolutely silent for a fortnight.

The discretion of the Sultan of Trengganu (or the Regency Council) is not absolute when determining whether a state assembly member is likely to command the confidence of the majority of the 32-member State Legislature, that is, 17 members. Since, at the time of writing, no other assembly member has claimed that he enjoys the support of 16 other assembly members, Idris must be appointed. Yet, he was not, and the reasons never publicly disclosed, which has given rise to speculation and conjecture. Again, Abdullah’s impotence in breaking the constitutional impasse damaged him. If I could paraphrase W.B. Yeats, things fall apart when the centre cannot hold.

In these circumstances, one questions the medium- to long-term stability of Abdullah Badawi’s government. Abdullah must demonstrate firm and decisive leadership in the coming months to avoid the perception that he is a hapless, helpless skipper of a boat (which may result in more support for Tengku Razaleigh) or a captain of a sinking ship (which may lead to defection to a Anwar-led coalition). In either scenario, his Prime Ministership is vulnerable.

The Umno General Assembly was scheduled to be held in August 2008, when elections are supposed to be conducted. It would be self-serving for Abdullah to postpone the Assembly. Would there be a Abdullah and Najib contest against Tengku Razaleigh and Muhiyiddin? Any number of other permutations is equally possible. During the run-up to August, the unseen hand of past Umno masters, Dr Mahathir and Anwar Ibrahim, will be significant.

Opposition coordination needed

Having regard to its experience in ruling Kelantan and Trengganu, Pas is best placed to govern Kedah. In Penang, Perak and Selangor, the three opposition parties must quickly learn the art of government: the honeymoon period of 100 days would pass before one notices.

The five states should form a Coordinating Council consisting of the leaders of the three parties, and major decisions should be made thereat to ensure consistency and harmony. The expectation of the Malaysian public must not be let down, and, if that means Nik Aziz, Hadi Awang, Mustapha Ali, Lim Kit Siang, Lim Guan Eng, Karpal Singh, Anwar Ibrahim, Wan Azizah and Sivarasa, among others, having to meet regularly to give proper and effective leadership to the five states, so be it. Otherwise, the same electorate will ditch them in 2012/3.

What is critical is honest, open and decisive government. If the electorate is impressed, then the opposition will not only be returned to govern these five states, but the nation at the federal level.

Although party hopping is not illegal in Malaysia, it is morally reprehensible. Because “money politics” was the principal factor in past party defections, particularly Sabah’s PBS in 1994, the Malaysian electorate will not believe any cross-over is based on conviction. Instead, both the party welcoming such parliamentarians or state assembly members and the individuals concerned would face credibility issues which would harm them electorally in future elections.

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Review contracts and make Petronas accountable


It would be unrealistic to consider the prospects of the federal and state governments in the coming years without a brief discussion of the economy. It is absolutely indisputable that the Federal government’s inability to control inflation caused it electoral damage. From time immemorial, Malaya has enjoyed the distinction of being one of the cheapest countries in the world; thus, Malaysia often leads the McDonald table on purchasing power parity. The Malaysian ringgit always stretched more than any other currency. This state of affairs changed for the worse during Abdullah’s first administration. The shopping basket became far more expensive and out of reach for millions of Malaysians. The increases in fuel prices was the culmination, and, at the same time, the harbinger of the rising cost of living.

Barisan Nasional leaders always blamed inflation on increasing oil prices which are beyond the control of any single nation. There is some justification for that argument. But it does not tell the whole story. It must never be forgotten that Malaysia is a net exporter of petroleum. Probably two thirds of the oil that Petronas sells is obtained on and offshore. According to oil experts, it costs between US$10-15 to produce a barrel of oil in Malaysia. Petronas today sells a barrel at US$110.

One does not have to be a rocket scientist to appreciate that Petronas (along with other oil giants) is making obscene profits in the present market: indeed, since the invasion of Iraq in 2003, oil prices have been on a steady rise. The oil won and obtained on and offshore belongs to the whole nation and to its people. It does not belong to the federal or state government or to Petronas. They are merely our trustees. But the actual amount of petroleum produced and sold by Petronas is a great secret. Under the Petroleum Development Act, 1974 (“PDA”), Petronas, although a company, is not required to disclose its accounts to the Companies Commission. Neither does Petronas produce its detailed accounts to Parliament or to the Cabinet. Petronas is merely required to show its accounts to the Prime Minister. This is wholly unacceptable.

Accordingly, the PDA must be immediately amended at the forthcoming sitting of Parliament, and its accounts must be publicly disclosed; and not just its accounts for 2007/8, but also its accounts from its establishment in 1974. Malaysians are aware that the income made by Petronas has in the past been applied to rescue Bank Bumuputra after the BMF fiasco and to build Putrajaya and KLIA. What is not known is how its income has been used for other “national” projects. More importantly, if the full extent of Petronas’ prosperity becomes publicly known in times of real hardship for the average Malaysian, the Government will have much room to maneuver to tackle creeping inflation.

Another method available to the federal government to deal with rising costs is to review the lop-sided independent power plant (IPP) contracts which are favourable to private companies to the detriment of Tenaga (and Malaysians). The Government can introduce legislation, which will hopefully receive all-party support, in the next session of Parliament to enact an Unfair Public Contracts Act. Such an Act will empower the Government to intervene in the public and national interest by compelling the IPPs to re-negotiate with Tenaga on fair and equitable terms. A precedent exists in the Danaharta Act, 1998 which gives Danaharta wide powers to tackle the problems created by excessive lending by banks, which, in the main, Danaharta has successfully carried out. Alternatively, the Government can impose excess tax on the profits earned by the IPPs as a result of their one-sided contracts.

What is not an option is for the Cabinet to fold its arms and state that it is powerless to act because of negative signals to the market if contracts are re-negotiated. When contracts are wholly against the public interest, they are against public policy and may be void. These methods are in addition to the traditional monetary and fiscal tools available to every Government, which should be creatively applied to reduce interest rates and taxes to soften the pain suffered by ordinary citizens.

Watershed in Malaysian politics

Only time will tell whether the 12th General Election was a one-off phenomenon or represents the beginning of the end of race based political parties. Five years after its establishment, Onn Jaafar proposed in 1951 that Umno’s membership be open to all the races. This was roundly criticised and he resigned, paving the way for Tunku’s presidency. Does PKR’s performance in winning 31 Parliamentary States comprising 20 Malays, 7 Chinese and 4 Indians indicate a change after 57 years?

Are we seeing the start of less communal parties in the coming years? If so, Umno, MCA, Gerakan and MIC would face major problems in attracting non-communal support or, indeed, even communal support. Taking MIC as an example: only Samy Vellu believes that the majority of Indian Malaysians still support him and his party. The MIC is so discredited among the Indians, that it will take more than new leaders, directions and policies before it can regain its traditional support. The substantial Chinese support for PAS and Malay support for DAP were unparalleled. Whether it will be replicated in future elections would require crystal ball gazing.

Abdullah is the sixth Umno president. Four of his predecessors were disillusioned with the Umno they left behind, and Onn Jaafar, Tunku and Hussein Onn left the party. Only Tun Razak remained loyal to Umno, but he died in office. Hence, criticism of Umno is nothing novel: the issue is whether it is sufficiently nimble and flexible to respond to new challenges and adjust to changing times. Can we dare to hope that the racial Rubicon in Malaysia has been crossed, with the emergence of voters thinking as Malaysians?

At the minimum, the 2008 Election represents a watershed in Malaysian politics. The climate of fear evaporated and May 13th was not relevant. For Malaysians who aspire for a true two-party system alternating in power, there is hope in the future. Malaysia will hopefully join the ranks of mature and functioning democracies in Asia such as India and Japan when a Barisan Nasional government will be replaced by a Barisan Rakyat government, which in turn will be replaced by a Barisan Nasional in successive general elections. Dare we hope!

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Tommy Thomas is a lawyer and political observer

The views expressed in Aliran's media statements and the NGO statements we have endorsed reflect Aliran's official stand. Views and opinions expressed in other pieces published here do not necessarily reflect Aliran's official position.

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