you're reading...

Malaysia’s Future after March 8, 2008

Talk by Ooi Kee Beng at Malaysia Forum (Singapore) 2011 [Held on 10 April at Hackerspace.sg, 70A Bussorah Street]

WITH THE election results of March 8, 2008, not only did the landscape of Malaysian politics change, more possible futures could be envisioned. This was because the results actually brought into focus certain aspects of Malaysian nation building which had been overshadowed by the political discourses favoured by the ruling parties since May 13, 1969.

This is a wonderful time we live in, where studying Malaysian politics is concerned. Things are opening up, and that is always exciting.

We have to think of Malaysian history as a post-colonial phenomenon. That way, we can easily understand where we are at now, and we can see where we got stuck and where certain people staked their claim and had been trying to protect their positions ever since. The decolonisation process was derailed in many ways, and it is now that young Malaysians can again discuss the kind of Malaysia they want for the future; and most importantly, they can decide how they can participate in creating that future.

Now although we should be optimistic, we have to be realistic. So what we are looking at where a positive development of Malaysia’s politics is concerned is more a mitigating of certain unhappy circumstances than an end to them.

To simplify what is essentially a complex story, let us focus on the areas of contention.


The Coalitionism of the Barisan Nasional (BN) functions by having one party as the clearly dominant one, while all other component parties play at being little brothers. What the emergent dual-coalitional system today must develop from now on has to be a coalitionism that seeks stronger federalism. This is the only way that the diversity that makes up Malaysia can be properly accepted, celebrated and taken full advantage of. Let the states have more power, and more fiscal authority.

A stronger federalism will allow for POLICY COMPETITION AMONG STATES. This is how Malaysian politics can be made to excel. Look at what Selangor has done. They actually have a Freedom of Information Act in place. Imagine that.

Pakatan Rakyat is still very much an electoral strategy; and the best way for it to grow is to recognize that its component parties represent a varied constituency. Properly representing this varied constituency must mean that the power structure they wish to attain must be a strongly decentralised one. And this need to decentralise power must be made clear among themselves before the general election, not after it.

I do not think the PR parties wish to have a BN-like structure that works only through the dominance of one of the component parties.

Allowing for a new and more equal relationship between East and West Malaysian states can have a greater revolutionary impact on the country than one might think. The two parts are so different in so many ways that the constricting concepts of race and religion used on the peninsula have to unravel when the twain meet.


Developing democracy must involve greater public participation. It is only this participation that can guarantee good governance. Politics is too important to be left to the politicians. It must belong to the citizens. I would like to say here that Nation Building or State Building is not complete unless you also have Citizen Building at the same time.

That is where Malaysia has failed most badly. I for one think that Malaysians are a very patriotic people. It is only race-based politics that have tried to divide and rule, and in the process embark on a fake process of unification.

Good governance is something that the public must demand, or it will not happen. What good governance boils down to are (a) equality before the law; (b) protection of body and property; (c) accountability of power; (d) democratic values; and (e) the providing of competent public service.

It is difficult to envision the federal government succeeding in improving its style of governance. It cannot lift itself by the hair. What is more probable is that state governments will encourage citizen engagement to such an extent that a cultural change comes to the country as a whole. This is already happening, helped by the New Media and the Social Media.


What we have had in Malaysia, and what have certainly overstayed their welcome, are the perspectives and solutions that seemed appropriate in the early post-colonial period. At the end of the 1960s, after about a decade of democracy, limits were put on political discourse, and this was backed by an array of draconian laws, such as the ISA, the OSA, the UUCA, the PPA, the Sedition Act…Centralisation of power was deemed necessary if nation building was to succeed.

The times have changed, perhaps partly due to the success of this centralism. But that centralism has certainly overstayed its welcome; it has led to rampant power abuse, corruption, the degrading of key institutions, including UMNO and its allies.

With the reformasi movement, with urbanization and with the younger population we have, the higher level  of education, the increased confidence of the Malay community, together with the more global view becoming predominant today, fuelled by education abroad as well as the New Media, are factors that make the break away from the detrimental effects of early post-colonialism seem possible.

Not long ago, this was not even thinkable to most people.

How is the deracialisation of the political discourse to work? Bans will not work, as we have seen over the last 40 years, especially when law enforcers are biased towards certain groups. The only way for a healthier and more inclusive discourse – such as the welfare discourse – to overshadow the race-and-religion hang-up is through the direct use of it – in public space and in policy making. The diversity in governing parties will help this along. Poverty may not be as big a problem as it once was, but the enormous income gap is just as dangerous and as unfair a situation


Nationalism was something we consider good because it was seen as a counterbalanced to Colonialism. Be that as it may, that has led to racialism and introversion in Malaysian political discourses. This was encouraged by the insecurity felt by the first independent governments, as well as by the Cold War dividing the world into two halfs.

Today, the dynamics are very different. Regional developments in economics and politics make the nationalism of old seem rather out of date, and ineffective. How well we respond to these changes, at the government level as well as the individual level will decide how well Malaysia will manage in the coming decades.

Our domestic conflicts must not continue to overshadow the challenges posed by regional dynamics, and thus cripple Malaysia and Malaysians. With the new balance in economic power globally, the country’s leadership and Malaysians in general have to think regionally, and to seek opportunities abroad, even as it tries to attract foreign resources to the country, in the form of investments and skilled manpower. The movement of people to other countries to educate themselves and to work is not the major problem. The major problem is that they see no good reason to come back.

Maintaining a discourse that alienates one ethnic group from another plays into the hands of competing nations that are more able to act in a concerted manner, and that are able to expand more effectively financially and other ways.


About Ooi Kee Beng

Dr OOI KEE BENG is the Executive Director of Penang Institute (George Town, Penang, Malaysia). He was born and raised in Penang, and was the Deputy Director of ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute (formerly the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, ISEAS). He is the founder-editor of the Penang Monthly (published by Penang Institute), ISEAS Perspective (published by ISEAS) and ISSUES (published by Penang Institute). He is also editor of Trends in Southeast Asia, and a columnist for The Edge, Malaysia.


No comments yet.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: