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In Malaysia, reforms take a staggered path

By Ooi Kee Beng,

3 December 2011, in TODAY, Singapore

The leader of the Youth Wing declared at the United Malays National Organisation’s (UMNO) annual assembly held this week that the opposition parties had been vehemently opposing the Peaceful Assembly Act because they were hoping to create the conditions for widespread demonstrations in the hope that these would sweep away the ruling coalition, Barisan Nasional (BN).

But it is not an Arab Spring that UMNO, Malaysia’s dominant party, should be worried about.

Despite some seriously bad governance, the country has always had a democratic structure, and despite authoritarian trends, there are more possibilities for venting dissatisfaction than in the Arab world. The political process of change in Malaysia is thus not revolutionary as has been the case in the Middle East. It is reformist, and evolutionary at most, coming in stages.

Seen that way, the new powers given to the police by the new Act, and the curbing of demonstrations this involves, will have the effect of limiting the venting of popular anger, and push political dissent to take less peaceful forms.

Paradoxically, the most successful reform rhetoric in Malaysia in recent times did not come from the opposition parties, although calls for reform echoed strongly after former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim was sacked in September 1998 and created a generation of activists. It came from the Abdullah Badawi administration that succeeded Dr Mahathir Mohamad in October 2003.

Mr Abdullah sought to project a liberal image of Islam with his “Islam Hadhari”, an approach that apparently “emphasises development consistent with the tenets of Islam and focuses on enhancing the quality of life”.

His famous slogan, “Work with me, not for me”, evoked enough optimism and confidence to win for the BN more than 90 per cent of the seats in Parliament in 2004. This was a national record.

Thus, there was a time when UMNO and BN actually had the political initiative and dictated the reform agenda. UMNO could have easily denied the brow-beaten opposition of 2004 any chance of mounting the successful offensive that in 2008 saw five of 13 states being lost by the ruling coalition.

But what we saw instead was a government who got its political slogans right, but whose political will was found to be badly wanting. The success of the slogans made the failure of the policies all the more jarring.

Premier Najib Razak’s reform programmes transcend rhetoric more than Mr Abdullah’s did, but too little is being done too late. His “One Malaysia, People first, Performance Now” could have worked if he had shown more purpose and acted more decisively. But today, cynicism still pervades the country.

BN’s weak position today is therefore not necessarily the result of decades-old policies, but of its post-Mahathir failure to remedy the excesses of the 1981-2003 period.

Malaysia is not a Middle Eastern country. Its problems are not purely bread-and-butter ones and the sense of desperation is far from being as deep as the case has been in the Arab world.

Why it was necessary for the Malaysian government to push through the unpopular Peaceful Assembly Act through Parliament this week was because of the historical precedent of demonstrations in 2007, which saw the opposition ride into power in five states the following year.

Lacking better strategies at a time when elections need to be called, the Najib administration has decided to prevent a superficial repeat of BN’s losses. It is highly doubtful that it will work since the process of reform that has been going on since 1998 is far from over.


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.


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