By Ooi Kee Beng
For The Edge, Malaysia, 25th August 2012
ELECTIONS are on the way, and an endless stream of promises will be forthcoming. The good thing is that Malaysians are such a politically savvy people — and this is paradoxically a sad reflection on the state of politics in the country’s recent history — that they will in most cases be able to tell a sincere promise from a blatant lie. But that ability is not good enough if the country is to mature further.
No doubt, the country now has a proper opposition; a government that knows it has to respond to rising demands for reform; and a civil society in the form of the Bersih movement for clean and fair elections, which has brought a sense of growing empowerment to the general public.
But for real change to come, the sense of being accountable among politicians, and what that accountability can mean for their personal career if the law is properly followed, must
be sharpened. And the people who can hurry that process along are voters and social activists, not only other politicians.
Being politically perceptive is one thing, but being nevertheless passive despite that has, over the decades, spawned a psyche of skepticism, if not cynicism, among Malaysians. This passiveness among the ruled encouraged arrogance and ignorance among the rulers.
Thus, this unhappy balance is most effectively unhinged by the ruled. The rulers may tweak but only the ruled can reset the system. Putting constructive demands on politicians becomes the responsibility of the citizen. Being lied to is not all right; being manipulated is not all right.
What is at stake here is the future dignity, not only of the individual citizen but also of the country itself. The nation-building process is far from over, and if there is anything that other cases throughout the world have taught us about nation-building, it is that it occurs in stages. This means that one has to expect stages of radical change to be followed by periods of conservative politics, and vice versa.
This staggered process starts with the physical integrity of a country. Thus, securing and defining borders is the initial priority, taking place alongside the wild need to decide what is local and what is alien, and to understand what belongs within and what needs to be expunged.
We saw this clearly when China kicked out foreign invaders, and the ruling Kuomintang in the process; we saw India booting out the British (and splitting into three countries in the process); and we saw the Vietnamese repulsing the French colonialists and then the Americans. The cases are numerous.
Malaysia managed to secure independence with relative ease, but had to spend a decade deciding what its borders should be and fighting off aggression from its Indonesian neighbours. What seems to follow the securing of geopolitical integrity is that of impassioned contention over internal group relations; be these ideological, ethnic or religious.
Malaysia thus went through two difficult decades following the racial riots of 1969. In the 1990s, Malaysia experienced a third stage in its development, one that we may call conceptual unification.
The idea of Vision 2020 and Bangsa Malaysia proved an acceptable notion to many Malaysians, and with the fortunate economic growth of that period, the country made a great and positive impact on the world.
But in each of these stages, the solutions were never perfect, nor could they have been expected to be. What the present generation of Malaysians has to deal with then, are the accumulated defects of these solutions. The crisis of 1997/98, in many socio-economic and political aspects, continues to plague the country. The budgetary deficit has continued to grow despite reductions in the first few years of the Abdullah Badawi administration; the social activism unleashed by the Mahathir-Anwar conflict has developed beyond recognition; and the leadership crisis that expectedly followed the retirement of strongman Mahathir is not over.
Malaysia is thus at the crossroads, and few would disagree that the 13th general election will herald even greater changes for the country no matter who the victor turns out to be. The dynamics of nation-building, boosted by regional and global changes, appear such that the question is HOW the country is to change, not IF it should change.
Seen in that light, the responsibility that lies with the urban and educated young of all ethnic groups is great. How the country positions itself and what new self-image it develops in the coming years will decide its ability to compete and mature in a world changing beyond recognition. Staying skeptical or cynical is not an option.
Inclusiveness in ethnic, political and geographic terms is key, as is the integrity of the government and its institutions. The challenge is huge indeed, and the initiative lies not with the government but with a citizenry newly educated, newly urbanised and newly empowered.