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Articles, Commentaries, Penang Monthly [formerly Penang Economic Monthly]

Malaysians Done Making Do


Editorial in Penang Monthly, March 2013

Everyone should be stunned by how anti-BN forces over the last few years have been able not only to only hold their ground, but also to continue spreading a sense of empowerment throughout the country.

My take on how this has been possible is two-fold. Firstly, we are not really talking about Barisan Nasional versus Pakatan Rakyat. Pakatan Rakyat’s parties were peripheral players anyway until March 8, 2008.

What happened that day was a revolt by voters—largely common urbanites of all ethnic groups—against abuses of power perpetrated by BN leaders, and against their arrogance. Following such a situation, opposition political parties were of course most able to become the expression of this popular anguish.

Over the following five years, we have simply been witnessing this nation-wide process of despair-turning-into-optimism taking forms beyond party politics. Civil society came alive.

Party politics may have been the immediate expression, but the real change—happening more slowly because it is so much deeper—is the movement away from the black-or-white, us-or-them world that Malaysian politics had become over the last 40 years.

This leads me to my second dimension for describing this apparent tectonic shift. Politics in Malaysia in the 1950s and 1960s were colourful and chaotic. After that ended in violence—though mainly in Kuala Lumpur—race was used to divide the country; religion to muzzle speech; and politics and journalism became the monopoly of the ruling parties.

Attempts to diversify political power and public discourse did take place every now and then. In fact, this seemed to occur every decade or so—1988 when Tengku Razaleigh challenged Mahathir; 1998 when Anwar’s refusal to leave power quietly gave birth to the Reformasi Movement; and then 2008, when urban Malaysia voted for “anything but BN”.

There is therefore a subterranean longing for a less complex-filled, less racialist, and a prouder and healthier Malaysia which found pendulum expression every decade. Like the rising and falling of the lunar tides.

In short, the forces challenging the federal government come both from the periphery and the bottom. And they are part of a deep struggle that is as much a part of Malaysianness as Nasi Lemak.

Even the ruling parties know this, which was why both Abdullah Badawi and Najib Razak had to adopt programmes of reform in order to have any chance of communicating with the general public.

It is this communication—this connection—between top and bottom that is now the issue. Talking down through threats of violence, or the use of race and religion, is overused. It is so very Mahathir Era.

How the two coalitions accept and adapt to—and thus communicate and celebrate—the diversity and complexity of Malaysian society (definitely including Sabah and Sarawak), will decide their fate. Manipulating the public through simple, often daft slogans and initiatives (like Psy in Penang), will no longer work. The cynicism in Malaysians has come to the point where it has turned ineradicably into empowerment.



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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