While waiting for the 13th general elections to be declared, campaigned and decided, one should step back and consider how much Malaysia’s political culture has actually changed over the last five years.
In fact, the palpable mood of apprehension and expectation surrounding the coming polls is testimony enough of how far the country has advanced politically in a very short period of time.
Much political squabbling, smear campaigns and underhanded tactics have been evident, no doubt. We must not forget the tragedy of Teoh Beng Hock’s fatal and baffling fall from the office of the federal anti-corruption agency following interrogation by officers in July 2009. A Royal Commission of Inquiry concluded that he had committed suicide but his family and supporters believed that there had been a cover-up.
And UMNO’s right wing has been freely yelling seditious views and promoting subversive campaigns that put UMNO Youth in its heyday – it being traditionally the radical wing – to shame.
But the radically different thing nowadays is that news – and quasi-news – get disseminated instantly, and once out in the public sphere, they immediately spread further, and are debated, questioned and pondered over. And they quickly become political ammunition for one or the other of the two coalitions, the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition and the opposition Pakatan Rakyat coalition.
One can certainly be forgiven for thinking that standards are going down the drain, and that chaos is inevitable in the near future. But it is more accurate to view the confusing train of events over the last five years as par for the course in that they are part and parcel of a very complicated process affecting an emboldened people who suddenly find themselves empowered beyond their dreams.
Now, the results of the 2008 general elections, though astonishing, were indecisive. This is the main reason for the apprehensive atmosphere experienced today by all sides. For the opposition, the coming election is projected as a time that has finally come for the successful concluding of a job started in 1999; for the governing coalition, it is the moment when it must show that it can turn back the tide that almost washed it out to sea five years ago.
After the Democratic Action Party (DAP), Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) and Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS) took five states (later reduced to four because of defection to BN) in the last general election, we have seen the departure of the president of the three major Barisan Nasional parties on the peninsula. Malaysian Chinese Association’s (MCA) Ong Ka Ting chose not to defend his presidency in October 2008, UMNO’s central committee removed former premier Abdullah Badawi in March 2009, and Malaysian Indian Congress’ (MIC) chief Samy Vellu retired in December 2010.
We are witnessing a difficult process of rejuvenation in a Malaysia made uncertain of itself after being suddenly bequeathed a two-party system.
For example, new media and the social media put everything up on immediate public display. No public speech can be assumed to be for a limited audience now. Any appearance by any politician can go online in no time at all. This puts tremendous pressure on speech-makers. Where they once could talk in racist terms to a supportive audience and follow that up later the same day with an exhortation of liberal ideas to a larger group, all that they now say or do runs the risk of destroying their public reputation.
Even small indiscretions invite swift punishment in the age of the citizen journalist. Being embarrassed by a video or recording is bad enough, but any slip can go viral online, and will speedily find a critic willing to run with it for maximum political effect.
The more clearly positive sides of Malaysia’s new political landscape have largely to do with competition over policy making.
The Pakatan Rakyat recently put forth its vision for the nation, while the Najib administration has for four years been revising regulations and carrying out reforms — it prefers the word “transformations” — to stymie opposition advances and to project itself as a responsive government.
At the same time, the state governments run by the federal opposition have generally done well in holding their positions, and most have performed better than had at first been expected. They have come up with rather innovative policies such as Freedom of Information acts in Penang and Selangor. The Penang state government recently launched the “Penang Paradigm” to set the direction for its second term in power. The fact that it timed this to overshadow the campaign agenda of its major opponent in Penang, Gerakan, is evidence of the constructive side of political developments in Malaysia.
Another interesting phenomenon is the founding and revival of quite a number of so-called think tanks. They come in many shapes and sizes, but generally, these are collections of scholars and activists whose major concern is to contribute to the policy making process and to the country’s public discourse. Pakatan Rakyat started one recently, calling it rather unimaginatively Institut Rakyat. This took five years coming, but better late than never.
Other think tanks had earlier begun to bloom, such as IDEAS, the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs. Formed in London in 2006 by three Malay scholars residing there, it moved to Kuala Lumpur in 2009, drawn by an atmosphere that allowed for dreams of liberalisation and democratisation. Then there is the Penang Institute, revamped and renamed to act on the national and regional stage; and more prominently to shift policy discussions up a gear. These are just a few of many active institutes raising the bar for policy making processes in Malaysia.
What these also reveal is the activism now found among young educated urban Malaysian from all communities. Going forward, the great transformation that is really required in Malaysia is a drastic improvement in the quality of its leaders to correspond to new times. And that is no small challenge.