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Managing change the main task for next government

By Ooi Kee Beng
For THE EDGE, Malaysia, 1-7 April 2013

ABOUT 2,500 years ago, the great Greek Heraclitus famously noted in one of philosophy’s greatest truisms that “no man ever steps in the same river twice, for it is not the same river and he is not the same man”. (No doubt, several Chinese philosophers from the same era would have said more or less the same thing, but that only makes the statement all the more profound.)

It is true that the river is the same for having the same ascribed name, but the water molecules that course through it are certainly not the same. Equally true is the fact that the man stepping into the same-yet-not-the-same river for the second time bears the same name but he may have undergone psychological and other changes in the meantime and is therefore not the same man.

The point is, all things are processes and are therefore never the same thing, sameness being, by definition, an impossibility in its strictest sense. Yet we must agree that a river’s flow not having the same water is certainly not as dramatic and as much a game changer as, say, when a dam breaks.

Things do build up and once the tipping point is passed, a new chapter begins. If this is true for a person, how much truer must it be for a society?

Since a government is, more often than not, concerned with maintaining social stability, when there is a major shift in society, it is more like a dam bursting than a river flowing. Thus, political journalism opportunistically titled uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa in 2011 as “the Arab Spring”, trying to capture the suddenness of the game change.

In Malaysia, the drama is less visible because it has been drawn out. But the effects are quite exciting, nevertheless. It should be added though that Malaysia’s Arab Spring happened in September 1998 when former deputy prime minister and finance minister Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim was arrested. By refusing to go quietly then, he precipitated a movement whose effects are still reverberating through the country.

Instead of a burst dam, the game change in Malaysia has been like an avalanche down a gradual slope. The Reformasi was born. The significance of that movement was more than a simple show of support for Anwar. No doubt the final crack in the dam was public outrage at the then prime minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, but once the dam burst, a psychological barrier was passed.

This was most significant in the Malay community. The 15 years since have seen the rise of Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) – a multi-racial party that is largely Malay-based – and the revival and expansion of the Islamist Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS) as strong alternative channels for Malay political aspirations, and anger.

By 1999, these two parties, going hopefully into an unholy electoral alliance with the Chinese-based Democratic Action Party (DAP), were challenging the mighty Umno and ruling coalition Barisan Nasional. That failed to garner enough votes largely due to the Chinese community staying with Barisan Nasional and voting for the status quo.

It was another eight years before the growing dissent among the non-Malays – the Chinese and the Indians – showed itself in an organised manner through huge public rallies in Kuala Lumpur. And in March 2008, the coalition that had challenged Mahathir in 1999 and in some important ways forced him into early retirement took power in five states and caused his successor Tun Abdullah Badawi to be replaced.

The deep changes that led to this train of events cannot be explained through a simple description of electoral strategies. The diversification of Malay political consciousness since 1998 has been necessary for a second viable coalition to arise and it is therefore the changes that have taken place in the Malay community over the last two decades that call for thorough study.

Where the coming election is concerned, it is a question of how far this trend of political awakening among the different communities will go.

Are the major communities in the southern states of the peninsula inspired enough to follow their brethren in the north to shake up the system? Are the indigenous groups in Sabah and Sarawak, whose support has been vital to the survival of Barisan Nasional, aroused enough to increase their demands on the central government to the extent of threatening it at the ballot box?

Just as importantly, has Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak’s stream of reforms convinced enough voters to give him more time to transform the economy and the government? And lastly and perhaps most poignantly, have the social changes in Malaysia gone deep enough and have the voters matured enough for the government’s serial cash handouts not to have a palpable effect on the electoral results?

The way things look, even if the answer to the last question is no, the dam has burst and it is the management of change, not the maintaining of the status quo, that will be the task of whatever configuration of power comes into being in the coming election.


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.


One thought on “Managing change the main task for next government

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