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Articles, Penang Monthly [formerly Penang Economic Monthly]

Change is Life’s Norm

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By OOI KEE BENG

Editorial for Penang Monthly, April 2013

It’s April now, the month at the end of which the Malaysian Parliament has to be dissolved to make way for general elections to be held, and within 60 days of that dissolution. Technically, elections must be held by 28 June.

But in any case, whether there will be a change of government in Putrajaya or not, change has begun coming to Malaysia in a sustained manner, if not with a vengeance. As I have said elsewhere, even if the status quo is retained, it still spells change because the status quo is not a stable thing today. When Premier Najib Razak replaced Abdullah Badawi in April 2009, his job was after all to divert change to the government’s advantage. Since the opposition had taken the word “change” as their battle cry, he had to settle on “transformation” to signify its reform measures.

All this talk about change, reform and status quos makes me wonder what change is, and what an absence of change—if there is such a thing—actually reflects.

What makes us imagine that change is an anomaly and that the supposed opposite, the status quo—whatever that can mean—is the norm? That must surely be an illusion.

To be sure, sometimes change is more dramatic than at other times. A river is never the same river, as the Greek philosopher Heraclitus rightly pointed out, but an ever-changing river is hardly the same thing as the change that comes when a dam breaks.

I think a better way of thinking about things, about life in general, is in the form of processes. By definition, therefore, he who seeks to retain the status quo fights an uphill battle. What’s important is actually consciousness about the centrality of time. Processes happen embedded in time; all things are functions of time; and given time, nothing remains the same. To forget time is indeed our greatest fantasy.

Politics therefore, is the managing of changes, not so as to keep things the same, but to adjust and adapt so that ends can be met despite the unreliability of means. To stick to the same means through thick and thin is the path of the lazy and the unimaginative person—or political party.

This brings us to the issue of “ends”. What is basic to nation building efforts is to accomplish national unity based on social harmony and economic growth. And along the way, different means are chosen to reach that end but always with the possibility of tweaking the means and even replacing them.

The discourse of “change”, “transformation” and “reform” that has been taking place in Malaysia since 1997—incidentally alongside a similar process in neighbouring Indonesia, and fifteen years before the Arab Spring— tells us that it is time to re-discuss ourselves what Malaysia’s goals are, and based on that, adopt effective means for reaching those goals.

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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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