By Ooi Kee Beng
For The Edge Review [www.theedgereview.com]; 26 April – 2 May 2013
How best to frame Malaysia’s coming general elections for a better understanding of where the country is at?
We certainly can’t compare it to a summer’s day. It would be more correct to liken it to a monsoon storm where no calm corner can be found, and where emotions run high.
The polarisation in Malaysia today is quite extraordinary. But it is also an exceptional occasion for those who can spare themselves a quiet moment during the hectic days ahead to entertain a bigger or longer perspective.
Perhaps we should see the elections as a time of crisis? It is certainly a time of change. We are experiencing strong dynamics swelling up from many sides all at once. Even the government no longer brands opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim as a puppeteer responsible for impending doom, or a sodomist bent on bringing about disaster.
Since 2007, we have seen countless forces bubbling forth from deep sociological transformations, unbalanced economic progress and failing institutions of government, and finding expression in a public space expanded by new communications technologies and a savvy young population.
The genie is out.
The fact that Malaysia now has two formidable coalitions bitterly fighting each other in all the states and federal territories; the fact that the strongest bastions of the governing parties are under attack, including Johor; the fact that practically all issues that concern Malaysians are being discussed and argued over; all these suggest that things are falling apart and the centre is not holding.
But to what extent this impression is warranted is far from clear. There is certainly no chaos, at least not yet, and whatever confusion there may be is due more to the complexity of the situation than to bedlam.
The diversity that has always characterised Malaysia and that was suppressed from the start in the belief that uniformity and simple ideas are necessary for national harmony is oozing out in all directions. This diversity is not going away any time soon, and will require new means to manage it, but more comfortably.
The time of change means exactly that.
In line with this reasoning, one can perceive the general elections as a call for tender for new managers and new philosophies to manage an economy whose development up the value chain seems to have stagnated.
To be sure, the resulting solutions will probably be an unholy mix of suggestions.
For many Malaysians, though, after living through decades of political silencing, it is a time of hyperventilation. The empowerment that many claim to feel today also involves heady ideas and opinions that have more to do with the joy of breathing free air than with building a free nation. It is also a time of celebration, in that sense, which necessarily leads to demands for greater freedom and less manipulation and suppression from the government.
There is certainly a strong sense of hope, as well, brought on by the freed flow of information and ideas and by the obvious ability of young Malaysians to organise themselves at short notice.
As with every approaching election anywhere in the world, the major question asked about the Malaysian general elections before nomination day was: “What will the main issues be?”
Since the upsurge in political activism has been so huge in recent years, and the debates, arguments and participation in the public sphere have been so wide-ranging and open, pinpointing what will be debated during the electoral campaign seems a vain proposition.
The answer has to be “everything,” in one form or another. The integration of issues in Malaysia in the last few years is what we now see as political polarisation.
In such an atmosphere, it is the personalities involved that will be more important than whatever list of issues one may come up with in the final minutes of an election campaign that, in reality, has been going on ever since Prime Minister Najib Razak took over from Abdullah Badawi. That was exactly four years ago.
Promises will be made endlessly on all sides. But lack of credibility and unrealistic promises may be the downfall of candidates. The focus, therefore, will be on attacks on opponents rather than on particular issues, as such.
Seen that way, the ruling Barisan Nasional will, of course, point to its track record, which is by most accounts very mixed, and will attack the opposition for its lack of experience and unrealistic promises. The Pakatan Rakyat, in turn, will focus of the importance of getting rid of the old, and on the advantage of being the new kid in town.
For the population, in general and over time, the general elections should be seen as a moment on the psychiatrist’s couch, from where they should help the country do some serious soul-searching. The country’s nation building project is at a crossroads and, like the rest of the world, needs new ideological inspiration.
The writer is the Deputy Director of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. His most recent book is Done Making Do: 1Party Rule Ends in Malaysia (Genta Media & ISEAS 2013).