By OOI KEE BENG
For The Edge Malaysia, 28 July 2013
The spill-over of political activism beyond the country’s borders which led to tens of thousands of Malaysians living abroad to return at substantial economic cost to themselves to cast their votes on May 5 this year testifies to a new sense of optimism in the country as a whole. It is highly probable that most of these returnees made that trip because they felt they had to make their own little contribution towards changing the course of Malaysian politics.
This positive ambience continues to pervade the country today despite the disappointment that many of them felt at winning the popular vote but losing the general elections. But it is not the poll results that I wish to discuss here in this article.
There are many factors worth observing and studying about the upsurge of political activism in Malaysia in the last 15 years, but one of the most important ones has to be the nature of the psychological shift that allowed for the sudden surge of engagement in the country’s politics.
Whatever “Chinese tsunami” one may discern in the election results; the most undeniable is really this increase in active interest in the political future of the country, and not the abandonment as such of the Barisan Nasional by this community. This swing cannot be explained without referral to the overall disenchantment with the BN displayed by other communities, especially by urban Malays.
I remember listening to Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamed being interviewed once on the BBC in the mid-1990s. The then prime minister, on being confronted with the claim that non-Malays in Malaysia tended to feel themselves to be second-class citizens, replied in his typical half-provocative and half-humorous way that the Malays felt the same as well. So in that way, all the communities had something in common, and so there was not much to complain about.
The sad thing about that comment was that he was probably expressing commonly held attitudes. He was probably right about how Malaysians in general felt. Even sadder was the apparent acceptance that being second class was the lot of all Malaysians.
What a national self-image of that nature does in the long run is not hard to fathom. No one likes to feel second class, be it as a citizen or an individual. And if there is nothing much to be done about it and if the common sense is that the situation is permanent, then feelings of despair, dejection, disgust and distrust would pervade the national psyche. Such a state, if sustained over a period of time breeds silent contempt and sullen cynicism. And it did.
No sense of commonality could develop, and instead of becoming one, Malaysia became divided and its people tentative in relating across communal lines. Cynicism spread because disappointments had been simply too many. Aspirations had to be lowered. No promises could be trusted and no vision was worth taking seriously.
But such a state cannot—and could not—really last, and a tipping point had to be reached sooner or later. That point did come sometime in 2007-2008, and the willingness of Malaysians living overseas to return home in May 2013 to vote was just the tip of the thawing iceberg concealed in the masses.
This iceberg itself is undoubtedly an expression of varied discontent with how the country had been run; but more than that, it is a rejection of the collective cynicism and the culture of negativism which fifty years of divisive politics had infected the public body with.
Significantly, it is a young and large generation of Malaysians—who are not as yet as cynical as their elders—who forms the backbone of this movement.
We must not forget the new media. They have a lot to do with the dramatic changes that have been taking place; and more so the social media, which allows Malaysians to experience what it is like to voice their thoughts and to find common expression for their disenchantment with the establishment and the stunted legacy they are inheriting. Once begun, the force of such a confluence of aspirations and such a collective gasp of relief which the last few years of social activism amounted to could not be ignored.
This is as clearly seen in how prime ministers after Mahathir have wrapped their administrations in reformist clothing as in the surprising willingness of Malaysians to participate in huge public rallies.
With the advent of the two-party system and with clear evidence now that it is here to stay, the positive energy that is displacing the cynicism of past decades should also prevail. The question to ask in all earnestness now is how long the transition will take, and how expensive it will be.
The writer is Deputy Director of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS) in Singapore. He is the author of the bestselling The Reluctant Politician: Tun Dr Ismail and His Times.