By OOI KEE BENG, for THE EDGE, Malaysia. 15 December 2013
If there is one thing everyone can agree upon about Malaysia, it is that the status quo—however one wants to describe that—is not satisfactory.
From the Prime Minister down to the Malaysian on the street, from Barisan Nasional to Pakatan Rakyat, from PAS to Perkasa, from Mahathir Mohamed to Anwar Ibrahim, and from Penang to Sabah; the debate is about how—not if—Malaysia should be transformed.
For a country that is so obviously loved by its citizens, it is popularly dismissed for what it is at the moment. What does that tell us? What ails this land that once held such promise?
It would be claiming too much to say that Malaysia was once a melting pot, or that it had had such pretensions. It had not. But at the best of times, it had definitely been a place where cultural differences enriched each other without melding inseparably into each other.
For a melting pot to do its work, time is of the essence.
Since the rise of the independent nation state of Malaysia, however; the country has been in a hurry. It tried to sideline the English language as quickly as possible in the 1960s; it put into place a quick-fix programme to facilitate the entry of the Malay community into the modernising national economy in the 1970s and curbed civil liberties, and restricted democratic rights to do so; it initiated a bold process of Islamising the governance of what is essentially a pluralistice country in the 1980s; and it dared to aim for advanced nation status by 2020 in the 1990s.
Until the Asian Financial Crisis, therefore, nation building in Malaysian was a rather resolute process, proceeding confidently and innocently with eyes fixed a couple of feet ahead. But some profound change took place in 1997-98. More correctly, a limit to the political infrastructure was reached that even Mahathir Mohamed could not breach. What used to work no longer did, and more of the same would not give expected results.
From that point onwards, the political consciousness of Malaysia’s population was irreversibly altered. New dimensions for political discord came to the fore, with new actors fronting them. Calls for reforms—and for transformation—began resonating in 1998.
The new era saw the country’s second most powerful man—Anwar Ibrahim—being arrested and jailed for 15 years in 1999; and the most powerful man—Mahathir Mohamed—retiring in 2003.
After that, the agenda for broad national reforms had to be adopted by the ruling coalition.
Fast forward to November 2013, and we see how the leadership of the two major Malay parties, UMNO and PAS, survived practically intact in their first party eletions after the ground-breaking general elections of May 2013. This certainly shows a steadfastness in the support for the positions they have come to adopt, vis-à-vis each other, and within their respective coalitions.
So what can be cooking under the lid? Is Malaysia a pressure cooker with tensions along class, religious and ethnic lines buildiing up towards an explosion? Or is it really a chrysalis we are witnessing?
For pessimists, the country is undergoing a cultural disintegration that incomprehensibly is being driven by but a few individuals who make up for their lack of popular support by playing on the fears among national leaders of their diminishing legitimacy, both as race representatives and elected government. This desperate position is witnessed in how the absence of legal accountability has freed leaders and top civil servants from the need to be rational in explaining failures and incompetence in state matters. Once one does not have to make sense, regulations and legislations lose relevance.
Indeed, it is hard not to be a pessimist in such times. Without form, governance becomes arbitrary, and rules become lax. Criminal elements are heartened, and chaos threatens.
On the other hand. those disposed to see the cup as half full—and these are luckily still numerous in number—are encouraged by the surge in popular demand for good governance and by the freedom of speech afforded so dramatically by new communication technologies.
The bigger picture is even more positive. Apart from domestic dynamics such as higher education, good information flow and general urbanisation, countries throughout East Asia are being deeply affected by regional and global changes. The Asian Century has arrived—through trade and the mobility of capital and people. National navel-gazing, by most accounts, cannot continue much longer.
In fact, when Malaysia takes over as chairman of ASEAN on 1 January 2016, the region would to a considerable extent have become an economically integrated region. National interests will in many ways have to be served by whatever is good for regional interests as well. Already, dynamic Malaysian companies have gone regional, and it is only a matter of time before political discourses evolve to express the regionality of the country’s economy.
In truth, Malaysia’s narrow nationalism may be enjoying its last hurrah. The confusing dynamics of national development over the last 50 years may very well have reached a breaking point—not of a pressure cooker, but of a chrysalis.
What type of creature will assemble itself and soon crawl out of the cocoon will be interesting for all of us to behold.
OOI KEE BENG is the Deputy Director of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore. He is the author of the prizewinning The Reluctant Politician: Tun Dr Ismail and His Time (ISEAS, 2005).