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A vortex of its own making threatens Malaysia


By OOI KEE BENG for TODAY, Singapore. 10 January 2014

TO EVERY major flow of events, there is always a backflow, and the stronger that major flow, the greater the backflow.

But unlike with water, social flows are not so easily read and one can easily mistake major flows for backflows, and vice versa.

In the case of Malaysia, the last 15 years have seen such profound changes that not only are a lot of scholarly books published before that now seem outdated and irrelevant, the same can be said of a lot of the politicking.

And in a last-ditch attempt by conservatives to preserve inter-ethnic divisions, religious controversies have suddenly exploded, poisoning public debate. This has shocked some and confused many others at a time when economic and social problems are looming larger.

So why is Islam being used so vigorously by certain factions to distress non-Muslims and divide Muslims? And why has the government been allowing it?

To be sure, that is probably due to indecision on the part of the country’s top leadership, but this in itself is symptomatic of deeper ills that the government is conscious of.

After all, reforms have stubbornly been on the agenda of the ruling coalition since former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad retired in 2003.

Now, the best way to distinguish the main flow from the backflow is to focus on the sociological transformations in Malaysia today.

These include urbanisation of the youthful Malay community; new media undermining old media control of public discourse; the widening of the income gap at a time when living costs are rising; the regionalisation of the labour market; the revival of civil society; and the rise of neighbouring countries as competitors for foreign direct investments. These factors boil down to a polarising battle between the two coalitions: Barisan Nasional (BN) and Pakatan Rakyat (PR).


Breaking out of this stalemate will need some enlightened and innovative leadership. It requires acceptance by the ruling coalition, on the one hand, that it will never again wield as much power as it had enjoyed for 50 years; and acceptance by the opposition that the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) will remain a major party for a long time to come even if it loses power. Each has to realise that the other is here to stay.

Where the popular vote is concerned, the two are more or less equally strong at the moment. But one has been falling while the other has been rising — meaning that their respective view of what is happening is quite different from each other’s.

The BN is still suffering from a phantom sense of self-importance following curtailment of its power — the same way someone who has recently lost an arm will experience itching where his arm used to be.

The opposition fears that the strong support it presently enjoys may not continue growing; and that from now on, every new vote gets harder and harder to win. That is why Pakatan parties are trying to remain as proactive as possible and are planning to penetrate the semi-rural areas in states such as Johor, Sarawak and Sabah, where their best chances of gaining new votes lie.

Playing safe now could see them losing momentum. In contra-distinction to the racial and religious issues still favoured by UMNO, opposition parties will have to concern themselves with people empowerment, good governance and cost of living. After all, over the last 15 years, these have been the issues capturing the public imagination.


As for the ruling coalition, its promises of reforms over the last 10 years have not appeared sincere enough to win it votes. Its meek attempts at transformation have instead worried internal peripheral factions enough for them to use provocation to change the game.

This treacherous backflow — which has gone from provoking the non-Malay community, to targeting non-Muslims Christians as religious enemies — is not something that UMNO or the country can afford to lose control over.

In this dangerous situation, the government needs more than ever to practise some backflow prevention. A backflow that muddies the waters too much will not necessarily reverse the flow — it will more likely generate a whirlpool that brings chaos instead.

That is not something anyone really wishes for.


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 “A vortex of its own making threatens Malaysia

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