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Articles, Commentaries, The Edge

Malaysia’s democratically elected leaders must act

By OOI KEE BENG, For The Edge, Kuala Lumpur, 3-7 February 2014.OKB article April

WITH rising racial and religious intolerance dominating the stage in Malaysia, the basic unresolved problem in the country’s development becomes painfully apparent once again, and questions begged to be asked and answered, again.

Principally, how can the diverse cultural terrain that is Malaysia be made to function peacefully and successfully?

While there has been economic progress, has nation-building or even state-building succeeded to an extent that we see predictability, legitimacy, legality and efficiency in the running of the state apparatus? For now, the answer is far from obvious.

For starters, the diversity that characterises the country continues to be denied. We have a government that is not clear about its own agenda on that score, apart from staying in power.

Claiming to be race champions at this time is to remain reactive to the detrimental conditions of the post-war period, to remain locked in the past.

A close friend suggested to me just the other day that the country at the moment is a powder keg waiting to explode. That, I thought, was rather pessimistic. But then, pessimism does seem to be growing in Malaysia.

Non-democratic sources of authority are definitely deciding the political tone of the country — the religious authorities and the royal houses among others — while the democratic ones, most notably the central administration of Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak, is numbed by its need to revive the economy and yet play partisan politics.

And when the voicing of some principle is attempted, it only sounds partisan, if often manipulative or inane.

In a climate of despondence, surely the immediate responsibility of the government is to take charge and provide feasible reasons for the public to be optimistic. But suffering a lack of credibility, the government seems paralysed on that front.

When Umno — the party that claims to represent the Malay majority — does not dare to trust democratic processes to stay in power and instead allows non-democratic forces to decide the national political atmosphere, then a serious crisis is at hand.

This is most obviously seen in the absence of effective collaboration across the electoral divide. The country is under attack, and yet no leadership is being exercised to heal the rifts.

On a recent visit to Kuala Lumpur, I noticed that the mood there was rather tired. People were openly hoping for the democratically elected authorities to show some guidance.

Instead, there was more reason for despair – and stimulus for characteristic Malaysian satirical humour – when the prime minister recently made his flippant remark about the falling price of a well-loved local vegetable being a sign that things were not looking too bad.

In response to the powder keg observation, I would answer that in fact, Malaysia sits on many small powder kegs.

That is to say that it is a very diverse nation, not only culturally, but also where imaginations about the future of the nation are concerned, meaning also that one should not assume that all the powder kegs will explode together. They will not.

This is because even the tensions are diverse, and incendiary to very varied degrees. Many of them are not dangerous in any way and are, in fact, healthy and potentially creative tensions.

What seems to be at fault is that the centralisation of political discourses over time has centralised — and caricatured — the Malaysian conception of what the major problems of its nation-building are.

By reducing most issues to race and religion, the complexity of cultural differences and individual aspirations has been squeezed into simplistic portrayals.

The truth is, despite being born a federation, the country is centralised to an extreme degree, in effect denying its diversity.

This straightjacket approach to nation-building has required a huge dose of authoritarianism, many draconian laws, a blank refusal of political participation to students, rigid control over the mass media, and the loss of national vision.

The consequences of all this are quite predictable: persistent emigration of the better educated, falling educational standards, a compromised civil service, sensationalism in news reporting, pathological fixation with race and religion, falling foreign direct investments, ad hoc policy making, political polarisation, bullying in lieu of rational debate, and — this is the worst of all — strong mistrust of the government, and of each other.

Indeed, Najib did not inherit an easy job five years ago. But many did hope that he would rise to the occasion.

Despite his many transformation initiatives however, the population is facing huge price hikes, and faith in his ability to govern is at a record low.

Given that all the major elections are now over, he has a good opportunity to practise a new vision for the country that has national — and not narrow partisan — goals. Opposition to him, even within his own party, is rising.

Now more than ever, he has nothing to lose and should offer collaboration across the political divides and push for comprehensive reforms that will capture the imagination not only of the people, but the international community and its investors.

Then, the small powder kegs may turn out to be reserves of fireworks useful for celebrating the country’s impressive diversity.

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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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