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Articles, Commentaries, The Edge

Let’s Work Out What Malaysia is Good For

Vision 2020
By Ooi Kee Beng

For THE EDGE Malaysia, 30 July 2014

A wave of pessimism and dejection has been pervading Malaysia for quite a long time now. Exactly when it started is hard to say, but what has been obvious is that whatever potential lines of division that can be found in the diversity that characterizes the country have recently been made more salient.

Relatedly, the types of criminality seem to have become harsher, suggesting that the social fabric is being worn very thin; and that the economic situation for the lower classes have worsened dramatically. The recent abduction and beheading of a two-year-old girl in Kuala Lumpur stunned the country.

Homelessness has increased, with as many as 1,500 people not only roaming the streets of Kuala Lumpur with no shelter but also being accused of preferring stealing and begging to “a normal life”. The latter bizarre verdict reportedly came from no one less important than the country’s Minister for Women, Family and Community Development.

The planned implementation of a federal goods and services tax regime in April next year to ease state budgetary imbalances, whether well-advised or not, is not expected to help the less fortunate either.

Apart from deteriorating socio-economic conditions, inter-ethnic and inter-faith relations have been widening, pushed by small extremist groups with ties to the dominant party claiming mass media coverage for themselves way beyond their due—and certainly way beyond the merit of their arguments.

Religious authorities have also been overly eager in policing improprieties in Malaysia’s highly pluralistic society, in one case taking Malaysians back to the trauma of observing a non-Muslim funeral being disrupted by Muslim authorities which took the deceased away from her family with the claim that she was a converted Muslim. The Penang State Shariah court rejected this claim a couple of days later. Such cases of “body snatching” at funerals grabbed the headlines frequently several years ago, causing great damage to inter-faith trust.

The ban on the use of certain words considered the monopoly of Muslims has also upset non-Muslims greatly, again undermining trust between the diverse communities that constitute the population of the Malaysian federation.

All in all, the present atmosphere in Malaysia is not conducive at all to any celebration of its ethnic diversity or its substantial economic potential. Many are blaming the quality of leadership of its present government, which tends to prefer silence to pronouncements of clear principles, especially in dealing with religious and ethnic issues. No doubt, the confused handling by the government of the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines’ MH370 in May, and the international criticism it received, weakened its self-confidence further.

Reticence as policy on the part of the government comes at a time when the ruling coalition faces a newly emerged civil society eagerly backed by influential blogs and web newspapers, and a young and articulate opposition that does not look like going away anytime soon.

For the moment, the country seems unable to look beyond itself despite the huge challenges facing its economy and the deterioration of its once shiny image in the world. Instead it struggles over issues such as which word should or should not be used by whom, which family should or should not bury which of its members, and can one be seditious when claiming to be championing Malay rights or Muslim values.

Simply put, Malaysia has not been able to get out of the social and political melancholy precipitated by the economic depression it suffered in 1998. The defence mechanism of its establishment has been too strong, and its conservatism too immediate.

Although significant political and social changes have taken place since then, the elite of the country has not managed to conjure a new self-image and a vision for the country that is more expressive of the new situation. Instead, it has allowed public discourses to descend into incoherence and bigotry.

Some sense of loss is understandable in times of change, but somewhere, the paralysis has to stop. This failure to rise above the fray, to see beyond daily squabbles is Malaysia’s biggest challenge today.

Now, Malaysia is to hold the ASEAN chairmanship next year. This means it is the last runner in the relay race towards Southeast Asia’s regional economic integration. It will oversee the tying of loose ends in this enormously important process. Furthermore, it will most probably be elected a non-permanent member of the United Nations’ Security Council in 2015. Its candidacy was forwarded by ASEAN, and at the moment, no other Asia Pacific country is in the running. Chances are good that Malaysia will get into the Council, its first time since 2000.

While it is often said—on good grounds—that one’s home should be in order before one can speak with authority outside it, the dynamics can also go the other way. There is potential for the Malaysian government in the coming two years at least to not only rebuild its international image but also to allow that exercise to affect the country’s self-image and stimulate a broad public consensus on what Malaysia is about. Tired slogans like One Malaysia or—sad to say, even Vision 2020—will no longer work. They are overused and the attempts to give them substance have been too frail.

The question for Wisma Putra to ask itself, the question for the government to raise even among its supporters, and the question citizens should investigate is What’s Malaysia Good For? Allowing public discourses to degrade as unceremoniously as it has been doing over the last few years, and allowing social cohesion to unravel for want of national goals is a dangerous and destructive path for the government to take.

Once Malaysia can work out what it is good for in the world—and this can best be done based on the common sense that common Malaysians once took for granted—can it stand proud again as the unique creation that it is.

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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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