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Articles, The Edge

Political Populism, Public Opinions and Prime Ministers

Three PMs
By Ooi Kee Beng
For The Edge, Kuala Lumpur, September 29, 2014

It is indeed a heavy sign of the times that more and more ex-leaders are adopting the Internet as the preferred avenue for publicising their views. And why should they not? The arrival of the World Wide Web and all the fast-evolving social media that accompany it is as big a revolution in human history as any other in our short history on Earth.

There is in fact no other more effective and more immediate way of spreading one’s opinions today.

When Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad first took to blogging several years ago, the responses were rather mixed. Many called for him to shut up—and that ex-leaders should keep quiet. Most others did not mind, even if many of his views may have grated their sensitivities. But then, that’s Mahathir. When has his views not been controversial?

Another sign of the times manifested here is not about the technical innovations as such. The ex-prime ministers are getting very worried about the present leadership in Malaysia. Of course, they are not alone. Every Malaysian seems worried at the moment. The ship of state is drifting, and calls for stronger leadership is being heard daily.

Mahathir may not be one to show patience, but Tun Abdullah Badawi certainly has been. The whole country still remembers how he exercised “elegant silence” (as Tun Musa Hitam baptized it), when ceaselessly attacked by Tun Dr Mahathir between 2005 and 2009.

And since he was eased out of power in April 2009 by the present prime minister, he has largely kept his peace and refrained from criticising his successor, despite having many reasons to do so.
But Pak Lah has now decided to go online and to start blogging. This is interesting on several levels.

For one thing, the lure of the new and easy way of spreading one’s views and influencing the world, offered by the latest information technologies, seems to have finally proved too much even for him. And letting Tun Dr Mahathir monopolize the stage for retired leaders all these years cannot have been an easy condition to bear either.

But most interesting is the question, Why now? Has the need for someone to steer the country away from open conflict grown too obvious to be ignored? Given how he was undermined by Tun Mahathir during his mandate period, even after he had won the largest ever number of seats for the ruling coalition, it is poignant indeed that he blogs to say that “The government chosen democratically must be given the chance to govern, whether it is Barisan Nasional or Pakatan Rakyat. The same goes for leaders. If a leader is chosen, let him have his chance to run the government fairly and justly”.

The first entry on his blog site is in Malay, suggesting that he means most urgently that what he says is read by the Malay community. And the message is also clear, even if not strongly put. Titled “Erti kemerdekaan dan perpaduan” (The meaning of independence and unity), he is in effect issuing a warning:

“As Malaysians, we are very proud of the diversity in our nation and we have promoted it around the world as an impressive treasure. But lately, many among us focus not on our diversity, but on our differences in political views, race, religion, and living standards. Such differences if left unchecked will escalate into fights that know no bounds.”

With this, he adds his straw to the small stack of important voices reacting against the racial and religious populism consuming the country in recent months.

The signs of the times do not bode well. One may ask, Is Tun Abdullah the Owl of Minerva, coming out at dusk to shriek a last vain warning? That depends really on whether other respected and liberal Malay and Muslim leaders will come forth to swell the ranks of those speaking out against the climate of intolerance being created by opportunists taking advantage of the lack of political direction that the country is experiencing, and being tolerated and even encouraged by the government.

But will Prime Minister Najib Razak harken to the call of his elders, and discard his preoccupation with the poor election results from 2013? He certainly should. A mandate is a mandate, and that was what was officially given him in the GE13 and in the UMNO election that followed. He need not feel a crippled leader of his party; he need not feel a disappointed leader of his coalition; and he is definitely not an ex-prime minister of Malaysia. He is still the leader of the country; in fact, a very pluralistic country that has difficulty handling extremism of any kind.

Given how Malaysia is going to ASEAN chairman next year, and will see the regional body mature into an economic community; and given how Malaysia may be a member of the Security Council of the United Nations at the same time, the Prime Minister has ample opportunity to rise to the occasion and turn things around to make as successful and positive an impact on world politics and on the nation as his father did.

And it would not be too soon.

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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.

Discussion

One thought on “Political Populism, Public Opinions and Prime Ministers

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    Posted by Elma | October 11, 2014, 3:25 pm

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