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Articles, Commentaries, Philosophy, The Edge

When the national narrative loses the script

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By Ooi Kee Beng

For The EDGE Malaysia, April 2015

Malaysia is in serious trouble today because the different narratives that have been driving politics in the country for more than half a century have come into direct conflict with each other. This shows more clearly than ever that what was always important for social peace in the country was a balance between contradictory narratives.

While a narrative is simply an account that connects chosen events and experiences in a story-like fashion, one that seeks to describe a nation is something quite different because it subscribes roles and identities to individuals and groups. It is also one that has to stimulate pride and participation in its citizens, and provides a clear sense of historical place for the nation as a whole.

Essentially, a good national story is one that is inclusive of as many of the inhabitants as possible since the country requires sufficient harmony for the economy to function.

But there are abundant cases where minorities are kept outside the mainstream, or a given secondary or peripheral identities. As extreme examples, we have the apartheid regime in South Africa which suppressed the numerical majority (but economic minority), and the Nazis in Hitler’s Germany of course, which had “final solutions” for “inferior and harmful minorities” at the lower end of its ethnic hierarchy.

It is true that the national storyline is seldom dictated by a single powerful regime. Instead, what we have are endless negotiations and contestations between different national scripts. In modern times, with citizens enjoying broad exposure to the world, high educational levels and free information flows, this seems quite inescapable.

That is why democracy – in some form – seems such a necessary thing. It allows for different scripts to vie with each other by non-violent means. Otherwise, the contentions tend to take an all-or-nothing form. That way lies chaos, civil war and economic stagnation.

Where Malaysia is concerned, what does the history of this balancing of narratives look like?

On September 16, 1963, the Federation of Malaysia was born through agreements between the Federation of Malaya, the recently self-ruling British crown colony of Singapore, and the British territories of Sabah and Sarawak. And on 9 August 1965, Singapore separated from the federation.

Working backwards then, we see how the complex political situation on the peninsula harmonized in the 1950s to a good enough extent for independence to be peacefully achieved. This was done through the consociational solution we know as the Alliance. In winning electoral support, in being fully anti-communist, and, most importantly, in being able to present a working multi-ethnic model of cooperation to the British, the Alliance could not be denied the right to rule an independent Malaya.

The solution was ingenious. Here are the main ethnic groups represented each by a party championing its interest, and these collaborate with each other in ruling the country. Nice and neat, and it left the communists with no effective counter-move.
But all this happened without Singapore, which the British had kept as a crown colony even as it retreated from its Malayan Union idea to accept the Federation of Malaya as its replacement in 1948. Something had to be done about Singapore, and the solution in 1963 was to create Malaysia, together with Sabah and Sarawak.

In those two years that Singapore was in Malaysia, we saw how conflicting narratives could not find a peaceful way of living with each other. The solution left a country consisting not only of a population where the non-bumiputeras were numerically strong but also one that was ethnically much more complex than before 1963.

Emotions ran high as the Alliance model gained a huge drop in support in the 1969 elections, and rioting broke out. By 1974, a new model had replaced it. But this was possible only after a lot of legislative restrictions and political arm twisting was done. From then on, Malaysia enjoyed an uneasy peace where the balance between narratives was possible only because much less was now allowed to be expressed.

But it worked, and the population learned to live with the constraints. The country went on to enjoy some golden years of growth and influence during the early 1990s. The New Economic Policy that was developed in the early 1970s to further Malay development was tempered with Vision 2020 and the Bangsa Malaysia discourses after 1990; and it provided a good enough balance of narratives for the country to continue growing peacefully.

The Asian financial crisis of 1997-98 shook that balance; and out of that grew the call for reforms in governance. This grew strong enough to convince Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad to retire if his party was to stay in power; and we saw how his successor, Abdullah Badawi, had the space to respond effectively to this new movement with his series of reforms.

The results of the 2004 elections showed that a new balance was in fact within reach. But Abdullah failed to see his reforms through due to resistance from within his own coalition, and the results of the 2008 elections showed that the moment had passed, and a new balance would not be gained so easily.

Abdullah’s successor, Najib Razak, continued in like vein with his transformation programmes, and we saw how that failed dismally as well in 2013 in finding a new balance of narratives.

What has been happening since 2008, and what has been seen as the emergence of a two-party system, is Malaysia caught in what I call “The Middle Outcome Trap”, where the population is split right down the middle into two halves.

The country’s lack of a new workable compromise, a lasting balance, between national narratives, is therefore a serious one. The longer this situation continues, the greater the risk that the digging in of positions will undermine the structure of the state itself.

With Islamisation fervour being allowed to take hold and alienating Muslims and non-Muslims from the political process, it is apparent that the central government lacks the confidence or will to seek a new balance, and seems to see the situation as unchangeable. and so has decided simply to survive from scandal toscandal, and crisis to crisis.

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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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