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Commentaries, Penang Monthly [formerly Penang Economic Monthly], Uncategorized

Outraged Enough to Go Vote or Cynical Enough to Stay Home?

By Ooi Kee Beng

Cover story in Penang Monthly, April 2018

The world may be stunned by the enormity of national scandals that have hit Malaysia and further dazed by the flippant official explanations that accompany them. Yet, the ruling BN remains expressly confident of victory in the coming elections. A high enough voter turnout, however, can cause an upset.

So many bizarre and inconceivable things have happened in recent years to damage Malaysia’s international reputation and self-image that, for a mortified and embarrassed public, a change of government at the federal level no longer carries the deep sense of incredulity and anguish that it once had. In fact, many now consider the coming general election to be a do-or-die contest – deep institutional reforms must take place if the many negative and speedily converging trends are to be reversed.

Should the Opposition coalition under former prime minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad win in 2018, then some serious investigations into these scandals are unavoidable, and most of the reforms it now promises are likely to be carried out in the months that immediately follow.

But should the BN under Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak triumph despite the outrageous scandals that surround it – the continuing high level of national debt; the apparent incompetence and callousness of many of its leaders; and the rising cost of living, among a list of other problems – many expect a crackdown on civil liberties and on recalcitrant individuals to quickly take place.

Being made the laughing stock of the world is one thing, but rising prices and the dramatic fall in value of the ringgit hurts working families more immediately – and that does not put anyone in a forgiving mood.

In fact, people are in a very bad mood in Malaysia today, to such an extent that feeling helpless, outraged and ignored may turn out to be a stronger impulse to act than the tried and tested issue of race and religion.

Tellingly, for the Opposition to reuse an old slogan and simply call for change today, as it did so effectively in 2008 and 2013, now seems rather unimaginative and dull – and even glib. The fact is, much has been changing in Malaysian society over the last five years, and young Malaysians today are very different from those of a generation ago. Most obviously, they are not as cowed as their parents were.

Excitingly and significantly, with the Malay community unprecedentedly represented by five (!) parties now – and the doors of the Chinese-based multiracial DAP also opened to them – attempts by the status quo to control voter behaviour are not likely to succeed as well as they did before.

An Outmoded Superstructure

In fact, the status quo now refers only to the political superstructure. The socioeconomic reality in Malaysia has been shifting for years. Urbanisation has reached the Malay community in a big way: the control of information that the central government once had is now largely undermined; the unquestioning identification of the young with the political habits of their elders, be the latter of their own community or not, is greatly weakened; and the globalising of education, friendship and work opportunities has made new ideas easily obtainable, old ideas easily dismissed and collective identities multitudinous.

There are many possible scenarios for a post-GE14 Malaysia.

No doubt, the denial of its traditional parliamentary two-thirds majority since 2008, and the loss of the popular vote in 2013 have not only shaken up the ruling coalition; they have also destroyed the shroud of invincibility that it had enjoyed since 1969. That shroud is not some invisible garment. It is woven from concrete measures undertaken over the years to benefit the ruling coalition, such as malapportionment and gerrymandering of seats; control over the mass media; racial and religious rhetoric; and the dubious use of the draconian legislations, among other things. Furthermore, the advantages of incumbency at the federal level are often based on the questionable use of huge sums of money to buy votes, and to finance BN candidates.

One often noted pattern in Malaysian politics has been that one strong BN election would be followed by a weak one. This pattern was clearly broken in 2013, when the weak showing by BN in 2008 was followed by an even weaker one. The new pattern now is one where the BN is expected to lose some ground in every successive election. It would appear today that Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi’s failure in 2003- 2009 to reform the regime convinced many Malaysians that BN – and Umno – is inherently unable to reform itself. Mahathir, who retired in October 2003 after 22 years as prime minister, and who had been actively involved in Malay politics since just after the Second World War (!), is definitely convinced of this.

For many, he is on a last-ditch campaign to right not only his own wrongs, but the wrongs of a regime left without any check-and-balance mechanism – and that regime has arrived at that unhappy point through blind and excessive use of identity politics to the detriment of the state apparatus,national identity and the national economy, just to mention a few key areas. The level of Malaysian education, just to name another example, is another area where the standard has dropped from what was once an enviable level in the region, to an appallingly low degree. This in itself is an unforgiveable crime committed on the future generations of Malaysians.

Equally serious is the damage that has been done to the judiciary and to the Malaysian civil service, which was once highly respected throughout the region.

The pattern continues, and sorely shows why the call for “reformasi”, however vague it may have been at times, was a deeply necessary one. In fact, it was not easy giving details to the reforms because the rot had been too comprehensive. The Bersih movement, supported by all the badly battered Opposition parties when it was founded in 2005, whose goal is to reform the electoral system, is in fact the most successful attempt at elucidating where the reversal of Malaysia’s sad fortunes can begin. Attempts to corral high-level corruption as the cause of most ills in Malaysia have been plentiful as well, as has the highlighting of human rights violations. The revolt by the hard-pressed Indian community in the form of the Hindraf movement in late 2007 was a very significant one, even if it did not have the staying power that other movements, notably Bersih, had.

It is as if a new Malaysia, like a flying insect, is waiting to be born; but its chrysalis has somehow grown leathery and will not give way. To cast off that now-unwelcomed sheath, critical help is apparently needed from unexpected actors. In this case, it is in the shape of Mahathir, who through an astounding display of strategic cunning accumulated over 70 years of involvement in politics, managed to convince an Opposition that was partly welcoming of this intrusion, and partly definitely not amused by it, that they needed him as much as he needed them.

The return of Mahathir will in time go down in Malaysian history as a narrative equal in virtuosity on the part of the 92-year-old embattled leader to any ancient Chinese story of unfathomable strategic brilliance. Now chairman of the Opposition coalition, Pakatan Harapan (PH), Mahathir is in the painful position of having to reboot the political system that he had played a central part in creating all his life. But then, to be fair, politics is about exercising effective manoeuvres within the immediate configuration of powerful forces, as one understands them.

How Mahathir understands these forces today is something any scholar of Malaysian politics should not ignore. When the signified has run away from the signifier, when reality has changed beyond recognition, it would be foolish – or disingenuous – for anyone to insist that all is well.

While focusing on the aged Mahathir’s return to politics – and on the Opposition side at that, and with many thinking that his new role perhaps suits him better than most of the others that he had had throughout his life – we should not forget the central role played by the young. It is in fact the Malaysians who were born during the Mahathir years who are the operative new factor in the political equation. That has been obvious ever since Mahathir sacked his deputy, Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim, in 1998. Anwar refused to go quietly and, in the process, he emboldened a generation that transcended racial and religious divides to rise up against his enemy, Mahathir himself, who quickly came to symbolise all that was wrong with the system.

When Mahathir left the scene in late 2003, Malaysians thought that a page had been turned in their political history, and they gave enormous support to his successor, Abdullah, for any reform he cared to mention. But Abdullah was not Umno or BN, and the internal coherence of the party would not allow for reforms to get out of hand. And so, disappointed, many turned against him in 2008. His bad showing in the elections that year provided Najib with the chance to capture the Umno presidency, ironically supported by Mahathir from behind.

Najib had in fact been denied the post of deputy prime minister after the 1999 elections, but by 2008, Mahathir felt he had no other choice. By 2016, he became fully convinced that while Abdullah was ineffectual and open to manipulation by those close to him, Najib is much worse. For Mahathir now, Najib is a disaster.

And so, Mahathir, aged though he is, embarked on a pilgrimage to make one final attempt to reverse the direction of Malaysian politics. This time around, though, he has had to admit to himself that the forces that can help him are those arrayed against Umno and BN. These are in fact the social and political forces mobilised by the detrimental effects of his kingmaking manoeuvrings in 1997-1998 and in 2008-2009.

Disruptions to the Political Industry

Much blame for the ills that Malaysia now suffer can of course be put on the excess of identity politics that BN has relied on since its founding in the early 1970s to stay in power. But then, one does have to explain why this proven formula is failing now. The standard of governance has definitely been dropping drastically since 2009, which tells us that Umno has lost the plot. Power had gone to its head more than ever before. But that is only one side of the story.

Another is how Malaysian society itself has changed. Global and regional power shifts, increased mobility and exposure, and social media and urbanisation have fashioned new mindsets that are not easily susceptible to twentieth-century methods of control. In fact, they may be averse to them. In saying this, I am also saying that Malaysia now exists in a global environment that is also greatly changed, and that Malaysia’s old-fashioned style of leadership cannot survive without undergoing a revolution of its own.

This new digital technology-driven environment, unlike any before, is relentless and dynamic. There is no dictator who decides its pace or its direction; it has a life of its own, and it reduces all countries into mere respondents. This is why the term Industrialisation 4.0 has had to be coined – to explain this, and to draw attention to its astounding impact. We are talking about a cultural revolution approaching on a global scale more than an industrial one.

Latecomers like China – once a communist regime, no less – have been able to respond well to the changes. For Malaysia, which is not a very late latecomer, to stumble, is understandable. But for it to stay down is not acceptable.

Now, in the twenty-first century, the link of political sentiments to technological innovations may not be easily observed; but the indirect and deeper effects of the digital revolution and of the tsunami of social media in the last 20 years on human behaviour are certainly in plain sight. Most succinctly, the digital revolution has begun erasing the difference between rural and urban life. It has also made national boundaries more porous than ever. If properly governed, a country does not have to be a victim of this revolution. It should aim to ride the wave to its advantage instead.

Controlling the minds of citizens the twentieth-century way, as a prerequisite for nation building, will not work this century. In fact, in sad cases where governments continue to insist on it, it is at the cost of the country’s economic development.

Disruptions to the political industry are happening all across the world, in the best of countries; and Malaysia is of course not immune to this process. Can the Malaysian butterfly break free of its calcified chrysalis and recreate the days when it was an Asian flying goose by accepting the challenges of the digital revolution, which it was already preparing for when Mahathir started the Multimedia Super Corridor in February 1996?

In fact, the problems that Vision 2020 and Bangsa Malaysia were supposed to be the answer to are still relevant today. Over the 20 years that the New Economic Policy (NEP) was officially in force, the concept of Malay special position transformed into the uncompromising idea of Ketuanan Melayu (Malay dominance), and inter-racial tensions evolved and intensified into inter-faith rows.

Mahathir’s Vision 2020, which he proclaimed in 1991, was a recipe written to slow these trends and then to push the national agenda towards a more economic and culturally evolving consciousness. Buoyed by unprecedented economic growth in the 1990s, Mahathir’s reputation as a champion of the Third World and leader of one of the amazing Asian flying geese was at its best. Malaysia’s international stature was also at its peak.

But all that came to an end in September 1998. The Asian Financial Crisis began hitting the country and the region in mid-1997 in its political and economic belly; and some would argue that the country is still unable to straighten itself up yet, 20 years later. Needless to say, the country’s international reputation has perhaps dropped to its lowest since independence.

Although it was in 1998 that the call for reform was raised most loudly, and against Mahathir, Vision 2020 itself was a revolutionary idea boldly propounded as a challenge to hardcore Malay nationalists.

Anwar managed to front the broad dissent against Mahathir and BN, and integrate its different segments into a coalition movement that, although it went through difficult several phases, survived as PH.

Looking back over the last two decades, one must say that the period marked by Anwar Ibrahim’s refusal to disappear from the Malaysian scene in 1998 did ignite a sense of political agency and urgency in a whole generation of Malaysians. That is a trend that is hard to ignore. We saw a large segment of the Malay community demanding change in 1999, but which paradoxically pushed the non-Malays to stay with BN for fear of the unknown and of PAS’ Islamist agenda.

Elections in 2004 saw a coming together of the electorate to give Abdullah a chance, while 2008 and 2013 can be seen as successive expressions of disappointment with Umno’s ability to reform itself. Now, as the 14th general election draws near, one could argue that Anwar’s contradistinctive stance to BN and Umno as corrupt, riddled with cronyism and authoritarian over the last 20 years could only take the movement to a certain extent. And that extent was reached in 2013 – an argument enhanced by the fact that break-ups began soon after within Pakatan Rakyat.

Mahathir lived long enough to see how the centralised apparatus he created for his own ends could be easily corrupted to serve the narrow interests of leaders much less concerned about nation-building than he was. To return to the fray in a convincing fashion, he had to have a political army behind him, and despite all the odds, he managed to convince members of Anwar’s coalition that his new Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia can deliver the crucial Malay support the coalition needs if it is to topple the BN government.

And so, over the last 30 years, what we have seen is how the rhetoric of NEP/Ketuanan Melayu was overshadowed for a while by Vision 2020/Bangsa Malaysia, which in turn was overwhelmed by the Reformasi Movement of 1998. Then came Abdullah’s reform agenda in 2004, which was altered by Najib into a transformation agenda in 2009.

Given this backdrop, what the Opposition under Mahathir now tries to postulate for Malaysia’s future can be seen as an unexpected though rational merging of the Reformasi Movement with the Vision 2020 agenda. What may work against them is the fact that the lengthy transition has brought political fatigue to some voters, and this can weaken the Opposition come voting day.

For the Opposition, getting people out to vote and getting overseas Malaysians to care enough about home to return to hand in their ballots, will be the key tactical concern.

To end on a speculative note, there are certain scenarios that are worth considering, as Malaysia heads into what appears to be its most crucial election:

– A loss for PH will spell difficult times for Mahathir’s new party and for Amanah. Their ability to survive will be severely tested.

– A victory for BN may see a strengthened PAS push its Islamist agenda across the country, unless its association with Umno sees its followers deserting it in large enough numbers

– A BN euphoric over a big victory may see it move to crush – through institutional, legal and other means – any substantive Opposition left standing.

– Federal relations with the states won by PH will worsen further.

– East Malaysia’s king-maker role will continue no matter what the results are nationally.

– Where international relations are concerned, not much change is to be expected.


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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