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Articles, Commentaries, The Edge

Listen up, Malaysians! You are now individually the agents of change

By Ooi Kee Beng, for The Edge Malaysia, 30 September 2018; and in Penang Monthly, November 2018.

One of the greatest challenges that faces a society coming out of a period of authoritarian rule and bad governance is the need to break away from looking to political initiatives and to politicians as the way to fix all national—and even individual—dilemmas.

While it is true that the right policy and the right political stance can do a lot for an issue, it is nevertheless important for members of a society to remember that they are—or should be—masters of their own fate.

Once upon a time, when the rule of law was not properly respected and Malaysia’s racialist dictatorship justified abuse and misuse of power, society was understandably politicised. Now, a politicised society is one where most if not all issues are twisted to serve the immediate or short-term needs of a politician or a party. The delayed effect of this is that the country’s citizens become fearful and cautious, and they learn to think reticently. The only people finally assumed to be proactive and empowered are the politicians, especially those in power; and politics becomes the only arena where issues are formulated and sorted out. The universities and the fourth estate of journalism are sidelined.

In such a situation, citizens see themselves as victims, in one way or another—victims of an environment where legality is unreliable, punishment is unexpected, and power is in someone else’s hands.

The Reformasi Movement in Malaysia that began in September 1998 captured the imagination of a whole new generation of Malaysians across ethnic boundaries, and although much credit must be given to Anwar Ibrahim for being the lightning rod that ignited the movement, the awakened longing for change went far beyond that.

But if we look at how this deep demand for change was expressed politically, we should realise that a key element in the movement was soon overshadowed in the process—the goal of freedom itself, especially from fear. “Reformasi” was of course adopted from Indonesia’s revolutionary fervour that pushed Suharto out of power.

Thus, when Abdullah Badawi succeeded Mahathir Mohamad in 2003, he and his advisers were insightful enough to realise the need to ride on this wave, and so his administration went to the polls in 2004 with a reform agenda. This reform agenda even included Islam, and Abdullah came up with his now–forgotten Islam Hadhari. The reformist spirit was clearly still strong, and a force to be reckoned with six years after Anwar was incarcerated.

In fact, even Najib Razak, when he replaced Abdullah in 2009, still felt the necessity to appear as a champion for change. “Reform” being overused by then, he chose “transformation” instead.

When the 2013 election results convinced him that his sloganeering was in vain, he decided to drop the pretence of being a reformist prime minister. Five years down the road, he had to pay the price for ignoring the popular uprising that had been dragging on since 1998.

One can understand that the Malaysian government, like all governments, would realise the need to champion a popular movement in name if not in spirit in order to dissipate its strength and capture its language. That was what Abdullah and Najib did.

In response to these governments’ pirating of “reform”, the opposition parties were by 2008 using the vague though promising term “Change” (“Ubah”).

It was now about changing the government, pure and simple, and not about reform alone. Reform is a means to an end, after all. The goal is always freedom under good governance. There was no longer any reason to hope that any BN government would bring change. Change now had to come via a change in government. This was a powerful enough message, especially when Najib’s administration decided to move more and more away from the middle ground. In 2013, the cry of “Ini kali-lah” (Now, finally!”) resonated well with the population.

And so it made sense that the opposition coalition that finally succeeded in changing the government in 2018 calls itself Pakatan Harapan (The Alliance of Hope—I would have preferred The Fellowship of Hope myself), and that Mahathir Mohamad joined that coalition only after he himself had also lost all hope for change from within Barisan Nasional.

What should not be forgotten today, and what should continue to give hope to Malaysians who,\ as is their habit by now are already feeling disappointed; is that the last 20 years were about liberation from an ideological cul-de-sac. And that cul-de-sac had always involved the ridiculous propaganda that the government is the sole fixer— the only effective agent, and that all good things flow from it, especially cash.

This is the silent logic of the authoritarianism of the last 60 years. Only politicians are real actors, whether as defenders of the status quo or as champions of change. And the people learned to think that they are but the supporting cast.

After May 9, 2018, Malaysians should realise that a large share of the responsibility of making Malaysia a happy country lies with each of them, and with their recapturing of individual agency and self-confidence. They lead. Politicians follow. Not necessarily the other way around.

The Reformasi Movement, in the final analysis, has always been about freedom, and a people who have just succeeded in liberating themselves should not wait upon politicians to bring change. They should take the spirit of freedom unto themselves.

The rebuilding of Malaysia must come as much from below as from above, and the social passivism of the past should be buried along with the Barisan Nasional.

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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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