By Ooi Kee Beng, for The Edge Malaysia, December 4, 2018.
Long before Malaya could be conceived of as a nation, politics on the peninsula had been defined by identity. We blame the British for starting it all — excessively no doubt, as an easy disclaimer to please our own conscience. They supposedly divided their subjects in order to rule them. Global economics as developed by them created plural societies throughout the region to serve them and, most obviously, colonial control pre-required a master race, a role they gladly adopted.
What maritime colonialism actually set in motion was the rapid shrinking of the world — culturally, politically and economically. And in the process, tensions that were once kept at bay by long distances, a slower flow of time and seasonally defined economics, were all of a sudden pushed together, telescoped.
In most parts of the world, this led to chaos but Malaysians should be pleased that, despite this reality of sustained external control and imported socio-economic dynamics, conflicts on the peninsula over the centuries have, in fact, been very limited. This was true during colonial times and this has been true since Merdeka as well. But at the same time, they should, for their own good, also wonder why this was so and whether or not there was an invisible and permanent price paid for this luxury.
Except for Penang, British influence in Malaya came after the Napoleonic Wars, which gave birth to British global maritime power. The peninsula was spared further globally-generated conflict with the signing of the Anglo-Dutch Treaty (Treaty of London) in 1824, which solved boundary issues along the Straits of Malacca but left the maritime heart of Malay culture dissected down the middle. The Malays, always a riverine, seafaring people, were turned into landlubbers once the straits was divided.
In 1909, 85 years later, new threats from other colonial powers encroaching into British territorial influence led to the signing of the Anglo-Siamese Treaty (Bangkok Treaty) with King Chulalongkorn. This defined and secured the northern borders for British Malaya.
These agreements were significant in how they kept the peninsula a protected and hugely productive backyard for the British empire — at least until late 1941.
During the Japanese Occupation (1942-1945) — now often seen as merely an interim period since the British managed to return to rule again relatively peacefully, unlike the case for colonialists in all neighbouring countries — the struggles going on in the world at large generated over centuries by the process of aggressive-defensive globalisation were finally visited upon the Malay Peninsula.
After World War II, consciousness about the chaotic world outside our borders — the Cold War, no less — was shrunk and limited to the Emergency declared by the British against Malayan communist resistance to their return. Out of these troubles, a new country was born based on an innovative formula that saw British Malaya reconfigured into a federation of Malay sultanates; multiculturalism channelled into race-based parties subsumed in a coalition (consociationalism) and a constitution compromised to reflect the exciting but uneasy diversity of a peninsular society that 160 years of British mercantile and trade colonialism had created.
After this model faltered — if not failed — in 1969, a new one came into being to unravel certain problems that were left unsolved, or that were created by the Merdeka solution. Be that as it may, the country has continued within its karma — its psychological legacy — of being a protected backyard of early globalisation, and this is clearly expressed in the country’s obsession with narrow domestic politics and the ignoring of its vital geostrategic place in the region, forfeiting that, in the process, to Singapore in many ways.
The resulting fixation on identity politics has required the Malaysian national consciousness to be psychologically introverted and timid, and intellectually defensive and restrained. The Middle Income Trap that Malaysia is said to be caught in is in some ways merely the economic description of a cultural condition that I diagnose testily as a passive-aggressive syndrome. And politically, I venture that the May 9 election results amounted to a fervent wish by a segment of Malaysian society to break out of this syndrome.
A simple description of how this syndrome manifests itself would be this: The sufferer prefers to dismiss instead of debate, banish instead confront, insult instead of advocate, ignore instead of acknowledge, abuse instead of correct, threaten instead of contemplate. Basically, he acts as if he were under constant threat but lacks the moral courage or moral conviction to do much about it. Generally, he seeks short-term victories instead of permanent solutions.
Needless to say, Malaysian democracy has limped along accordingly, with society’s passive-aggressive psyche enduringly expressed as ethnocentric politics. Since the ailment is a collective one, the cure has to come from collective action undertaken by individuals seeking a better future for the country.
Whether there will be a New Malaysia worth shouting about will depend as much on the individual as it does on those who propose to govern him.