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Articles, Commentaries, The Edge

Flying the Jalur Gemilang again, and not the Jolly Roger

By Ooi Kee Beng, for The Edge Malaysia, 6 June 2019.

It is not as yet clear that Shared Prosperity 2030 will be the wherewithal for federal policy-making in the coming decade. The chosen goals are socioeconomic — that much is apparent — but building a nation is much more complicated a task than can be expressed through a slogan, or even in a five-year development plan.

To make manifest the historical context — and the path-dependence — of the political entity that we call Malaysia, it is useful to highlight the staggered route the country has had to take over the last seven decades. Once the complexity of building a prosperous and confident Malaysia is recognised, then perhaps one will not expect the coming decade to be smooth sailing. It will be anything but smooth sailing, but that does not mean that the journey is not worth taking, or not necessary.

Every 10 years or so, politics in the country has tended to take a sharp turn. This necessitates some shaky steering before the ship of state can hold steady — until the next sharp turn comes along.

Ten years before independence in 1957, for example, the Federation of Malaya Agreement was signed between the British, Umno and the sultans. This milestone was more a crossroads than anything else, and much political manoeuvring had to take place after 1948 before all the sails were properly unfurled and we could reach Merdeka. The communist armada had to be overcome, communalism regimented, and a democratic structure secured before a peaceful transition from colonialism to nationhood could take place.

Let’s call this creation Malaysia 1.0, better known in history as Malaya.

The 1960s that followed was a stormy season. In 1963, the Federation of Malaysia came into being when the sails of Singapore, Sabah and Sarawak joined that of Malaya. That new fleet we may call Malaysia 2.0. In hindsight, that fleet was doomed to flounder. The difference in political culture between Singapore and Kuala Lumpur had become too great, and their economic interests were incompatible.

And so, by September 1965, we had another political configuration — Malaysia 3.0, with the little sampan Singapore sailing off on its own and Sabah and Sarawak staying with the mother ship.
By the end of the 1960s, the planks of compromise made in the 1950s to construct Malaysia 1.0, and in the 1960s to build Malaysia 2.0, fell apart. The racial riots of May 13, 1969, ended with a political mutiny that put a new captain in charge, Tun Abdul Razak Hussein. He ran the ship of state in a much tighter fashion — and with great urgency, suffering as he secretly did, of leukaemia.

This was Malaysia 4.0, developed concretely in the words of the Second Malaysia Plan (1970-1975), and through the actions sanctioned by them. The rationale of Malaysia 4.0 was one of exclusion. It made the Malay community an exclusive one in policymaking; it excluded Kuala Lumpur from Selangor to secure the government’s control over this centrally important sultanate; it excluded a range of sensitive subjects from public discussion, even in parliament; it excluded students from participating in political matters; and it expanded the ruling coalition to such an extent that whichever opposition parties remained would not have much to say in or out of parliament.

The 1980s saw Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad becoming prime minister, and while he wanted the country to look east for inspiration and sought to professionalise the behaviour of the civil service, the forces of Islamisation had begun sweeping through the country from the west, and has continued to do so until today. After surviving a serious challenge to his leadership from within in the late 1980s, Mahathir led the country in the 1990s into its most impressive period of growth under the Vision 2020 banner.
The BN vessel continued sailing, but hit rocky seas in 1998 when Mahathir sacked his deputy, Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim. This battle produced the Reformasi Movement that inspired a new generation of Malaysians to imagine that the BN could be shelled and sunk.

Mahathir retired in 2003, and the BN managed to catch the wind in its sails again in the 2004 election when the coalition, now led by Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, gained a record number of seats in parliament. That did not last, however, and in 2008, it had to battle the opposition parties that would soon become the Pakatan Rakyat. Five states were lost, and a silent mutiny quickly took place on the bridge. The skipper’s hat and hook went from the crippled Abdullah to Abdul Razak’s son, Datuk Seri Najib Razak.

Although he failed to win back voters to his flag in the 2013 election, Najib managed to cling on to power. But by 2018, the opposition parties (excluding the Islamist PAS) — now led by the old skipper, Mahathir, who deserted the BN in exasperation and rowed across to Anwar’s side in his own ship, Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia — had become a formidable force. Pointing out that Najib was now flying the Jolly Roger instead of the Jalur Gemilang, the newly arrayed Pakatan Harapan attacked on a broad front, and sank the BN and its many galleys.

And so, with the change in government, and with the rise of aspirations from Penang to Sabah to transform the country’s governance and revisit the relationship between the Centre and the Periphery, Malaysia 5.0 has arrived. The Reformasi Movement — the crew’s mutiny — has finally succeeded, after 20 years.

Knowing the twists and turns in Malaysia’s journey towards mature nationhood, its citizens should realise that the next leg will also have its share of stormy weather and sharp rocks to avoid.

In a way, the maturing of democracy promised in Vision 2020 did happen, and two years early at that. Sadly, all the other goals will have to wait until 2030 to have a chance to be fulfilled. But at least, now, the citizens are the ones manning the sails, and they are no longer chained to the oars in the cargo hold. And they can mutiny again if the need arises.
Datuk Dr Ooi Kee Beng is the executive director of Penang Institute. He is also Honorary Fellow at CenPRIS, USM; Visiting Senior Fellow at ISEAS; Adjunct Professor at Taylor’s University; and Senior Fellow at Jeffrey Cheah Institute for Southeast Asia. His latest book is Catharsis: A Second Chance for Democracy in Malaysia.


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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