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Articles, Commentaries, The Edge

Are New Forces for Change on the Rise in Malaysia?

By OOI KEE BENG

There is something strange about the word “transit”. We assume that a child, for example, will someday grow—transit—to become a mature adult, and not remain psychically a child albeit in physical adult form. At the same time, we do know that all too often, physical adults do continue acting like children late into their twilight years, presidents of superpowers being a present case in point.

And is there anything more boring than the transit hall at an airport? The place is a limbo that you endure because you hope your flight will actually take off some time soon. It is not a place you are meant to feel pro-active in.

Even in Marxist-Leninism, we saw how the working class was required “to transit” from capitalism by living in a planned-economy limbo and suffering one-party rule in the hope of one day arriving in a communist future.

For as long as I can remember, Malaysia has always either been “in transition” or “at the crossroads”. All good things are to happen only in the future. “Vision 2020” and “Bangsa Malaysia” shone bright as long as the year 2020 had not arrived.

Alas, mirages disappear as you approach them. And then it is too late. But now, 2020 has arrived. So we now look for new transit halls, with new furnishing, but with the same old guards at the gate. No doubt, the Pakatan Nasional government of the day will do its best to provide its constituency with those.

Reforms and Revolutions.

Judging from how the Pakatan Harapan governed in 2018-2020, and how it so abruptly fell earlier this year, one can draw the conclusion that that supposedly-reformist administration assumed that it could take baby steps and its own sweet time “transiting”, and that it should not upset the furnishing in the transit hall or the guards at the gates while doing so; and that one day in the not-too-distant-future, lo and behold, we could nevertheless exit into a new and wonderful world.

The truth is, “reforms” are not that different from “revolutions”. They have to happen fast. The first tries to avoid violence while the second relies on it; that’s the main difference between them. If there is a third way that works—that of slowly transiting from A to B—then the problem would not have been so immense as to have warranted a reform movement or a revolution to end it. Transitions are not strategies; they are confused places that you wish to negotiate away from as quickly as possible, like transit halls.

More often than not, once you are stuck in a transit hall, you are at the mercy of circumstances. You have lost your impetus and your initiative. You just bide your time and stare at boards providing you with digital information keyed in by unseen fingers and invisible forces.

It appears to me that acting as if the desired tomorrow is already here is the effective way to move from Point A to Point B. Don’t pass “Go”. That may be the secret to the success of the Islamist Parti Agama SeMalaysia (PAS), for example. Whatever its political compromises, PAS demands that its followers behave today the way they would behave if and when their preferred socio-political system is established. Such behaviour brings instant gratification if not immediate success, and for the individual, it does not involve waiting and withering in transit halls.

Those who oppose PAS would do well to realise this to be its strength, and to learn from it so that they do not continue endlessly “transiting”—the path of the timid reformist.

Transitions by any other name…

For Malaysia as a whole, the decades-long chapter of ‘transitory politics” involving the “Vision 2020” of Mahathir Mohamed, the “reforms” of Abdullah Badawi, the “transformations” of Najib Ibrahim, and the “changes” of the Pakatan Harapan coalition may all be water under the bridge now, and the country is facing a new reality forced upon it by the Covid-19 pandemic. Political games are now being judged for what they mean for the long-term general health of the country.

There are two apparent trends in how governments throughout the world are reacting to the relentless Covid-19 pandemic. Either a government becomes more authoritarian—and that is the preferred choice of weak regimes, be it Thailand, Brazil, Russia or the United States of America; or if a government feels secure, it allows itself to exhibit the caring side of leadership, in other words, the American “Of the People, By the People, For the People” definition of governance, or the Chinese “Heavenly Mandate” bargain that the rightful ruler rules for the good of the ruled.

With Covid-19 upon us, the fear that we would pay heavily for all the disruption we have brought upon natural processes and ecosystems has become shockingly real. And so, the world passes a tipping point, and Malaysia will have to change along with everyone else.

“Transiting”, in many ways, is a slow slide into a comfort zone, and that is what Malaysia has been doing, all the while pretending that it was heading somewhere wonderful. With the multiple crises that hit Malaysia in recent months, the loss of faith in the system—or in the people to continue running the system—has generated forth two interesting dynamics.

First, young Malaysians are beginning to seek new paths for themselves and for the country; and secondly, the role of East Malaysia as potential disruptor of peninsula-centric national politics has risen massively: “Enough transiting. Let’s get somewhere,” would serve well as their slogan.

Dato’ Dr Ooi Kee Beng is Executive Director of Penang Institute. His latest book is As Empires Fell: The Life and Times of Lee Hau-Shik, the First Finance Minister of Malaya (ISEAS 2020).

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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