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With Covid Easing, Malaysia’s Big Reset Appears Imminent

By OOI KEE BENG, For THE EDGE MALAYSIA, 29 January 2022

THE FEDERAL government’s inability—or unwillingness—to inspect, assess and reform the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC), and its flat-footedness, incompetence and uncaringness on show during the recent flood incidents throughout the peninsula, took away whatever remaining doubts there had been that Malaysia does need a “reset”.

That word crystalises much of the thinking circulating today about what saving Malaysia from bad leadership and waning nation-building ambitions entails.

One may hope for a strengthening in political leadership and purpose following the next general election, one may strive for institutional change, or one may trust the sense of justice, integrity and fairness in common folk and work towards changing Malaysian public discourses away from polarising and divisive narratives. Or one may just give up. But identifying what the basic destructive trends are in the country remains a common endeavour.

One common argument for why the government, led by Pakatan Harapan (PH) for 22 months between 2018 and 2020, comprising a weakly cohering group of dazed parliamentarians and their advisors bemused by their own success, could so suddenly and so obediently fall, is that most of them failed to understand the seriousness of the public discourse battle that was being carried out against them throughout their time in power. This battle took place on multiple fronts, especially in the social media, and often with support—both open and furtive—from factions within the PH leadership itself.

The Big Sulk

Stunned by the sudden fall of what many hoped was the much longed-for Reformasi government that would pull Malaysia out from the depths of racialism, incompetence and corruption into which it had been sinking for decades, its supporters—and that was the majority of voters—went through months sulking and being gloomy.

Covid-19 intensified public despair, and the next change in government, in August 2021, which was in effect more a cabinet reshuffle that included the prime ministership than anything else, did not raise public expectations.

Over the two years of political-cum-health crisis, from 2020 to 2022, much thinking by Malaysia’s public intellectuals and the more intelligent portion of the country’s politicians did take place. In fact, various attempts from members of Malaysian society to transform the political terrain have taken place. Groups projecting alternative routes to political recovery have appeared, such as Gerak Independent, led by respected personalities such as Tawfik Tun Dr Ismail and Siti Kassim.

Another development that has captured the imagination of the wider Malaysian public is the formation of the Muda youth party under Syed Saddiq Syed Abdul Rahman. This path was laid and made possible by one of the main accomplishments of the short-lived PH government, i.e. its lowering of the national voting age to 18 and the automatic registration of new voters.

The disappointment in the PH government to stay in power, or for not having done more during its short stint in Putrajaya runs surprisingly deep; too deep in fact for it to be explained by PH’s lacklustre performance during those 22 months. It seems that its supporters have preferred to sulk rather than be realistic about the mammoth task that confronted that PH government.

What is to be reset?

But things are changing. The wish to “reset” Malaysia is set to grow stronger the more 2022 advances. Covid appears manageable now. And with that, the quarantine on Malaysians’ legendary political activism comes to an end, egged on by the controversy over corruption within the MACC and the horrendously bad handling of the recent floods throughout the peninsula, by the government and the authorities at various levels. 

Notably, state elections have been happening one after another—Melaka in November 2021, Sarawak in December 2021, and Johor in the next few weeks; with the general understanding being that tipping-point federal elections are just round the corner. This combination of factors is shaking the public out of the despair, sulkiness and apathy generated by the pandemic and by the political disarray of the last two years.

The key question is, what is it that is to be reset? Is it a mere change of prime minister, of ruling coalition, or is it Malaysian coalitionism itself? Is radical change to be spawned by the inclusion of young voters and the continuing fragmentation of the political party scene?

Is it parliamentary reforms that are needed? Is it federal devolution and decentralisation of power to the states? Is it a ban on race parties, and on race-based policies? Is it curbs on religion in politics?

Or is it economic interventions that are needed, aimed at reversing the ringgit’s decline, reducing the systemic corruption that has for decades lowered the trajectory of economic growth and credibility, and challenging the rise of ASEAN neighbours as competitors?

There is much that is on the table, reflecting both this need for a reset, as well as the decay of the country’s political culture and the disappearance of nation-building objectives from policy making. Divisiveness in public discourses is now a luxury this ailing country can no longer afford. For any reset of Malaysian body politic and Malaysian society as a whole, notions of ethnic and economic equality, social justice and cultural fraternity will have to set the tone.

Equally important is that a national reset must admit the excessive introvertedness of Malaysian politics. A successful reset requires an end to the cultural isolationism and internal bickering over race and religion that have plagued Malaysia since its birth. External dynamics have to be engaged and taken advantage of—for cultural, economic and political reasons.

It is the short cut cure for the country to rid itself of toxic politics and self-pity.

Datuk Dr Ooi Kee Beng is the Executive Director of Penang Institute. His recent books include Catharsis. A Second Change for Democracy in Malaysia. Homepage: wikibeng.com.

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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