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Malaysia’s Moral Revival is Anwar’s Bridge Between Divergent Discourses

“There has thus been a strong push in Malaysian political life since 1998 for systemic changes,

which has profoundly informed the political thinking of a generation or two of Malaysians.

A proper culmination has been necessary. We thought 2018 was that culmination,

but it was not. Now we hope that 2022 is that culmination.”

By Ooi Kee Beng, for The Edge Malaysia, in the column “Picking on the Present”, 27 February – 5 March, 2023.

Islam Hadhari, 1Malaysia, Keluarga Malaysia, Malaysia Madani.

Since Mahathir Mohamad retired as Prime Minister in 2004, all his successors have taken to sloganeering as an easy way to define their administration. No doubt, older Malaysians may recall certain catchphrases used by Tunku Abdul Rahman or Tun Abdul Razak, such as “Happy Malaysia”or “Malaysia Terus Membanguan”, but those were never considered slogans for defining an era of policy making.

At one level, this could have been a reflection of the short messaging era, starting with SMSes to today’s social media.

At a deeper level, this phenomenon echoes the uncertainties that have surrounded the country since the very beginning. In its gestation period, its constitutional structure was controversial, its territorial integrity unascertained, and its raison d’etre unclear.

Was it best founded as a union or a federation? And what type of federation? How were the powers to be delegated? Did Malaya expand in 1963 to become Malaysia, or did Malaya in fact merge as equals with Sabah, Sarawak and Singapore to create a larger federation? Did Singapore’s exit in 1965 delegitimise the whole merger? Should certain rights be afforded one community and not others? What stature should the various languages have, what stature should the various religions possess?

Many questions were asked, and with uncertain—and often divisive—answers being offered.

To be fair, Vision 2020, with its accompanying notions of Bangsa Malaysia and Melayu Baru, was a very substantive initiative that was inspirational in many ways. It was properly publicised in a working paper titled “Malaysia: The Way Forward (Vision 2020)”, by then-Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, at the Malaysian Business Council, on 28 February 1991.

Like the New Economic Policy (NEP), which was tied to the Second Malaysia Plan (1970-1975), Vision 2020 was conceived to energise the Sixth Malaysia Plan (1990-1995). In that important sense, Malaysian nation building was deliberately guided by these ideas—until the 1997-98 Asian Financial Crisis forced radically new measures to be undertaken to revive the economy.

As long as Mahathir remained in power though, Vision 2020 remained on the pedestal to orientate the country’s policies.

The Power of Vision 2020

I suppose in many ways, in projecting its broad and well-articulated ambitions all the way till the year 2020, Vision 2020 continued to deny intellectual space to all prime ministers who came after Mahathir’s retirement in 2004 to articulate an alternative compass for Malaysian development.

And so, between 2004 and 2022, some simple rallying idea had to do for the moment, and every new administration ventured one—always to suggest a flavour, if not an ambition, particular to it.

What has been common to them all is that on being announced, they immediately rallied forth unintended public confusion and derision instead of public support and accolades.

Now in 2023, when Mahathir is definitely out for the count, and the man who helped him implement Vision 2020 in the 1990s and who was dismissed by him, is finally in power, how are we to relate to the new prime minister Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim’s new slogan, Malaysia Madani, an esoteric term suggesting the coming of a civil or civilised and modern Malaysia?

But is this shallow sloganeering a tradition worth keeping to? I suggest not, and for the simple reason that the Reformasi Movement that Anwar Ibrahim led actually had already given birth to a new discourse, one that Malaysians has been participating in over the last two decades when his enemies coined slogans to pass for plans.

Anwar’s Greatest Assets

In resisting Mahathir’s attempt to end his political career in 1998, Anwar painted Mahathir’s nation-building methods as being infected by corruption and cronyism, and in the process inspired the obvious alternative of good governance, built on the upholding of justice, accountability and transparency.

Throughout that struggle, his biggest contribution, his greatest asset, was his ability to bridge apparent opposites, like PAS and the DAP.

There has thus been a strong push in Malaysian political life since 1998 for systemic changes, which has profoundly informed the political thinking of a generation or two of Malaysians. A proper culmination has been necessary. We thought 2018 was that culmination, but it was not. Now we hope that 2022 is that culmination. But to be realistic, I doubt that the search for a harmonious and progressive Malaysia is over yet.

What is interesting about the GE15 results is that we have ended up with two coalitions which reflect the unholy alliance formed in 2008 as the Pakatan Rakyat, which fell apart in 2015. While supporters of PKR and DAP seek institutional reforms, supporters of PAS seem to be seeking the late PAS leader Nik Aziz Nik Mat’s goal moral revival in political life.

The Pakatan Harapan’s manifesto for GE15 already promised, among other things, to revive the economy, address cost of living issues, fight corruption, strengthen democratic institutions, empower the young through economic opportunities, and remedy the ill effects of a failing education system.

What needs doing seems already identified. The unity government idea is to rebuild the middle ground. So far, so good. But the new divide between the PAS-led opposition and the unity coalition also needs bridging, at least at the voter level.

Bridging Discourses

Anwar was phenomenal acting as a bridge for political parties when in opposition; he will now need to show that he can bridge people when he is in government. To his aid, he has the idea of a unity government behind him, the backing not only of his Pakatan supporters but also of the East Malaysians. He also has a stellar international reputation unmatched by any Malaysian leader before him, and not one built on confrontation like Mahathir’s was.

What Anwar Ibrahim needs is not the distraction of another slogan. Given the deep understanding of the Malaysian situation gained from a lifetime of struggle, his ambition should once again be to merge apparent countervailing agendas.

While he champions “moral revival” through fighting corruption and seeing to it that issues of justice are not ignored, he has to implement processual and institutional reforms in the spirit of the Reformasi, and achieve all that while accelerating economic growth.

To kickstart his Herculean task, he has therefore to keep the level of enthusiasm and optimism high in the stock market, the wet market and the labour market; fight corruption in dramatic ways, and; carry out the most practical and impactful institutional reforms he and his government and his advisors can envisage.

Datuk Dr Ooi Kee Beng is the Executive Director of Penang Institute. His recent books include Catharsis. A Second Chance 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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