Malaysia deserves better

Exactly eleven years after Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim’s sacking as deputy prime minister sparked the reformasi movement; Malaysia is still in a limbo. But there is an increasingly strong sense that, against all odds, change for the better, is still possible.

The political tsunami on March 8, 2008, while unexpected, was the culmination of a series of substantial changes. It cannot be understood as something that happened overnight. More importantly, since its causes are profound, its effects cannot but prove lasting.

We must not forget that Malaysian politics, despite being severely muffled for many decades, has always been marked by the efforts of individuals and organisations working boldly and tirelessly to improve the standard of governance in the country, create greater space for cultural freedom, and better the economic lot of its diverse population.

This became indisputable already in 1998 when the sacking of Anwar acted as a lightning rod for the expression of general discontent. Since then, a new sense of purpose has pervaded the political consciousness of Malaysians of all ages.

Indeed, the nation is now on the move, and undergoing relentless change. However, the minds of those in power continue to be wrapped in the time warp of the 1970s, if not earlier.

The refusal of Umno, MCA, MIC and other parties in the ruling coalition to reinvent themselves is most obvious when we contrast their raison d’être with the socio-economic dynamics in the country. For one thing, patronage politics and racial politics need a rural setting in which to thrive.

A setting that is increasingly urban, where the young are exposed to the endless news available on the Internet, where the worries of Malaysians centre on finding meaningful jobs, getting a world-class education for their children, having reliable public transport, feeling safe on the streets, and having trustworthy civil servants. In the cities, patronage politics shrinks into cronyism.

Just one fact will show how precarious the future is for the Barisan Nasional (BN), and how its old way of doing politics cannot continue. Demographically, three-quarters of our population were born after 13 May 1969. This means that the country has an unusually youthful population with an average age of around 22 years.

Now, although two-thirds of our people live in an urban environment, two-thirds of the parliamentary seats stem from rural constituencies. No wonder BN needs to retain this crooked, gerrymandered situation for as long as it can.

To align Malaysia’s politics to its new realities, changes throughout the political apparatus — from voting conditions to our attitude towards the rule of law and to patronage and corruption — have to occur quickly. Otherwise the changes, when they do come, may be more explosive than any Malaysian today would anticipate.

Ironically, some of these fundamental changes were aided unwittingly by the policies of BN. For instance, Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s 70 million population policy helped to hasten the pace of the regeneration of the population.

The urbanisation of Malays and the improvements in education since the introduction of the New Economic Policy have given rise to a generation of confident Malay middle-class urbanites who no longer share Umno’s racial siege mentality.

At the same time, the uneven development that favours privatised profiteers and rent-seekers has produced a multiethnic underclass in our midst. Three-fifths of Malaysian families live with a monthly combined family income of RM3,000 or less, an income level that puts them in constant subsistence mode, especially for those who are quartered in urban centres.

Throughout the campaign period during the 2008 elections, I observed how many who listened to opposition campaigners would smile in agreement whenever we said “BN itu Barang Naik” — BN simply means Inflation.

Our problems are much more serious than contesting elections and winning political contests. They are becoming permanent, and we are caught holding the short end of the stick as the international economy evolves in ways that, without attending to, threaten to make us a failed state.

Many young urban Malay families are finding it hard to make ends meet. The income level of unskilled workers has stagnated over the last two decades, largely due to the massive influx of low-skill foreign workers. The dependence on foreign labour also slows the participation of women in the workforce, and consequently the community, while capping the potential of the nation’s industries to upgrade their technologies and expertise. Skilled and talented Malaysians move elsewhere for a better life.

The Hindraf movement that tilted the balance against the ruling coalition in the 2008 elections can trace its genesis to the massive social dislocation that resulted from callous policies and from government inability to alleviate the harsh impact of global changes at the local level. Up to 70 per cent of ethnic Indians were domiciled in estates in 1980.

Today, only 30 per cent continue to be. No effort has been made to incorporate these migrants-in-their-own-country into growing industries. On the contrary, government actions have aggravated the situation. The construction of Putrajaya alone displaced 3,000 families originally residing in the plantations there.

Behind these socio-economic conditions is a political system in dire need of change. In concentrating political power in the hands of the prime minister and the BN, the ruling coalition compromised and destroyed the basic institutions of state: the judiciary, the police, and even the parliament itself.

From a nation with great potential, Malaysia has emerged into a country of lost chances.

Often history is presented in a simplistic linear and deterministic fashion, especially during the height of the Vision 2020 discourse in the early 1990s. While shared confidence that Malaysia’s future could only improve from day to day was uplifting, we forget that the fortunes of a city, a nation, or a civilisation for that matter, is full of twists and turns, shaped by its institutions, policies, leaders and people.

Just three decades ago, Taiwan, Singapore and South Korea were Malaysia’s economic equals. Prior to that, they were poorer than us. Malaysia’s path now increasingly resembles that of the Philippines, which together with Burma were the strongest economies in Asia after Japan in the early 1960s. The military dictatorship of Indonesia has now become a respectable democracy and a stable economy, one decade after Reformasi.

The bitter fact is that Malaysia needs to play catch up in all the areas in which it used to be ahead. But all is not lost. A renaissance is not impossible.

I joined the long march towards real democracy for Malaysia more than a decade ago when defeat after defeat — electoral or otherwise — rendered the reform movement ineffectual and despondent.

Today (and this is a clear sign that we are all potentially agents of change, and that serious change has come), most of us can look at our recent history and shake our heads in disbelief, wondering how we could have allowed the political system to deteriorate to such an extent.

This does not make the pain of those who suffered humiliation during police arrests and detention any less. But with the blinkers of fear and archaic, hopeless attitudes removed, we can now see that it was all for a noble purpose that has proven to be a realistic and realisable one at that.

Having said that, we must make sure that we never give into discouragement and shrug our shoulders in acceptance of the status quo. The country cannot afford it. We cannot afford it.

The tragi-comedy is not over. The final act has yet to be played out, and the ending is not a given. We know at least that BN will never regain its past prominence, but that does not mean that it will humbly allow the process of change to play itself out. There is the real fear that it would rather destroy the forces of change than lose power.

The essential differences between us — those who desire reform — and them – those who favour this rusty, crooked system and thus decline — are that we crave new ideas and knowledge; we go beyond the usual racial caricatures and embrace not only all Malaysians but also the world; and we believe that change is possible. They don’t.

Malaysia deserves better. We deserve a more open, tolerant and transparent political system. We deserve an economic philosophy that premises on creating a rising tide that will raise all boats, and not just one that is parasitical, greedy, wasteful, and that does its worst in the name of a favoured group.

This article is adapted from the introduction to the author’s new book Speaking for the Reformasi Generation, Kuala Lumpur, REFSA, 2009. Retail price: RM35

The Malaysian Insider

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