Past cures as present addictions
A dialogue about something as serious as regime change in Malaysia must examine at least two vast subjects.
Firstly, a thorough and open discussion about the historical conditions under which the Federation of Malaya, and then Malaysia, was constructed is vital to any deep and practical understanding of the strengths and failings of the political structure as it exists today.
Political solutions in times of inevitable change – as was the case in the region in the 1940s and 1950s – are about settlements between those wishing to cut losses and those seeking to maximize benefit. Those less able to make their voices heard were, simply put, left unheard. In such times, negotiations happen under threat, stress and duress; and the solution is a mixture of ad hoc measures and meticulous planning; and a blend of concession and conflict.
In Malaya in the decade after 1945, major actors included shell-shocked British colonial masters recently returned to a scene they did not and could not recognise; the Malayan communists; emergent independence movements stretching from far left to far right led by leaders surprised at their own daring and intoxicated by their apparent historical role; the sultans and rajas, and many more.
The main issues were: The Cold War; the status of the sultanates; the status of immigrants; the nature of the emerging country; the future of British power; and the timing of the transfer of power and to whom. Equally important and often forgotten is the role ideas coming out of neighbouring Indonesia played, and the impact that momentous political events happening in the former Dutch colony – especially the republican revolt in culturally related eastern Sumatra which culminated in the summary execution of aristocrats and others – had on the course of events on the peninsula.
Cutting losses for the British meant giving up the ill-fated Malayan Union almost as soon as it was announced, for fear of a social revolution also taking place in Malaya at a time when the Cold War was heating up. This, the British could not afford.
With the Federation of Malaya in place – an agreement between the British and the Malay leadership, which was highly conservative and supportive of the status quo in comparison to the Malayan Union – the war with the communists could be effectively fought.
At the same time, the related issues of immigrant rights and indigenous rights were solved through the construction of the Alliance, to which independence was given.
When this structure broke down in 1969, the diagnosis was that Malay poverty had not been alleviated and democratic practices had been too extreme. The post-May 13 regime was thus built upon a neutered parliament and a comprehensive nation-building programme fixated with issues of race. By 1990, religion had also become a major political discourse riding on the formidable back of the New Economic Policy.
The Alliance also transformed itself into the Barisan Nasional, which in many essential ways was a totally different creature from its predecessor. The power the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) gained through the new power structure, the new ideology, and the new laws could only grow excessively, and lead to economic and political excesses.
The second requirement in discussing regime change is to understand what the situation is like today, given how past cures to past ailments became addictions, and have locked political discourses into a fixed and shallow pattern, and given how global and national socio-political and socio-economic conditions have developed. In truth, had the latter not changed radically, the need for change that so many feel today would not have been as significant or as intense.
Wishing for change is one thing, but the country’s ability to handle that change is something else. It must be broadly admitted that the need for change was precipitated by the excesses of recent decades that also left the country with weaknesses that it must now remedy if it is to take full advantage of situation in order to leap into a new stage of national development.
Here, there is no need to reiterate socio-economic changes that many believe explain the socio-political processes that have occurred since 1998. It is more cogent instead to identify where effort must now be expended to ensure that a more united and happy country grows out of this transitional period.
Policy-making competition is the new game in town and throughout the country. And it is this that explains why the accelerating call for decentralisation seems so important. Too much centralisation is logically anathema to policy-making competition, simply put.
Aside from decentralisation measures, be these fiscal or not, certain trends need to be enhanced which are necessary if good, clean and effective governance is to be the long-term result. Here, I shall mention two of them.
First, Malaysia needs to continue developing a trustworthy and professional journalist culture that keeps an engaged citizenry informed about what is going on in the country and stimulates in citizens a sense of ownership in the governing of the country. Information technological advancements are already pushing things inevitably in that direction, but raising journalism to a higher professional level is an ethical imperative and a necessity that requires concerted and conscious effort from all involved.
Second, experts and intellectuals need to be brought back to the centre of policy making. Policy making is too important to be left only to politicians. Politicians need the help of the various types of experts. For expertise to be brought to bear on policy making, you need institutions created for that purpose, either as think tanks, or advisory units within ministries and universities. Outsourcing of thinking to produce political spin is a practice that is demeaning to the citizenry and should be stopped.
What Malaysians need to realise when pushing for change is that the process will require them to discard what they are used to. They will have to rise above lowly feelings of envy, greed and racialism that the past encouraged in them, and instead call upon their nobler sentiments to build a country all can be proud of.
Ooi Kee Beng is the Deputy Director of Singapore’s Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. His major books include The Reluctant Politician: Tun Dr Ismail and His Time; Lost in Transition: Malaysia under Abdullah Badawi; In Lieu of Ideology: An Intellectual Biography of Goh Keng Swee; and The Right to Differ: A Biographical Sketch of Lim Kit Siang.