After all these years, Malaysia still held hostageIn thinking about 2013, the year the Federation of Malaysia celebrates its 50th anniversary, one cannot but compare the national atmosphere to that in 2007, the year the Federation of Malaya celebrated its 50th anniversary.
I remember that the New Straits Times under Datuk Seri Kalimullah Hassan ran a week-long serialisation in January that year of my book The Reluctant Politician: Tun Dr Ismail and His Time (ISEAS 2006) with the express purpose of putting the country into a contemplative mood and reminding Malaysians of what nation building is all about.
Given the faltering reform programme of then prime minister Tun Abdullah Badawi, 2007 couldn’t help but be a contemplative — and agitative — year for many Malaysians in any case. Be that as it may, to be fair to Abdullah, much change had come to the country after he took over from Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad in October 2003.
Otherwise, the latter would not have been using his considerable political acumen back then to undermine his successor’s position. Only Dr Mahathir’s bad health that year limited his attacks on the prime minister.
Also noteworthy was how tame the Umno general assembly was in 2007. Racial provocation was kept to a minimum amidst rumours that elections would soon be called. However, Malaysia’s first astronaut, Sheikh Mustaphar Sheikh Abdul Shukor, presented the Jalur Gemilang that he had taken into space to Abdullah at the Umno meeting, signifying that whatever success the trip into space had been, it was an Umno achievement, not a national triumph.
Inter-religious tension was also building up with the destruction of Hindu temples and the controversial burials of supposed Muslim converts.
The mood in 2007 was therefore generally more confused than contemplative, and it soon led to open political activism in Kuala Lumpur.
The first Bersih demonstration took place on November 10 to highlight the need for electoral reforms, which was followed two weeks later by the Hindraf rally to demand rights for Hindus.
Already on September 26 that year, about 2,000 lawyers and their supporters calling for proper investigations into allegations of inappropriate appointments of judges had marched to the residence of the prime minister.
Six eventful years, another two Bersih demonstrations and two exciting elections later, much has changed.
The country now has a two-party system where the opposition has actually won the popular vote though without being able to take power; it now controls three states with a huge majority, and has majority support in all urban centres.
The national atmosphere, however, remains as confused as ever. Dr Mahathir’s son is now Mentri Besar of Kedah and is expected to aim for a top position within the party; inter-religious tensions persist between ever more hardened positions; race-baiting continues and the coming Umno party elections are not expected to be anything close to being as tame as the 2007 party assembly; East Malaysian support now keeps the federal government in power; Chinese and urban support is solidly behind the opposition; the country is apparently no longer an oil exporter; violent crime has become shockingly common; and worries about the economy grow by the day, etc.
Datuk Seri Najib Razak has now received his own mandate to rule, no doubt, but it is an unconvincing one since he did lose the popular vote in West Malaysia, and nationwide.
Whether the Prime Minister will survive the term, or even the year, is silently debated.
For now, his worst enemies are not in the opposition, but come from within his party. After all, nice-guy Abdullah was ousted 13 months after he won a weak electoral victory in 2008.
The year 2013 is also the 10th anniversary of Dr Mahathir’s retirement as prime minister. Yet, Najib’s administration, the second post-Mahathir government, continues to struggle with Dr Mahathir’s dubious legacy and personal intrigues.
The political balance is certainly not stable. It may even be desperate, which is why there is so much talk about the need for a unity government that can straddle the incapacitating divides.
The political split down the middle has not been good for business confidence or public confidence in general. Sadly, it has not as yet thrown up effective leadership that can focus on national development instead of individual political careers and does not use disunity as its raison d’etre.
Therefore, for all concerned, there is a lot to contemplate this coming Malaysia Day, and a lot of action required from political and business leaders to limit the opportunistic exaggeration of natural differences among Malaysians.
Without that, the country — and its economy — cannot begin to end its undeserved fate of being held hostage by politics that appeals to the basest instincts of its population. - September 4, 2013
* Ooi Kee Beng is the Deputy Director of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS), Singapore. His articles are accessible at www.wikibeng.com.