– Lim Teck Ghee
CPI/The Malaysian Insider
January 21, 2014
In early 2011, I provided a paper to the United Nations system in Malaysia on various scenarios facing the country, giving special emphasis to the impact of political and economic issues on social development. In it, I explored three scenarios:
• A best case one where the government can achieve its goals and targets as set out in various government documents,
• A midway scenario where targets are partially achieved, and
• A worst case scenario where targets are mostly not achieved and where the economic, political and social situation deteriorates significantly over the medium-term.
Unfortunately, the worst case scenario is becoming a reality. Excerpts from the report below identify the key steps and processes leading to the establishment of an autocratic ethnocracy which would be a huge step backwards for the country.
It is still not too late for the Prime Minister and other leaders, especially from the BN and Umno, to lead the country away from the worst case scenario outlined in the paper.
But time is running out.
The possibility of a best case socio-cultural situation is tied to the government’s determination to advance its 1Malaysia concept and its removal of constraints and obstacles that stand in the way. Minimum proactive measures include removing or neutralising those institutions and individuals most guilty of sowing and escalating racial distrust and religious disharmony, in particular that emanating from the ruling circles and the bureaucracy, especially from Umno ranks and the official or Umno-owned print and electronic media, particularly Utusan Malaysia and TV3.
It also includes supporting the inter-faith panel and other similar nation building bodies and providing them with a higher profile in improving inter-faith and ethnic relations. In this scenario, the leaders of the other Barisan Nasional component parties that have previously been silent, indifferent or impotent towards the escalation of the hate politics of race and religion find their voices and successfully put pressure on the BN government to be even handed in the management of ethnic and religious relations in the country.
Other key stake players such as PAS and Muslim NGOs in this scenario also play a positive role by dampening hard line Islamist positions. External events such as growing freedoms and liberalisation in the Middle East countries and key Islamic nations can also play an indirect role through influencing Islamic elements in the country towards more progressive positions that can contribute to improved relations between the various communities and religions.
The middle case scenario sees a holding pattern in ethnic and religious relations and the socio-cultural situation. New tensions and conflicts at local or sector levels will erupt and even if they do not get out of control, they have the effect of generating mistrust and rifts between the various communities and religions as a result of weak leadership and poor management skills.
The growth of ethnic group consciousness that has a strong emotive content continues unabated, dividing individuals and communities into “us” versus “them”. The Malay print and electronic media and Malay/Muslim bureaucracy continue to play on the racial and religious insecurities of the community, and Muslim NGOs import into the country sympathy for extreme Muslim positions from the outside that will further radicalise Muslim values and attitudes. At the same time, non-Malay and non-Muslims individuals and groups also pander to the insecurities of their communities and remain skeptical of the government’s 1Malaysia programme.
In the middle case scenario, a few encouraging signs are also to be found. Some integration and convergence in culture takes place and lesser importance is attached to ethnic identity and consciousness, especially due to Malaysians from East Malaysia where there has been greater inter-ethnic marriage, and racial and religious polarisation is less pronounced. Some moderate or reformist Muslims organisations also speak out against state dominance and religious orthodoxy, and cultural dissidents encourage the younger generation towards greater tolerance and acceptance of pluralist forms and messages.
At the same time, the middle class continues to grow and is better educated and more informed about the issues pertaining to the nation’s survival. Finally most Malaysians continue to be generally tolerant, accept the plurality of cultures, way of life, etc and are not stressed out by the fragile co-existence that has been a characteristic of the country for so long.
In the worst case socio-cultural scenario, the country’s racial and religious tensions and divisions reach a breaking point, with the minorities very much on the defensive. The politicians are no longer able to maintain control and the authorities are reluctant to intervene or act except in favour of the majority.
The rule of law becomes the rule of the majority, and the business community and most ordinary Malaysians lose respect for it whilst perpetrators of racial and religious hate feel that they can get away with actions aimed at maintaining dominance or curbing dissent. The country’s basic tolerance gives way to hardened and polarised positions on all sides, setting the stage for instability and social strife.
The final obstacle in the country’s progress to a highly developed society is the way in which the state institutions have been politicised to maintain the current government in power. Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah, one of the country’s most respected political leaders, has placed the blame for the loss in credibility and integrity of state institutions such as the judiciary, police, electoral agencies and others on the corruption that has seeped deeply into Umno.
Similar views on the need to change the authoritarian character of Government, and its manipulation of the institutions of the state to perpetuate BN rule have long been expressed by the opposition parties and many civil society organisations. In the Pakatan Rakyat’s “Common Framework” document, the emphasis on change and transformation is not solely directed towards an economic agenda as appears to be the case with the BN. It provides just as much attention to issues of ethnic and religious relations management and the reform of state institutions and political life necessary to preserve communal harmony should the opposition come to power.
These expressions of concern on the authoritarian and repressive nature of the state mainly articulated by opposition politicians and civil society dissidents are also being voiced by the business elite, including supporters of the BN government, though in nuanced and less explicit terms. According to the constitution, Malaysians enjoy constitutional rights such as the right to personal freedom, freedom of thought, conscience and religion; freedom of peaceful assembly; freedom of expression; freedom of association; and equality before the law without discrimination. However, a thicket of arbitrary laws has stood in the way of the objective of a democratic and liberal society as envisaged in the country’s Vision 2020.
The impact of repressive legislation selectively applied, the politicisation of state institutions, and the authoritarian nature of the state clearly affects every sector and every population group in the country. This – together with its ethnocentric character (a single ethnic group dominates and controls virtually all key positions in the judiciary, public administrative organs, the police and the armed forces) and a trend of increasing Islamisation – is the biggest stumbling block to the development of a robust democracy.
In this context, it would be too optimistic to expect meaningful change in the country’s political and socio-economic situation unless there is wide ranging political reform. For such reform to take place, a higher calibre of leadership is required than has been demonstrated.
Overall future scenario
The most likely scenario then, in the country in the next five years (or at least until the 14th general elections is held), is maintenance of the current status quo with time running out on attainment of economic targets and with further fraying of an already dangerously fragile social fabric.
The momentum of continued political bickering and ethnic and religious discord if not broken – especially against a backdrop of economic stagnation – could set the stage for the next momentous development in the country’s evolution: either a dramatic break with the past through deep reforms – this appears a distinctly unlikely possibility; a sharper turn towards an Islamic conservative future; or a retreat to emergency rule in which Umno-led right wingers, and other powerful stake players including the monarchy – tied to maintaining an authoritarian ethnocracy – make a bid for, and successfully seize power. – January 21, 2014.