Malaysia’s Long Road to Change


Asia Sentinel
June 20, 2015

The headline issues behind Malaysia’s current political crisis often puzzle outside observers, not just for the specific and sometimes bizarre details but for what they reveal about a system designed to maintain the status quo at all costs. Taken in the current context, it is remarkable that Prime Minister Najib Razak remains in power. In an actual democracy – instead of the kind of purpose-built one-party state in Malaysia – he would presumably be long gone and perhaps in the dock.

The 1Malaysia Development Berhad debacle, with its overtones of greed, political favoritism and inside deals is exactly the kind of sleaze that should and does bring down governments worldwide. Add to that the lingering issue of the 2006 murder of the misbegotten Mongolian party girl Altantuya Shaariibuu by bodyguards linked to Najib, the shamelessly cooked-up jailing of long-suffering opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, the poisonous stew of bitter racial politics manipulated by the ruling elite and the widespread disgust with the acquisitive ways of Najib’s wife, Rosmah Mansor, and it is a wonder that anyone can keep a straight face while claiming Malaysia’s system is anything but a thinly disguised playpen for the Barisan National and its cronies.

Still, and finally, we may be witnessing the endgame in the country’s painful transition from the 20th century politics and governance that started with the transition from British colonialism to rule by the Barisan Nasional, the race-based coalition of political parties led by the United Malays National Organization. In power since 1957, the Barisan is the world’s longest-ruling parliamentary coalition.

Malaysia, a much richer and more sophisticated country now than it was when the kampungs could so easily be fooled by the elite, may finally have no choice but to adapt to the demands of the 21st century and the digital era.

Finding its own way

If it happens it won’t be anything like the Arab Spring, the sudden downfall of Indonesia’s Suharto or the tumultuous and joyous chaos favored by the Philippines when its people and elites overthrow governments. Instead it will be the result of a long, frustrating process that began with Anwar’s premature and frustrated effort to supplant then-Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad in 1998 during the chaos of the Asian Financial Crisis.

Curiously, 17 years after those first attempts at reformasi, it almost looks as if the country is back where it started. Mahathir is lashing out, only this time at the sitting PM; Anwar is back in prison on trumped up charges; the PM is again facing a financial scandal.

But in those days, Anwar’s movement had virtually no media voice. His supporters dreamed to no avail of a radio station that might take up the cudgels. But in keeping with the digital age, today’s political drama is being played out on the Internet by contending blogs and social media chatter that even has the royalty getting in on the act, such as the Johor Crown Prince’s recent weighing in via Facebook. Malaysians are also skewering Najib and Rosmah with vicious spoofs on YouTube.

It remains for the system to catch up with the popular mood and realize that Malaysia will stand still or go in reverse if racial gerrymandering and rank corruption prevail over change. Perhaps the real significance of the recent tantalizing news that Najib’s powerful banker brother, Nazir Razak, is poised to lead an NGO that will seek to build a unity government is that big business may finally be putting the nation’s best interests ahead of the payoffs and perks handed out by UMNO

Indeed, if UMNO chooses to align itself with the medieval minds of PAS in imposing sharia law and hudud amputations in parts of the country as a cynical way of clinging to power, an admirably modern business sector that has accomplished much could see itself mortally damaged.

The long race

Here is one way to look at this marathon drama. 1998 marked the year when Malaysians first threw off the shackles of fear by protesting in the streets. They marched, they had no fear of being arrested, they began speaking out. Later, Internet sites like Malaysiakini, Malaysia Today and Malaysian Insider kept the flames of free thought alive at a time when the mainstream media were all owned by the ruling political parties.

In 2008, a decade later, this manifested itself in the electoral field. The ruling coalition lost its two-thirds majority in parliament to the Anwar-led opposition; the then-pm was shown the door by his party colleagues led by Mahathir; and Najib took over. But in the 2013 election, the BN did even worse. It’s taken 17 years to get to this point, but the once-unthinkable question is finally being asked by more and people: is Malaysia’s single-party-rule system finally in its death throes?

Unlike more obvious dictatorships such as those that once existed in the Philippines and Indonesia, Malaysia’s collective party-certified dictators could hide under the guise of legality. That curtain is falling away and the only system most Malaysians have ever known seems as close as it has ever been to real change.

That such change carries with it risks and unease is certainly the case. The alternative – a seemingly crooked and ossified elite clinging to power through corruption, court manipulation and racism – seems far worse. Just as other countries have found a way forward without their once-entrenched despots, we are certain Malaysia will find its path.

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