Malaysia’s Politics Without Mercy

by Farish A. Noor

One of the paradoxes of politics in developing countries is how uneven that development can be at times: From Latin America to the Far East, the political culture of many a developing country betrays all the signs and symbols of a stunted politics arrested by the competing demands of modernity, feudalism and primordial values that pre-date the modern era.

Witness the development of the cult of leadership in so many countries, from North Korea to Libya and Iraq during the time of Saddam, where every bare space was utilised to promote and project the image of the ‘great leader’, said to be loved by millions. North Korea remains at the top of the league when it comes to the culture of leader-worship, where even the bad haircut of their leader-for-life has been passed down as an iconic image of the unreconstructed Cold War era.

Among the developing countries of the world, Malaysia ranks highly in the eyes of many. So high, in fact, that during his recent visit to Malaysia former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan waxed eloquent about the virtues of this modern majority-Muslim state, commending the government for its record in development and praising the ‘moderate’ Islamisation programme of the current Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi.

Many keen observers of Malaysian politics, however, were taken askance by the comments of the former Sec-Gen of the UN. While it cannot be denied that Malaysia looks outwardly as a prosperous nation with a booming economy, close observation of what has been happening there for the past few years would throw some of Kofi Annnan’s praises into doubt.

For a start, it is hard to see how Malaysia’s brand of statist Islam can be seen as moderate and progressive by any stretch of the imagination, considering the fact that this is still a country where detention without trial takes place and freedom of the press is virtually unknown. Shortly after Mr Annan delivered his laudatory comments, a Malaysian blogger by the name of Nathaniel Tan was arrested by the Malaysian authorities and charged with cybercrime. Kofi Annan has spoken out against the arrest and harassment of media personnel and bloggers before, in countries such as China — yet in this case was curiously silent.

During the same week leaders of the ruling UMNO (United Malays National Organisation) party, a right-wing conservative ethno-nationalist party that has been in power since 1957, vowed to ‘crush’ the People’s Justice (PKR) opposition party in the country, once and for all. Had Mr Annan stayed a little longer in Malaysia (and had he been able to read the vernacular Malay press), he may have realised that such talk of ‘crushing the opposition’ is normal in Malaysia’s feudal political culture, where terms like ‘crush’, ‘destroy’, ‘eliminate’ et al. Are the norm in Malaysian political discourse.

Kofi Annan did manage to meet the leader of the opposition PKR party Anwar Ibrahim, though not much is known about what actually transpired at the meeting. Had he taken the time to enquire, the members of PKR and other opposition parties like the Democratic Action Party (DAP) and the Pan-Malaysian Islamic party (PAS) would have had other stories to tell, about allegations of vote-buying, harassment of NGO activists, threats of arrest and detention without trial, etc. that may have altered Mr Annan’s rosy picture of Malaysia a little bit.

But why, some might ask, is the tone of Malaysian politics these days so merciless? Why would a party like UMNO, that has been in power for half a century, need to totally crush an opposition party like the People’s Justice party? For some members of PKR, the answer is clear. In the words of Latheefa Koya, central committee member of PKR: “(UMNO’s) use of language like ‘to crush and bury’ a legitimate democratic multiracial party clearly indicates the fear of UMNO, due to its outdated politics. Defending things like the Internal Security Act (ISA), Sedition Act, Official Secrets Act and not showing an once of respect for fundamental principles of human rights; and resorting to thuggery, is a sign of bankrupt politics.”

Indeed, after half a century of independence Malaysian politics is still determined by the logic of racial — and increasingly religious — communitarianism, something akin to the divide-and-rule politics of the colonial era. One would have thought that after being in power for so long the ruling National Front coalition led by UMNO would have evolved a national politics based on equal citizenship instead, but this has never happened.

It is therefore left to the opposition parties like PKR, DAP and PAS to cobble together a new vision of a Malaysia that is genuinely democratic and multiracial; though this is not an easy task. The dominance of UMNO and the ruling National Front coalition means that the public domain of politics is dominated by their interests, and reflected in the government-controlled media in the country. In the meantime, any attempt to question the logic of racial compartmentalisation in Malaysia will be met with a similar response that has been meted out to the Justice party thus far: Total opposition and the determination to crush all alternative approaches to politics. Malaysia may be a modern capitalist state with impressive tower blocks and shopping centres that can beguile even the likes of Kofi Annan, but its feudal politics remains as primordial and merciless as ever.

  1. #1 by k1980 on Monday, 16 July 2007 - 9:28 am

    The DAP should videotape and release VCDs of non-Malay leaders explaining the necessity of having and supporting the New Economic Policy.
    “If the non-Malay communities cannot accept it now, then how was it accepted during (second prime minster) Tun Abdul Razak (Hussein’s) time by other non-Malay BN leaders?” …Some non-Malay BN leaders and leading opposition members have expressed concerns that strident talk about the affirmative action under the NEP could turn non-Malay voters away from BN.

  2. #2 by smeagroo on Monday, 16 July 2007 - 10:08 am

    Sorry for hijacking but this is a great read.

  3. #3 by Libra2 on Monday, 16 July 2007 - 11:27 am

    There is only one way to answer the question. Use the next GE as a referendum on the NEP. If the non Malays want it vote for BN and if they don’t want it then vote OPPOSITION.

  4. #4 by lakshy on Monday, 16 July 2007 - 11:36 am

    Even if all the non-malays vote against BN candidates, BN will still be returned to power with an overwhelming majority.

    As can be seen by the recent statements from most UMNO leaders at the assemblies, they are playing the race card and are out to get the malay votes. So forget about any hope for this country.

    Its another 5 years of BN rule.

  5. #5 by dawsheng on Monday, 16 July 2007 - 11:42 am

    Lakshy, you have to believe we have the power to make change. You look at JB, although it is UMNO bitrthplace, many Malays are still poor, and they know UMNO has cheated on them. Malays also know UMNO lied, gives them empty promises. UMNO gives their childrens school but low paid job after they graduate. UMNO is a failed organization. Some Malays has awaken and see the truth, the enemy is not Chinese or Indian, it is Malay themselves. It is changinf Lakshy. You have to believe it.

  6. #6 by ENDANGERED HORNBILL on Monday, 16 July 2007 - 11:59 am

    Malaysia’s politics is a gruesome mixture of the unthinkable, the impossible and the inevitable. Care to interpret?

    Kerismuddin should learn this from Nobel Peace Prize winner, Shimon Peres, notwithstanding that he is a Jew . I paraphrase what Peres said on CNN: “The public life of a politician is not about swords; we don’t go around brandishing swords. We deal with words and seek to persuade public opinion with words”.

  7. #7 by Daniel Quah on Monday, 16 July 2007 - 12:11 pm

    today Star newspaper publish Najib say Bumiputra willing to give up 30% equiti …well Najib, i heard that few year now..i would appreciate if it was reduce to 25% not demolish all by them i really believe BN is taking step to have a compatible era in Global market…walk the talk, Najis…or dont talk at all.. non-bumi professional contribute to country development..but in UMNO GM was show KERIS as warning of Ketuanan Melayu…i am not racist..but the fact that some UMNO playing the card right now…Chinese and Indian are NOT threat of Malay…we are here with you since some time willing to believe Indonesia immigrant that those who really help develop the country? might as well this be 2nd Indonesia..

  8. #8 by sotong on Monday, 16 July 2007 - 12:45 pm

    You cannot continue to mislead and manipulate people for your selfish interests…..eventually they will find out and the generations to come will live a great shame.

  9. #9 by dawsheng on Monday, 16 July 2007 - 1:32 pm

    We have to be prepared that in the coming General Election, many arrest will be made against those who voiced out against the tyranny of UMNO and BN. There will be clamping down all over Malaysia to silent the rakyat so they can continue to rule.

  10. #10 by shortie kiasu on Monday, 16 July 2007 - 1:45 pm

    After 37 years (from 1970 to 1987) of NEP, with all the privileges and special rights thrown in for the Malays race to “catch up”, yet people in the UMNO like Muhyddin, are still saying the Malays have not have enough of the NEP. That is ridiculous and mind-boggling to the bone.

    No other races in the country had never had such privileges or special rights thrown in their faces since precolonial days, yet it was perceived by the UMNO, or rather, the Malays that other races are better off economically than the Malays, how come? Where is the logic, something is terribly wrong somewhere.

    It is either the NEP is horribly wrong all these years; or the Malays are really beyond the beyond in the rot, where almost 40 years of special privileges, protection, favouritism, nepotism and special rights in every economic field, education, employment in civil service and cabinet… all thrown in their faces, had not elevated the slightest; and could not even lift them just that little.

    Rather the NEP has now become a way of life for the Malays and the UMNO in the country; and for the non Malays, they have no choice and had adapted to it as a way of life, too.

    And in the process, we will see the differential developments among the races, and chasms are developed in all directions. We talked of racial unity, on what basis? By supporting the continuance of NEP in all forms possible??

    That is the life here. The chasm will be enlarging in one way or another. There will no end to it.

  11. #11 by lakshy on Monday, 16 July 2007 - 2:02 pm

    Which malay in his right mind will give up the special rights? Now the talk is that it is the malays birth right (my apologies to the real bumiputras) and it should be continued. Well a malay can also say that since they make up 70% of the population, they should have 70% of the economy. Now where do the non malays stand?
    This has already been said by the way!

    And although it has been promised we are yet to see how the EPU/DPM came up with their calculation for the malays not achieving 30% equity.

    So when all else fails they can fudge the figures too!

    And you as non-malays think you can take anything away from the malays? Its not going to happen in your life.

  12. #12 by lakshy on Monday, 16 July 2007 - 2:08 pm

    Its a question of wanting things easy. No hard work. No skills to be learnt. Just want the commission style of earning a living. Unfortunately as everyone else can see, this has hurt the malays more than helped them.

    A typical example of this is our natinal pride………no, no not KLIA/Proton/Twin Towers etc, but our once great football team. See what the rot has done?

    Now how long is it going to take to make a recovery? What needs to be done for such a recovery? Leave it to the professionals to run. Keep out Racism, POLITICIANS, and busniess men and let the pros do the job. These others have their own agendas. You need meritocracy.

    But then if you allow that in sports, how about teh rest of the nation? Do we need meritocracy elsewhere too! i think we are not ready lah. Need the 70% equity first.

  13. #13 by sotong on Monday, 16 July 2007 - 3:00 pm

    If NEP had achieved its objectives within the orginal specify time, then it is good for all races. As the policies are discriminative, its extension will hurt generations of innocent victims and damaging to the country with far reaching consequences.

    But to extend it, knowing that it has failed and been grossly abused and exploited, this is gross irresponsibility, greed and exploitation to the extreme.

    How could an important policy like NEP be allowed to be grossly abused and exploited in the first place? All effort and resources should be committed to ensure its success from day 1.

  14. #14 by Jeffrey on Monday, 16 July 2007 - 3:21 pm

    It is questionable, depending much on interpretaion, what Farish said that Malaysian politics being ‘merciless’ – at least, not in the sense that it has become more merciless when comparing with TDM’s administration.

    TDM was a strong leader who must have his way. It was in TDM’s administration that the ISA was used to arrest his political opponents in a major crackdown in 1987-88 (Operation Lallang), as well as politicians in Sabah, East Malaysia, in 1990, whose party was considered a major rival to Umno. In November 1997 10 people were arrested under the ISA for allegedly spreading Shiite teachings deemed detrimental to national security. It was during his time that Lim Guan Eng who spoke out against the rape of a 15 year schoolgirl by a government minister and was sentenced to 3 years imprisonment and it was during his time that Anwar was charged for sodomy and corruption, received a ‘black eye’ and thrown to jail.

    Do you see these “merciless” government actions happening now?

    What we see is ridicule of government leaders and high officials in the Internet and the Blogs (not that they don’t often deserve it though). What we see is the worms in the woodwork of government (which have always been there hidden from view) crawling out. In fact the culture on citizenry’s part to express grievances against the government and the establishment has broadened much more now (under Pak Lah’s administration) than ever before.

    All these are – in relative sense – piecemeal plus points for the present administration when compared to the predecessor’s, though admittedly not in absolute sense as measured against the ideals of political democracy, when the malaise afflicting the country gripped by communitarianism, racial polarization and religious conservatism, seems almost cannot be ameliorated unless with a radical approach including change of government.

    The seemingly plus points of the more open, liberal and democratic style of the present PM however has got its downsides and minus points.

    Perceived to be “sleeping”, the ‘Napoleons’ within all tiers of the administration push for their private agendas thinking that the PM is too weak to thwart them. These Napoleons fight amongst themselves for dominion over turfs and fiefdoms. They also influence certain sections of law enforcement to do their bidding. Even the self appointed protectors of religion and enforcers of religious morality and rules are emboldened as they go round apprehending couples (some foreigners), retrieving bodies of deceased for burial according to religious rites, checking on Mamak eateries whether their halal certifications are authentic and properly accredited, arresting those professing to leave the religion for compulsory rehabilitation. Even triad societies become more brazen as they solicit patronage from some of these Napoleons.
    In this sense, definitely the politics of the country has, in Farish’s words, become more ‘merciless’ as reactionary forces become emboldened in pursuit of their private agendas about which the leadership is not evincing a resolve and strength to check them.
    When the center does not hold, things fall apart by centrifugal forces, which of course, not really good for the country.

    As to how the scene plays out eventually will depend on the numero ono, how he exercises power, how he balances these Napoleons and their private agendas against the long term good of the country. Right now he seems concerned with one basic priority – political survival in relation to which other agendas are but secondary. It is a set back. We hope with the coming election he will be able to clear out some of these Napoleons from the list of candidates so that with a new mandate he can become his own man. Until then, there’s no much anyone could do, as the situation drifts in deterioration.

  15. #15 by BobSam on Monday, 16 July 2007 - 5:25 pm

    Tokoh Negara – Tan Chee Khoon had the lowest number of votes.

    I didnt find Tengku Abdul Rahman.

    Guys, if the only Tokoh that we have for the last 50 years is a lady who was kind, but pushed for Batik outfits, then it is a “DAMMING” conclusion on all of us.

    It looks like we like to talk, but we dont do anything. KJ is correct. We are a herd of sheep that have to be put in place with threats and gifts. We will accept it wholeheartedly, and LOL when he tells us that he has purchased an I-Phone.


  16. #16 by Plaintruth on Monday, 16 July 2007 - 10:40 pm

    How eloquent Farish Noor had summarised the situation in Malaysia for an outsider. Great Job!!

    This has once again point to what I wanted to stress to the readers that we have to let the world know what opressions are happening in Malaysia.

    Come on people, let garner the help of conscientious citizens of this world, spread the words. If the voices are stronger and louder, I would think that Kofi Annan would have said something different during his last visit to Malaysia.

    The racial composition has changed during the last 40 years with the minority shrinking. Some of the reasons I could think of were the uncondition acceptance of illegal Indonesian immigrants, great promotion of family planning in citywide (where most of the non-minority live 20-30 years ago) and promo large family in the kampung, the minorities leaving this country………. These conditions further strengthen UMNO policy and consolidate more malay voters. Tell me if I am wrong in this thought.

    Is Malaysia going to be the laughing stock of the world where it promot free speech but arrest bloggers who dissent against UMNO policies? Who is going to be the next getting arrested?

    DAP and PKR should abandon the long tradition nickname of “Opposition party”. This image is detrimental to who we are striking for (we are striking for democracy and justice). The first impression of people who knew nothing of Malaysia and heard of opposition party is that the term “opposition” is negative. Can’t you see how UMNO had manipulated words to try to change people’s perception? A right name, a right word is important to depart the meaning.

  17. #17 by yi07 on Friday, 20 July 2007 - 3:59 pm

    “One would have thought that after being in power for so long the ruling National Front coalition led by UMNO would have evolved a national politics based on equal citizenship instead, but this has never happened.”
    But y would they want to do that? It is a successful model for them… divide n conquer. Keep Malaysian politics race based and UMNO will always have the upper hand. They are not interested in democracy but merely holding on to power. MCA and MIC and the other non-malay component parties have sold their soul and got short changed by joinin BN. The non-malay factions should pull out of BN and let the pedominantly Malay parties battle it out… neither would obtain an absolute majority and would then have to court the non-malay parties for alliances. Thus the non-malay parties although they may not garner enough votes to be in power themselves, they can be KING MAKERS!!! Coz then they’d hold the trump card of the swing votes!!!
    Stupid MCA n MIC!!! U guys got short changed… instead of being UMNO lackeys u could have been King makers. sigh

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