Bumpy stretch ahead for Malaysia

By Cheong Suk-Wai | Singapore Straits Times

AUG 29 – In early May 1969, Australian anthropologist Clive Kessler rode his motorcycle through Kelantan hamlets for 30km to the nearest telephone box. He then called his parents in Sydney and told them: “You’re going to hear about trouble in a few parts of Malaysia in the next few days, but not where I am.”

Sure enough, Malaysia’s bloodiest civil strife erupted. Dr Kessler, who was then there to observe Islamist politics, had predicted it in an article he wrote to the press and in an interview he gave the Times of London in April 1969.

Now 67, the emeritus professor of sociology and anthropology at the University of New South Wales in Sydney has been a Malaysia watcher for more than 40 years and published prodigiously on it, including two books.

He had taught at the London School of Economics (LSE) and then Columbia University in New York city from the late 1960s till 1980. In that time, he worked closely with such lions in his field as LSE’s Maurice Freedman and Raymond Firth as well as Princeton’s Clifford Geertz.

He got in touch with me initially about my published review of his compatriot Anthony Milner’s book, The Malays. In the review, I had wrongly attributed to Dr Kessler the view that if the Malay cannot make something of himself, he will try to bend others to his will. Dr Kessler was gracious about my unwitting error and we got to talking about Malaysia in Subang Jaya, Selangor, at the tail end of his two-month sojourn there recently.

You call yourself a cautious progressive. How far do you think Malaysia has come since 1969? Malaysia has achieved a huge amount.

Kessler: That’s undeniable. Yet, it could have done much more and much better. It’s moved to a safe mediocrity.

How much are the 1969 race riots responsible for that?

Kessler: I’ve never liked calling what happened in 1969 “race riots”. Of course there was inter-ethnic mayhem but it was a symptom of something larger – a regime crisis.

The problem was more than Malay poverty, disadvantage and resentment. It was the credibility of the political order that had produced, or failed to remedy, that sense of Malay marginalisation.

The New Economic Policy (NEP) was to remedy that, and had to be justified in terms of the “special position” of the Malays. But with the return of electoral politics in 1970, powerful populist demands grew for the NEP’s continuation, which was then used to justify the expansion of the notion of Malay rights and further entrenching of strong government.

Why are Malaysians marching in the streets these days?

Kessler: They want a different kind of politics. They want to say this post-1969 political dispensation is exhausted, that it’s being increasingly held together by intimidation and manipulation and even force, and that the Internal Security Act is central to that.

What’s gone wrong, really?

Kessler: The problem these days is that the United Malays National Organisation and the whole state fashioned in its image can be seen as a glove made to fit one hand – Umno’s – and not even its fingers work together. It lacks clear, convincing authority at the moment.

Why is that?

Kessler: There is no simple answer. In many ways, the transformation of Malaysian and, in particular, Malay society, was the work of Umno itself. But it could not acknowledge and embrace the changes that it had itself unleashed with its policies. It was unable to loosen up its own political structures and approach.

What was so interesting and moving, yet also frightening, about March last year was the eruption of the various social changes unleashed by Umno for which the political system had itself become a strait-jacket. So these changes simply burst through and broke it.

How much needs to be fixed?

Kessler: I am no prophet. I do not underestimate the difficulty and complexity of its problems. Its leaders are not delusional when they say things could go badly and if they do, society could turn upon itself.

At any time, Malaysia is subject to two inverse dynamics. First, continuing economic growth that is dependent on maintaining civil peace. Second, civil peace that is dependent on the continuation, or continued expectation of, uninterrupted economic development. If either cycle goes wrong, trouble is conceivable.

Malaysians are largely peace-loving, so how conceivable is that?

Kessler: Malaysia’s got the basis for progress and prosperity. But the basic problems of social cohesion, social and political accommodation and political trust, persist.

Why is that?

Kessler: It goes back to the fundamental contradictions in Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s Vision 2020, which was not an architect’s blueprint from which to build but an amalgam of mutually incompatible elements.

It offered the image of an economically and technologically modern society, but failed to recognise that you cannot simply create a modern economy with modern technology and keep everything else pretty much unchanged.

So what has to change?

Kessler: You need a modern pluralistic society of independent autonomous and active citizens – and a government that can accept rather than feel threatened by their vitality.

Why has Umno been slow to change?

Kessler: It has wanted to keep the political world of deference, obedience, favour-seeking and gratitude.

Are you hopeful for Malaysia’s future?

Kessler: I’m not as hopeful as I used to be. Where I come from, it’s pessimism and anxiety, not football and cricket, that are the national sports. Malaysia is now on a complicated course, and it is at a particularly bumpy stretch of the road.

Serious roadworks are needed along the way. I am not sure that the vehicle that the people are travelling in is well maintained and still suitable to get them through all that they face. – Straits Times

  1. #1 by k1980 on Tuesday, 1 September 2009 - 12:18 pm

    Why is there no need for a NEP for the blacks in America, the Inuit in Canada, and the aborigines in Australia, Brazil, Peru, ect ?

  2. #2 by -ec- on Tuesday, 1 September 2009 - 12:31 pm

    k1980 on September 1st, 2009 12:18

    “Why is there no need for a NEP for the blacks in America, the Inuit in Canada, and the aborigines in Australia, Brazil, Peru, ect ?”

    1 person 1 vote and they are not majority of the voters.

  3. #3 by yhsiew on Tuesday, 1 September 2009 - 12:42 pm

    The real motive behind the NEP is greed – the more you can grab the better it will be. That is probably UMNO’s hidden philosophy.

  4. #4 by OrangRojak on Tuesday, 1 September 2009 - 1:27 pm

    k1980 asks: Why is there no need for a NEP for the blacks [I think you mean ‘Native Americans’ – who are more red than black] in America, the Inuit in Canada, and the aborigines in Australia, Brazil, Peru, ect ?
    I think this is the same question Mahathir asks, but without the ‘need for a’. The great bogeyman that ushered in the NEP was ‘foreigners’ stealing the country from its ‘rightful owners’, as America, Australia and Canada were stolen from their First Nations, or whatever the glossy term is for what are essentially victims of violent theft on a grand scale.

    If there was never an NEP in those other countries, there are often positive discrimination programmes, and the occasional effort to reassert the dispossessed peoples’ rights, even if it is many miserable generations after the fact. Didn’t an Australian minister recently apologise to the Aborigines? I think NZ recently made some large concession to their aboriginal people too. But the ‘colonisers’ never apologise and give the country back.

    Malaysia wasn’t the USA of several hundred years ago when the NEP was brought in. The undeniable problem of a clear racial distinction between the wealthy and powerful in Malaysia and the poor and dispossessed had to be solved. The NEP was just the wrong solution – you can’t fight racism with racism – you just end up with everybody competing to be the greatest racist. Malaysian leaders’ greatest success is in creating a nation of superlative bigots, while the country itself has been run into the ground.

    What should have been done is to enact very strict legislation on transparency and accountability, coupled with aggressively applied taxation and a social welfare scheme. A ‘Unity Tax’ at that time couldn’t have reasonably (though no doubt, very vociferously unreasonably) been objected to. I imagine the NEP wasn’t objected to much back then, as the greatest poker players around the table considered they had ‘good cards’. A pity they couldn’t have foreseen the relentless easing out of players from the game, and the ever greater excesses required to stay in the game.

    I’m not sure exhorting beneficiaries of the NEP to ‘look at the proud Canadian Indians – they get no NEP’ is such a great marketing ploy. I spent a little bit of time with Canadian Indians when I was camping in the Rockies for months many years ago, and I expect they’d love a bit of NEP if it was offered. Hanging around their reservation waiting for the fire patrol bus to come and collect them for fire-beating duty probably isn’t the future their long-dead leaders dreamed of.

  5. #5 by taiking on Tuesday, 1 September 2009 - 1:49 pm

    Everyone in the country knew well that just as all roads lead to rome, here all problems originated from umno. Umno too realise this. The real problem however is umno’s absolute refusal to accept the currect situation and to change. And as always umno would only pay lip service quite clearly with the conviction that everyone in the country had remained stagnant since independence 52yrs ago and that are therefore they are still as gullible today as then. The situation turned complicated during mahathir’s time especially when greed crept into the scene and umnoputras came about.

  6. #6 by k1980 on Tuesday, 1 September 2009 - 2:03 pm

    When God created the world, He especially blessed Malaysia with bountiful and fertile land with extensive minerals and a beautiful climate.

    The prophet Moses complained, “Lord, this is no fair one. Why you give everything to Malaysia one. Look at what you give to the Jews– the Promised Land is just a desert of sand and stones!”

    The lord replied, “Wait and see lah. I’m going to let umnoputras control the land.”

  7. #7 by Loh on Tuesday, 1 September 2009 - 2:35 pm

    Sorry, off-topic.
    From cedet.co.cc

    Dr. Mahathir Mohamad
    on September 1, 2009 9:10 AM | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBacks (0)

    ///You said that the New Economic Policy will enrich further certain rich Malays. What really happens is that the help and opportunities were given to those able to benefit from them, whether they were rich or poor. When the rich failed no one would take notice. On the other hand any Malay who succeeded was assumed to be from a rich family even though he was not. Worse still he would be regarded as a crony of the Prime Minister./// -TDM

    The NEP was an extension of Article 153. It was supposed to break the link between economic functions and race. As a so-called affirmative action, only those who are disadvantaged are entitled to help. The special quota system introduced under Article 153 listed Malays as the beneficiary because it was considered that Malays form the majority of those who needed help. There was no database to indicate who should qualify, and for the benefit of doubts all Malays were included as potential beneficiary. TDM says that the government policy was to give opportunities to those able to benefit, whether rich or poor. Why then should the government discriminate against non-Malays? It shows the policy was racist in nature. Obviously the spirit of article 153 to help the poor and needy was unilaterally changed by TDM to serve is racist intention. Did he swear to uphold the federal constitution?

    ///5. If those who succeed were all from rich families then there must have been a lot of rich Malays before the New Economic Policy. But we know there were only a handful of rich Malays before the NEP. Had there been, there would not have been the anger which led to the May 13, 1969 incident.///– TDM

    TDM is still trying to give the same explanation as to the cause of May 13 when Tan Sri Abdullah Ahmad gave a full account of what did happen as follows”

    2.The tragic and vicious incident need not have happened had Tun Razak’s message to Dato’ Harun Idris, the menteri besar of Selangor, reached him 30-minutes earlier or had Tan Sri David Tan Chee Khoon and Tun Lim Chong Eu spoken to Tun Razak 30 minutes earlier relaying their decision not to cooperate with DAP to form the state government of Selangor nor worked together in Perak and elsewhere. I was beside Tun Razak when he took the calls from them late past tea time on the fateful evening of 13 May. I recall clearly what Tun Razak told Harun “…the good news is you will continue to run Selangor. Chee Khoon and Chong Eu had just spoken to me that they want status quo preserved. So tell the people gathering at your house to disperse.” Harun thanked Tun and asked him to convey his gratitude to the two statesmen. Between five-to-ten minutes after that Harun rang Tun Razak to say that it was too late. As he was persuading them to disperse news reached the crowd that clashes had begun in Chow Kit Road and surroundings and beyond. Unquote

    ///6. The only way to satisfy the critics is to ensure that no Malay be allowed to become rich. If we do that then the disparity between Malays and non-Malays would remain or get worse. If that happens then the anger and bitterness of the Malays would render this country unstable.///– TDM

    Nobody gets jealous of Malays becoming rich, and for that matter people of any races, including foreigners. Malaysians object to the fact that the government used public funds to make the cronies of the Prime Minister rich. Additionally the government intervenes in market place through policies and regulations to make UMNOputras rich including giving them the right to monopoly in business. The disparity between rich and poor Malays is wider than that between Malays and non-Malays. Why should such huge disparity within Malay community, created by the government be acceptable when disparity of wealth earned by the people on their own cannot be tolerated? TDM displays once again his practice of double standards.

    ///7. I agree with you that intermarriage would help. But few Chinese would accept conversion. But the Malays will insist on this.///– TDM

    The business of the government is to maintain law and order and to provide environment for people to seek happiness. They are not to play God.

    Intermarriage would make the population of Malays grows, and it would become Malaysia of one religion sooner.

  8. #8 by KennyGan on Tuesday, 1 September 2009 - 5:34 pm

    Kessler seems to speak in metaphors – there’s much he knows behind his chosen words but he will not elaborate. We have an ominous sense of his pessimism for the future of Malaysia.

    However I don’t think things are so bleak. Kessler forgets that Malaysians have grown beyond 1969. They want to live harmoniously and will not be instigated by the use of race and religion baiting by Umno.

    We have seen this baiting by Mahathir, by Ahmad Ismail, by Utusan and lately by the Umno instigated cow head protest. All to no avail. Malaysians will just not fall for the ethnic violence trap anymore.

    The roadblock to Malaysia’s future is Umno’s inability to change with the changing socio-economic circumstances and aspirations of the people. Umno is still very much the same party that it was since its formation; a party rooted in patronage which became the blueprint for the endemic corruption on which its power rests.

    The bumpy road we travel now is due to Umno’s desperate attempts to maintain the status quo in the face of the people’s clamour for change. The new politics is the demand for accountability, democracy and good governance which Umno is unable to deliver. To Umno’s great fright, a two party system has emerged after the 12th G.E.

    What we are witnessing now is the death throes of a dying regime and the birth pangs of a new order. It is a battle which Umno cannot win. To maintain its grip on power would require a level of oppression which would drag the economy down but Umno’s political future also depends on a performing economy.

    But Umno has a back door – racial tension. If it can ratchet up racial tension, it can cow the people to vote it back on the premise that only a strong, authoritarian govt can keep a lid on racial tension.

    Whether Umno succeeds or not will depend on how Malaysians respond to Umno’s race and religious baiting.

  9. #9 by Jaswant on Tuesday, 1 September 2009 - 7:18 pm

    “Intermarriage would make the population of Malays grows, and it would become Malaysia of one religion sooner.”

    Yes, and incest would give rise to a generation of nincompoops like the one who benefited from the NEP, from taxpayer funded education and later spent all his working life pushing pen and paper in the service of an UMNO run government. Only a product of an incestous relationship would see it fit to boast of a long service medal at the end of it. Only a product of an incestous relationship would object to the mention of the fact that such a violent public display of a severed cow’s head in an attempt to offend the religious sensitivities of another, is against the tenets of his religion which is Islam.

  10. #10 by Onlooker Politics on Tuesday, 1 September 2009 - 9:21 pm

    “What should have been done is to enact very strict legislation on transparency and accountability, coupled with aggressively applied taxation and a social welfare scheme. A ‘Unity Tax’ at that time couldn’t have reasonably (though no doubt, very vociferously unreasonably) been objected to.” (OrangRojak)

    OrangRojak had a very unique observation on the Malaysian political administration situation. Surely, transparency and accountability are the most wanted two valuable things for Malaysia for purpose of spurring hope for a bright future of Malaysia. However, one will tend to hold a pessimistic view about the future of Malaysia by just taking a look at the present negative entanglement situation of Dato Seri Ong Tee Keat, who is a Transport Minister from Barisan Nasional calling for deeper probe into the PKFZ Black Gold Scandal. Ong not only faces the intensifying rebute from the alleged culprit of PKFZ scandal, the chairman of BN Parliamentary Backbencher Club by the name of Dato Seri Ting Kiong Sing. Ong also faces the political high risk of possibly being ousted from the top post of MCA President by the MCA Central Delegates if an Extraordinary General Meeting can be successfully convened in MCA. Will Ong Tee Keat be proven to be another victim of Malaysia’s fithy black gold politics because of his showing enthusiasm to want to have transparency and accountability in the Administration of a government-linked seaport infrastructure management authority? Let’s wait for a few more weeks in order to find out the outcome of the MCA EGM that is to be convened soon!

    As for the comment about ‘Unity Tax’. I cannot imagine that how a “Unity Tax’ can be effectively implemented in such a racially divisive and religiously divisive country as Malaysia which champions the communal politics among all its different races. While the Chinese Malaysians and Indian Malaysians are said to be relatively richer groups of Malaysian citizens, the Inland Revenue Department of the Finance Ministry will concentrate most its effort to go after and harrass the Malaysian businessmen and landowners of Chinese origin and Indian origin if these communal groups are suspected to have made filing of an dishonest income tax return. However, those rich Malay Malaysians who own several hundred acres or several thousand acres of aerable agricultural lands will usually be intentionally ignored by the IRD Officers, so long as the rich Malay Malaysians can show proof of their fulfilling the duty of paying a satisfactory amount of tithe offering (Zakat) to the Mosque. Malaysia can hardly immplement a system of ‘Unity Tax’ if the Barisan Nasional Federal Government still continues to resort to communal politics for purpose of vying for communal votes during the General Election and also to resort to probing the suspected well-to-do communal groups in order to tap new sources of income tax contribution for financing the exhorbitant weapons and firearms acquisition and for financing the luxurious infrastructure projects of the BN Federal Government.

  11. #11 by johnnypok on Tuesday, 1 September 2009 - 10:41 pm

    Malas-ians are not smart. Majorities are lazy and handicapped due to prolong consumption of NEP drugs. Say goodbye to 2020

  12. #12 by vsp on Tuesday, 1 September 2009 - 10:45 pm

    The Indonesians are attacking Malaysia in cyberspace. This is what I wrote about the threats of the Indonesian:


    “The Indonesians brought in to bolster the Malay population has now become a social problem…” Hussein Hamid


    Not only a social problem but a thorn in the flesh for the Malays themselves and in the foreseeable future, a nemesis and downfall for the Malays. UMNO is putting the whole country on the path of hara-kiri.

    Remember, the Indonesians are a hardy breed and they can withstand hardships many times better than the Malays. They don’t need economic tongkats to survive and they breed like rabbits. If you don’t believe me, go to the pasar malams, the day-markets in Chow Kit Road and all over the country, the Indonesians are slaughtering the local entrepreneurs. And do you know why they can do it? Because the local enforcers are working in collusion with them. The Indonesians are willing to pay toll to these leeches while the locals are left alone.

    Indonesians also have a history in the beginning of the Malacca Sultanate. In fact Paresmewara is an Indonesian prince from Palembang who founded Malacca. So it a matter of time the Indonesians will swamp everything. And who will be responsible for all this? – the UMNOputras.

  13. #13 by limkamput on Tuesday, 1 September 2009 - 11:22 pm

    //Only a product of an incestous relationship would see….///

    Yes, you are one, the sob.

  14. #14 by Winston on Tuesday, 1 September 2009 - 11:25 pm

    “Remember, the Indonesians are a hardy breed and they can withstand hardships many times better than the Malays. They don’t need economic tongkats to survive and they breed like rabbits. If you don’t believe me, go to the pasar malams, the day-markets in Chow Kit Road and all over the country, the Indonesians are slaughtering the local entrepreneurs. And do you know why they can do it? Because the local enforcers are working in collusion with them. The Indonesians are willing to pay toll to these leeches while the locals are left alone.” – vsp

    And the BN government will be building a bridge to Sumatra to help them achieve their aim!

  15. #15 by limkamput on Tuesday, 1 September 2009 - 11:26 pm

    Only a hypocrite church goer like jaswant ball would keep insulting other religions. Don’t ever say again you are pressing your pants before going to church, you bloody hypocrite. Who are you trying to impress by saying that, jaswant ball @ undergrad2?

  16. #16 by boh-liao on Wednesday, 2 September 2009 - 1:12 am

    Malaysians should just focus on what they want, just like the Japanese people
    PM-elect Yukio Hatoyama said the electoral victory on 30.8.09 was not his party’s.
    “It is the result of the Japanese people asking themselves, what on earth are our politicians doing?”
    They asked and did something revolutionary about it
    They kicked out LDP and voted for DPJ
    The Japanese people had spoken and acted

    So, are Malaysians asking questions about BN politicians?
    Ready to do more than asking questions during the next GE?

    C’mon, educate the younger voters and voters in Sabah and Sarawak
    Sarawak voters voted for the BN
    And some Sarawakians are starving in Sarawak
    While the BN lords are eating and eating, jiat bei liao

  17. #17 by Jaswant on Wednesday, 2 September 2009 - 8:46 am

    This nincompoop goes to mosque (which is his right to do so), and whines and complains when it is pointed out that it is a sin to display the severed head of a cow with the intention to sow seeds of discord between the races. Now he objects to someone exercising his right under the federal constitution to go to church.

    No temple and now no church. What next??

  18. #18 by k1980 on Wednesday, 2 September 2009 - 12:24 pm

    //No temple and now no church. What next??//

    No opposition parties allowed

  19. #19 by limkamput on Wednesday, 2 September 2009 - 3:31 pm

    Sure you can go to church with your pressed pants – to portray your mega hypocrisy.

  20. #20 by Jaswant on Wednesday, 2 September 2009 - 3:56 pm

    “This nincompoop goes to mosque …”

    ooops forgot to post the link where you can find this nincompoop


  21. #21 by limkamput on Wednesday, 2 September 2009 - 4:01 pm

    thank you for making me even more popular

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