Vague principles, contradictory policies

by Hafiz Noor Shams
The Malaysian Insider
Jul 06, 2011

JULY 6 — Some ideas are vague for a reason. In Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, the majority is afraid of commitment and responsibilities. It is simply impractical to have clear opinions or positions. Consistency arising from those opinions and positions is a barrier to success. One has to be pragmatic to be successful. Vagueness allows such pragmatism. To put it bluntly, it creates contradictions.

That is not too far off from the truth in our world. That is not too far off from the political culture in Malaysia. There are vague positions and from those ambiguities, contradictions.

1 Malaysia is an example. Despite all efforts to explain it by far too many sides, 1 Malaysia is still an ambiguous concept. It appeals to the idea of inclusiveness and equality, yet those with distaste for these very liberal ideas are the ones promoting it. There are of course true blue egalitarians within Barisan Nasional who are also promoting 1 Malaysia but when both racialists and egalitarians are able to appeal to 1 Malaysia in contradictory terms, the concept itself cannot escape the accusation of being ambiguous.

In the early stage of 1 Malaysia, one particular idea was floated around to justify its vagueness. It was “strategic ambiguity.” It stated 1 Malaysia was made ambiguous on purpose so that it could be used to appease all sides. All sides can take ownership of 1 Malaysia by applying to it their own definition.

That and its vagueness means 1 Malaysia is both everything and nothing, neither here nor there. Its ambiguity means it is not opposable. Given the feudalistic culture that prevails in Malaysia, in BN and in Umno in particular, there is an imperative to support it just because it came from the top.

With nothing to oppose and everything to accept, it was good for BN and Umno in a time when both are just emerging from a relatively disastrous infighting. They needed a rallying call. A vague call seemed fine.

Perhaps in its pretension that BN is a perfect replica of Malaysian society, they might have thought that what works for BN might work for Malaysia. The Malaysian society is more diverse than BN however. And because many Malaysians are outsiders to BN and are less enamored with feudalistic culture, they are more demanding in knowing why they should be on board with 1 Malaysia. At least, for those who care, anyway.

After persistent ambiguity, many have become disinterested in defining 1 Malaysia. They have moved on. At the same time, 1 Malaysia sees relegation from a grand ambition contributing to national identity to a mere economic programme troubled by inconsistency.

Today, in fact, 1 Malaysia is all about the government and Economic Transformation Programmes and nothing else. It is about projects. It is about buildings and infrastructure. It is about cold hard cash.

But because the programmes are ultimately derived from the vague 1 Malaysia, it suffers from contradiction. The GTP and the ETP are market-driven but both embrace government intervention; price controls are everywhere. The ETP is privately sector-driven but these drivers are government-linked companies: Menara Warisan comes to mind. The best epitome of inconsistency is the term “market-friendly affirmative action.”

Again, 1 Malaysia in the end is about projects and cold hard cash. There is no principle governing it. Anything goes.

To prove that this is really a prevailing political culture rather than merely one belonging exclusively to BN, members of Pakatan Rakyat themselves are not doing well in terms of ambiguity. The “negara berkebajikan” introduced by PAS is the latest example.

What is it exactly? So far, the buzz has it that it is Islamic, it is not an Islamic state, it is not the welfare state concept and it is different from the system practised by the BN-led federal government. There is little clarification on why it is Islamic, why it is not an Islamic state, why it is not the welfare state and why it is different from BN policy. Apart from several key terms, it is ultimately vague.

To be fair, PAS must be given time to articulate the idea, especially since the idea is creating a competition to the political centre. Nevertheless, the fact that concept was released before its articulation makes it susceptible to the same criticism directed against 1 Malaysia. Unless the articulation lifts the veil of ambiguity soon, “negara berkebajikan” will be a potpourri of contradictions, much like 1 Malaysia.

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