A year-end look at Malaysia from afar

— Farish Noor
The Malaysian Insider
Dec 22, 2011

DEC 22 — I began my academic career more than a decade ago — and I can wryly state, with a smirk on my face, that my career began in the previous century.

From the outset the subjects that I have taught have been in keeping with my own academic interests as a student years ago: Philosophy, political theory, literature, history and Area Studies, of which the study of Malaysian society, politics and history has always been an ongoing concern of mine. For a decade now I have been offering and teaching a handful of courses, one of them being the history of the society and politics of Malaysia, and this is a course that I have taught in Germany, France and now here in Singapore where I am presently based, at least for the next couple of years or so.

Of all the subjects I have taught, none has had as much attraction – or been the cause of so much anxiety and concern — as the subject of Malaysian politics and history. And perhaps none of the courses that I have taught have cost me so much, emotionally and psychologically.

This is simply because the prevailing norm of academic research and teaching is one that lays emphasis on reason, balance and objective distance from the subject at hand. But when the subject at hand happens to be the country of one’s birth, and to which one presumably has some emotional attachment to, then maintaining that sense of objective, critical, balanced distance becomes difficult even at the best of times.

What compounds matters for me is that my focus on Malaysian society, politics and history is shaped by my other related concerns about the linkages between politics and economics, power and violence, race and religion, and the instrumentalisation of all the previously-mentioned for the sake of power and the use of it by political elites the world over. Parallel to my focus on Malaysia has been my other research interests in radical and potentially violent ethno-nationalist politics, as well as religious politics, communitarian politics and religious violence. Put all of these ingredients into a crammed head like mine and the result is a catalogue of neuroses and anxiety that leads to depression and suicidal inclinations even on the sunniest of days.

As this year comes to an end, and as the first half of the trimester on Malaysian History, Society and Politics closes, I can only reflect on the significant developments in Malaysia that have caught my attention as an academic viewer/commentator.

The prognosis can hardly be described as a positive one, but what adds salt to the wound is the fact that much of what has come to pass was already anticipated by yours truly a decade ago. At this point I am not suggesting that I possess any extraordinary powers of prediction, for if that were the case I would have quit the life of an academic in the 1990s (last century) and opted for a career as a professional gambler instead.

No the predictability of Malaysia’s politics — despite its seeming complex and multifarious facade – lies in the fact that the underlying structures, both party-political and institutional – have remained constant for more than half a century. Occasionally in the course of my lectures I feel the need to strip away the external particularities of the Malaysian model in order to render its underlying skeletal structure bare, and I do this only to ensure that our approach to the question/testcase at hand remains an objective one. Take ‘Malaysia’ out of the equation and bracket out its identity altogether. What we have is a country whose complexity is skin-deep (literally) by virtue of the communitarian (and thus potentially divisive) nature of its communitarian politics, here predicated on ethno-racial differences. Any society that is thus ordered will necessarily slip into the morass of sectarian representative politics where the political arena is taken as a competing ground for short-termist communitarian interests. Any society ordered thus can only give birth to a political culture that neglects the long term national interest for the sake of immediate communitarian gains – and those communitarian demands and gains can be couched in the language of race, as it can in the language of religion, etc.

A decade ago I remarked at one of those urban middle-class polite gatherings in the genteel quarters of KL/Klang valley that unless and until Malaysians transcend the logic of narrow ethnic/racial compartmentalisation we will never reach the level of a national politics predicated on the universal category of citizenship, which ought – in my opinion – be the basis of active participation in the political domain by anyone and everyone. Ten years ago I stated that should these trends remain unchecked, they will merely continue to fester and replicate themselves, viral-like, until we witness the rise of more and more ethnic and religious based movements, that will turn to the democratic process in order to advance agendas and demands that are sectarian and particular; and which in the long run entails the use and abuse of democracy for the sake of ends that are not only not democratic, but quite possible even anti-democratic. A decade ago I called for us to defend the norms of democracy from being abused and hijacked by those who will play the democratic game, but only to end the game in the long run.

My warnings then were not only unheeded, but deemed impolite, alarmist, outrageous and exaggerated. Someone told me in my face: “I hate listening to your talks because you just make me feel depressed.”

A decade later I feel neither vindication nor elation at the thought that so much of what I feared would happen has come to pass, and has moved from the register of the virtual to the real. We now have a civil society domain populated by anti-democratic forces that don the garb on NGOs and civil society movements, though despite that their means and ends are anything but democratic and civil. The only solace I find in this cloudy climate is the thought that an even greater calamity awaits all of us in Asia in the coming decade, as a new Great Game of international proportions and permanent consequences is about to be enacted at our very doorstep. with the drums of war beating from Washington to Beijing. Malaysia, a small yet complex country despite its diminutive stature, will be drawn into this maelstrom as its people bicker about who can wear what colour, who can say which word, who can read which book, and so on and so forth, down the spiraling path of micro-inanities.

And as this happens, I can only continue in my task as teacher and historian, chronicler of mistakes, errors and opportunities lost, and continue with my work of documenting Malaysia’s history at a time when its people – half a century after independence, remain clueless as to who and what they are, and remain as distant as ever from that once cherished ideal of a Malaysian nation for all Malaysians, based on the simplest notion of all: that all citizens are equal in the eyes of God, the state, and history.

A happy new year to all, though the wish I express is not without a heavy dose of regret and loss as well.

* The writer is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore

  1. #1 by Loh on Friday, 23 December 2011 - 5:53 am

    ///A decade ago I called for us to defend the norms of democracy from being abused and hijacked by those who will play the democratic game, but only to end the game in the long run.


    Malaysia, a small yet complex country despite its diminutive stature, will be drawn into this maelstrom as its people bicker about who can wear what colour, who can say which word, who can read which book, and so on and so forth, down the spiraling path of micro-inanities.///–Farish Noor

    It is because the powers-that-be preferred to play the democratic game rather that to offer their services in a democratic nation that they have horned their skill in getting elected in each and every election through dividing the people; they needed only to please just a majority of the people to get their undivided support that they were able to discriminate against the minority group. In fact discriminating against a fraction of the population ensures that the favoured group feel that they had a shared destiny with the ruling party. In fact the collusion of majority among Malaysians who share some classifications has developed into a gang-like relationship. The second para of Farish Noor describes the process in getting the gang members united to play the democratic game.

    The way UMNO bought the loyalty of more than half the population could not have been possible without the windfalls from oil revenues. That windfalls allow the powers-that-be to behave like new royalties in absolute monarchy. In consequence three generations of some people have not had to face real living demands, and they are consigned to low income existence. While others who saw through the democracy game moved away, with the remaining forced to suffer collateral damage.

    Until there is change in communal political structure, there can be no future for Malaysia.

  2. #2 by yhsiew on Friday, 23 December 2011 - 7:15 am

    ///We now have a civil society domain populated by anti-democratic forces that don the garb on NGOs and civil society movements….///

    I just wish that the author could expound his views on whether the anti-democratic forces would eventually herald the dawn of a “Malaysian Spring” like what is happening in the Arab world currently.

  3. #3 by boh-liao on Friday, 23 December 2011 - 9:42 am

    D SAD truth: Here in M’sia, we hv 2 let UmnoB Malays RUIN d nation first, until other Malays can’t tahan lagi n join hand with most nonMalay M’sians 2 kick out UmnoB/BN
    Then, we may hv a bit of hope (dis also depends how PR kaki2 run d nation)

  4. #4 by sotong on Friday, 23 December 2011 - 3:37 pm

    Democracy is two wolves and a lamb deciding what they are having for lunch.

  5. #5 by Loh on Saturday, 24 December 2011 - 3:26 pm

    It would have caused the state less if the country is ruled by absolute rulers, in Malaysia. In that situation, the rulers know that they own the resources of the country including its people. They can use the resources of the country as and when they are needed. They can travel by private jet just like the so-called adviser of a GLC is doing, which includes giving joy rides to the extended families and cronies. The rulers do not have to stash money away in other countries like politicians who know their days are numbered by they try to extend them. They do not have to feed cronies to keep them in power while they play the democratic game.

    Democratic game kills Malaysia.

  6. #6 by Loh on Saturday, 24 December 2011 - 4:43 pm

    ///Riding on his “People First” mantra, Najib enticed the people with a one-off grant of RM500 to households with a monthly income of RM3,000 and below.
    Najib told Malaysians that all this would cost the government RM1.8 billion and will benefit some 3.4 million people or 53 per cent of households.///–Jeswan Kaur, http://www.freemalaysiatoday.com/2011/12/24/the-ugly-face-of-money-politics-is-back/

    Every household which is entitled to such assistance would have gotten 150 RM more had Najib’s friend Razak Baginda offered his service free in the purchase of the Scorpene submarine. They will also get another 900 RM more if the 6 boats did not go up in price by three billion Ringgit. Indeed they would have gotten 2,700 RM extra if the government decided that the six boats are not needed.

    Of course, they could have a share of all those money transferred to the hands of somebody’s cronies. The compensations paid on the crooked bridge meant that they were deprived of a share of 300 RM each.

    The persons who received the payment should now think that a better government would have given them more, even if they had to stoop to receiving handouts. The better government would have enabled them the improve on the living standards and living dignity.

    The money given by UMNO government is a reminder that they should vote UMNO out so that better offers would come along. They hold the destiny of UMNO, which is an obstacle to their better living conditions, more harmonious society. They will also be free from the blame that they were ungrateful to the government as if those in the government were working for their interests.

  7. #7 by digard on Sunday, 25 December 2011 - 11:07 am

    Farish Noor, the constant effort to propagate civilised behaviour is very much appreciated. Though I feel it is bound to fell on deaf ears, on all sides, including commentators in this blog. What we are getting here is the drab of UMNO-this and UMNO-that.

    This pint of view is not fully correct, as we are seeing ethnicity-centered politics everywhere, and from all sides, from Perkasa to Hindraf. One cannot expect any better from the former, though the latter should know much better. Especially an organisation representing less than 10 percent ethnically, should know that the only way forward is a colour-blind acceptance of universal principles.
    And to the second largest ethnic group, it is also split in those who sub-ordinate themselves voluntarily under a domination for the sake of the monetary god delivered by Ali-Baba. While the others are gradually developing yet another unfortunate and unwarranted perception of the world: that of their own superiority above an at least partially objectively visibly under-performing societal group. The task here, however, should rather be, to integrate the seemingly lower performing citizens into an effective economy. It must be conceded that this is as of now impossible, because of the lack of any need of the members of that group to succeed economically. Their income, food, education and overall material well-being is also guaranteed by sub-ordinating themselves; in this case under a strict, ritualised, concept of race, religion and rulers. Since this method is much simpler than standing up in a competition, and does not even require any proof of sincerity beyond the mechanical ritual, this wholesome integration into a civilised society must imperatively fail.
    UMNO lives and prospers from exactly this balance of keeping societal groups ever further apart. The mistake committed by the majority in Malaysia was, to accept ethnicity as turf. Focusing on ethnicity is contradictory to the civilised world-view of Farish Noor. And this applies to the Malaysian Chinese like to any other community. As long as the Malaysians are willing to pursue this train of thought, the country can never develop beyond its current ‘state of stable tension’ (Professor Datuk Shamsul Amri Baharuddin, director of the Institute of the Malay World and Civilisation and Institute of
    Occidental Studies, UKM, 2006)

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