Why I have nothing much to say at the moment (Part 1)

By Clive Kessler | November 07, 2012
UPDATED @ 07:04:27 AM 08-11-2012
The Malaysian Insider

People are kind.

They have been writing to ask how I am.

I have not said or written anything serious for weeks.

And they are beginning to wonder.

The “Phoney War” Interlude

“What is the problem?” they ask.

The problem, I reply, is not me. It’s the situation.

The situation?

Yes, we are now in a situation where there just isn’t much to say.

Not much that is really worthwhile, consequential. Worth the effort of putting on paper. New.

Everybody is waiting for the election to be called and held.

They have been for a while now.

The terms and ground of the next national election have been laid down pretty clearly. They were set some time ago.

So there is not much to say or do in the meanwhile, until the election is called.

We are in the political equivalent of what was once called the “phoney war.”

A time when war was declared but the battle yet to be seriously engaged, for the opposed troops to throw themselves into desperate action.

But people can’t simply stand still or keep quiet.

So the available space is simply packed these days with “noise.” With distractions, with “filler”, with ambit claims and posturing.

In all the political parties it is a time simply for maintaining their troops “at the ready.” For the voicing of shop-soiled stock phrases, for the repetitious declaration of familiar positions and claims.

But is there nothing at all to say?

Well, yes, perhaps there is.

Nothing new, mind you.

Just a brief stocktaking. A look, as we sit in our stalled vehicle, into the rearview mirror.

Just to see where we are, and the road along which we got here.

“The Writing on the Wall”

The terms for the coming election have long been set: certainly since the first of the two great Bersih marches.

Since then the issue has been clear.

With vast popular support the two Bersih marches made, in a very practical “feet on the ground” manner, one powerful symbolic statement.

State and society, government and people, must be credibly conjoined if a modern democratic political order is to be created and sustained.

In a modern democracy, the connecting device between state and society, or seen from other direction between citizens and their rulers, is periodic popular elections.

It is through elections that the people’s representatives in the legislature are chosen and, from among them and with their support, a government is formed.

The credibility of the government, and more than that of the entire political order and governing regime, rests upon the credibility of the elections.

Even, and especially, from the government’s own standpoint, the only serviceable election system is a credible one. If it’s not credible it is simply useless, a waste of time and effort.

If the mechanism is a good one and its processes are clear and clean and transparent, a plausible government can result, one that had legitimacy, one that even those who did not vote for it can and must accept.

But if the electoral mechanism, the hinge between citizen and government, is defective, no plausible government can emerge. What can emerge can enjoy no real or substantial legitimacy.

Power, claims to authority, that lack legitimacy affront democratic sensibilities.

They cannot gain, still less hold over the longer term, widespread and principled acceptance.

So they simply cannot provide any grounds to rule.

Not effectively, anyway.

That issue has been “on the table”, that challenge to the continuity of Malaysian politics in its current dispensation, has been starkly posed, at least since the Bersih march of July 2011.

That is, and has for some time now been, Umno/BN’s dilemma.

Since 2008: The Challenge “On the Table”

But the terms of the forthcoming election, the “existential challenge” facing Umno/BN, were set even well before that.

The basic challenge of Umno/BN’s survival, and very survivability, were decisively set by the previous national election of 2008.

The challenge has been there since then.

The question whether Umno/BN can continue to rule, and of what the “old governing firm” needs to do to ensure that it might still do so, has been facing it squarely since then.

For Umno/BN the challenge of facing and winning the next election, the question of its very viability and survival, was clearly posed — for those who were ready to see it — by the nature of the election results of 2008.

The job of addressing that challenge has confronted it since then.

How did this situation come about?

What Happened in 2008?

Malaysia’s first post-independence political dispensation lasted from 1957 to 1969, when it came crashing down in the regime crisis triggered by the 1969 elections.

Hence the design and creation around the Barisan Nasional governing coalition of the second post-independence political dispensation or framework: that centred upon the NEP that was intended to last for 20 years, from 1970 to 1990.

But even before 1990, from the mid-1980s, people began asking the big question, “after 1990, after the NEP, what?” Tan Sri Abdullah Ahmad [Kok Lanas]’s influential Singapore lecture on Ketuanan Melayu was offered as a notable and early answer, or ambit claim, in response to that looming question.

In the event, as after 1990 the NEP quite seamlessly “morphed” into the NDP, the NEP era and the second dispensation did not end but were indefinitely extended.

And as Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s long prime ministership stretched out, soon dramatically focused upon managing the Asian Economic Crisis of 1997 and the ensuing Reformasi crisis ignited by Anwar Ibrahim’s challenge, that second post-independence dispensation was eventually extended, shored up, and stretched out for well more than decade after 1990.

So, rather than being replaced, the second post-independence political dispensation or framework ended up having an unnaturally long afterlife. It lasted, or lingered on, well past its originally intended “use-by-date.”

And as it did, the ground upon which it stood was changing rapidly, transformed by many forces but none greater than the impact of the Umno’s own NEP policies.

Those policies, as they were intended to do, totally transformed Malaysian society by irreversibly diversifying peninsular Malay society. They did so along all its key axes and dimensions — economically, occupationally, professionally, socially, culturally, intellectually. Their product was a rich diversity of new Malay “lifestyles”, configurations and social groupings.

But as they did so the gap or “mismatch” between the post-1970 political framework and the increasingly complex character of the society upon which it stood, and whose public life it had to shape and channel and regulate, became ever greater and more problematic.

Above all, calls for “Malay unity” and mounting pressure to conform to conventional standards of Islamic rectitude could never suffice to counterbalance and contain the effects of that massive diversification of Malay society. Not that people in charge did not try, or keep on trying.

But the effort was misconceived. Those in charge kept trying to force this new society back into the old political mould, rather than creating a new mould that was more congruent with, and hospitable to, their society’s evolving character.

The need for a new, post-NEP third post-independence political dispensation was becoming ever more clear. But the need was not recognized or met. So long as the credibility of Malaysia and its leadership had to be salvaged from the economic crisis of 1997 and the ensuing political eruption of 1999, the second dispensation remained in force.

Other matters had priority, and the familiar NEP framework would continue to provide the context and basis to resolve them.

As with the US space shuttle vehicles, ways were found simply to prolong its useful life, keep it operational and in service, avoiding the need to develop and launch a replacement.

The Abdullah interlude, Najib’s succession

That was the situation when, eventually, Dr Mahathir handed the nation’s leadership over to Abdullah.

Yet, through no fault of Abdullah’s, that third post-independence dispensation did not then emerge. It still has not. Instead, as noted, with Dr Mahathir’s fairly seamless introduction of the NDP as the 1990s began, the NEP-era dispensation lived on and was assiduously preserved.

Even then the long afterlife of the second dispensation had continued. With Dr Mahathir at its head, it had been challenged by Anwar. But that ill-considered and incoherent challenge had been blocked. Thereafter, with Dr Mahathir’s determination to oversee the nation’s recovery from global economic recession and national political upheaval, the long and strange afterlife of the NEP-era political dispensation was further prolonged.

It was to remain in place so long as Dr Mahathir himself did. He remained in charge, and was determined to do so, until economic and political recovery, and with it his own political legacy and reputation, had been assured.

Eventually welcomed into office in a mood of national relief and goodwill, Abdullah went to the polls and received a heartening popular response, and a personal mandate, in 2004.

That was the personal aspect.

But, for the Umno, it was a political reprieve, not a message of forgiveness, a probation notice, not a pardon. The new prime minister and Umno/BN were “on notice.” There was serious work to be done, they were in effect told, and urgently.

But that was not how things were understood. The personal endorsement of Abdullah created in many party loyalists a false sense of comfort.

It anaesthetized any sense of urgency for political reform, in the Umno itself or the overarching political framework through which it managed Malaysian national life. Even when Abdullah seemed inclined to make some modest changes, he found himself blocked and resisted by those who felt that all was fine, that no change was necessary.

Unable to assert himself or to change the terms of party, government or national politics in any chosen direction of his own, Abdullah simply plodded on grimly towards his moment of truth in the March 2008 elections. When they came, the elections provided the occasion, the political opening and opportunity, for all the diverse social forces — many of them the direct and intended products of the NEP itself — that had been slowly building up during the long after-life of the second post-independence dispensation but which had been unable to express themselves, or to develop any serious political traction under it, to burst out.

In doing so they swept the old structure away. The familiar old governing logic was undermined, the tight political framework and paradigm under which they had long been kept under ever more tenuous restraint and control was shown to be obsolete.

“Not relevant” any more, some said with a certain irony.

No longer plausible or convincing, it now simply collapsed. Or rather, at the 2008 elections Malaysia’s second post-independence political dispensation, after its unnaturally long afterlife, was belatedly blasted away, exploded.

These long gestating but newly assertive forces were powerful enough to sweep away the old political structure and its governing logic. But they were not strong or cohesive enough to create a new third post-Merdeka political dispensation or paradigm of their own.

As a result Malaysia now stood, and still stands, stranded between the collapse of the second and the fervently awaited arrival, the effective production, of the third.

That has been the task, the challenge.

It is one that must be faced courageously, and with imagination.

As prime minister, Najib has preferred to be cautious: to express continuity with Umno’s and the Malay political past and to couch, even hide and disguise, his muted aspirations for innovation and change within narrowly managerial terms: within the technical terminology and in numbingly soporific talk of administrative transformation.

That is hardly the way to invite, encourage and provoke the nation to re-imagine itself in the terms of today, and as an agenda for the days and years to come. It is a dour management blueprint, not a mobilizing national vision.

And for the rest — for all that lies beyond administrative restructuring — for the “bigger picture”, the wider issues of evolving national identity and destiny, Prime Minister Najib has sought to bridge the gap between past and future with his woefully inchoate, vague and contradictory the “1 Malaysia” concept.

Since his accession to the highest office, the nation has accordingly been caught, in the poet Matthew Arnold’s famous typification of his own times, “between two worlds, the one dying, the other powerless to be born.”

That, too, has been Prime Minister Najib’s own dilemma. That has been his predicament, as he yearns for a political mandate of his own, both in his party and from the nation as a whole, and as he searches for a “good moment” to put his popularity to the test.

But a favourable moment has never come. Yet he has continued to hope for one. But none can ever really offer itself so long as he remains cornered in that dilemma of his own and his party’s making, in a predicament born of his own — and his party’s — lack of political clarity, of a temporizing political indecisiveness.

A bifurcated nation, divided over “Ketuanan Melayu”

Put simply — perhaps a little too simply but not misleadingly so — by 2008 one part of the electorate, mainly non-Malays, had resolved that they would no longer accept Umno’s repeated displays of “blood-and-soil” bravado expressed in the public and ceremonial, but also intensely political, brandishing of the keris, together with what that action was unashamedly intended to symbolize.

In increasing numbers many non-Malays now refused assent to the Umno-led government’s commitment to the view that the nation was, and since independence had always incontrovertibly been, founded upon the principle of Ketuanan Melayu, upon a constitutionally inherent, or immanent, yet universally accepted basis of Malay ascendancy or categorical ethno-historical primacy and supremacy.

Meanwhile another part of the electorate, mainly Malays, who had been persuaded by (or who themselves had sought to persuade most Malays of) the opposite view thought otherwise.

On that side were those who, especially since Abdullah’s Singapore speech in 1986, had sought to argue that Ketuanan Melayu had been an integral and accepted foundational part of the Merdeka agreements.

By 2008 they had spent more than two decades assiduously promoting that revisionist view. At times ingeniously — often audaciously and even brazenly — they sought to “read back” the Ketuanan Melayu principle into the Merdeka Constitution, to “build it back” and “retrofit” it into the nation’s founding charter.

If the principle was not to be found there explicitly (and even if it had been disavowed and repudiated by all the principal actors in the “Merdeka Process”), it was, they argued, immanently there, implied not so much by the actual clauses of the Constitution but within the spaces between them.

Those who were of this “retrospectively expansionist” inclination were now persuaded — quite wrongly as a matter of historical fact — that the new spirit of “defiance” that the other side’s refusal of their own new, revisionist view signified, and substantively amounted to, a repudiation of an existing and long-standing national covenant. It was, for them, a denial of the terms of non-Malay inclusion as citizens in the nation, a broken promise, a breach of citizenship contract.

Having persuaded themselves that Ketuanan Melayu had been “in there at the outset”, that it was an inherent part from birth of the nation and state’s very flesh and blood and sinews, they were now shocked to see that the other side simply did not accept that view.

More and worse, they saw that refusal not as historically based and arguably or conceivably legitimate but as historical betrayal.

Even if the champions of Ketuanan Melayu had not persuaded others of their own view, they had convinced themselves extravagantly. They had persuaded themselves not only of the justice of the Ketuanan Melayu principle itself as the nation’s bedrock but also of the “the other side’s” supposed acceptance of, and perpetually binding agreement to, it. For them, that fantasy of agreement to “subordination in perpetuity” had become an incontrovertible historical fact. Hence their disagreement was perceived and understood as more than simple disagreement. It was seen as treason.

So, on the one side: Ketuanan Melayu seen as an excess and distortion that could no longer be accepted and condoned, and therefore had in good conscience to be opposed. On the other side, Ketuanan Melayu as both a sacred covenant and also a hard-nosed “deal” or bargain, that was now being faithlessly repudiated. Betrayed, treacherously.

To some very surprising but to others hardly so, the 2008 election outcome resulted from and gave expression to the ever increasingly explicit emergence of that national bifurcation or dichotomy.

That was the central issue. It was an issue that people who were deeply disquieted by the unceasing expansionism of the Ketuanan Melayu claims had not talked much about before the election, preferring to hold their attitude quietly to themselves — until they voted upon it as the key issue of national choice.

The election outcome signalled that for many Malaysians this was now the key issue, above all others, and one which, if it were to survive, the Umno would have to address.

It was an issue that it would have to address by choosing, soon and decisively and unapologetically, to become once more a genuinely “centrist” party, a party of the “middle ground”, a party of national and especially ethnic moderation and inter-communal conciliation.

In other words, to be a champion of everything that the boasting of Ketuanan Melayu was not.

(To be continued in Part 2)
* Clive Kessler is Emeritus Professor of Sociology and Anthropology at the University of New South Wales, Sydney.

  1. #1 by monsterball on Saturday, 10 November 2012 - 12:36 pm

    The problem with the Professor is he is long winded of a subject where Malaysians are moving forward to fresh new events and current issues.
    No time to waste commenting on grandfather stories.

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