— Farish A Noor
The Malaysian Insider
May 04, 2013

MAY 4 — It is close to midnight and I am typing this as I try to pack up my things and finish off the fieldwork that I have been doing for the past two weeks, covering the election campaign in three different places — Temerloh, Kuala Selangor and Kota Kinabalu.

Lugging an antiquated laptop that dates back to the Jurassic age made of granite has not helped, and my back is wrecked as a result. My eyes are failing me, so excuse the typos as you come across them, too.

I have been following elections in Malaysia for ages, in 1999, 2004, 2008 and now this one, in 2013. In the course of my work as a wandering academic I’ve also covered elections in Pakistan, India, Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines.

And I have since grown somewhat cynical about the promises that are made during campaigns, for I have seen them broken too many times as well.

I have also noticed that despite the rhetoric that has been dished out to people across Asia by Asian politicians, there has almost never been a radical break from the hegemony of the Washington consensus, and the dominance of the ideology of market-driven democratic pluralism.

I have also seen too many instances where market-driven democracies lead to narrow communitarian politics of group-identity and where pluralism ends up being an excuse for race and religion-based politics.

But perhaps this is the juncture we are at today, and it is a symptom of the times we live in, living as we do in an age of late industrial capitalism and where the rule of the market seems unchallenged.

Even China, an ostensibly Communist country, is basically a capitalist economy and its real challenge to the West is not a military one but rather a commercial one.

Notwithstanding my cynicism and jaded eyes, I still believe in Malaysia, and that we have a future together. I am wrapping up my work in Sabah and I hope to fly to KL in time to vote tomorrow. (I hope however that I won’t be hounded by any election observers who may think I’m some mamak outsider who has come to vote for money!)

My faith rests on my view as a historian who looks at Malaysia from the perspective of someone who walks through history. There are some among us who lament and fear change and during my interviews with some of the kindly aunties and uncles in the coffeeshops of Kota Kinabalu that’s precisely what I heard. They worry about the future, as the elderly are wont to do, but my job as a teacher is to remind them that change has already happened.

As I said to a tiny aunty whose hands kept reaching for her bag of tissues: “But Aunty, you remember when you went to school right? Remember how in the past people thought girls like you and my mother should not even go to school to learn to read? Their parents thought it was improper for girls to do that.

“But look around us today and aren’t you proud that you went to school, that your daughter did, and that your grand-daughter did too? Has that not changed our society for the better?”

It was nice to see a little smile peek out from the corner of her tiny face then.

At my university I teach philosophy, discourse analysis and also the history of Southeast Asia. One of the courses I teach is on Malaysian history and society, and I always begin my course with the question: “What is Malaysia”. At the end of my course I ask the same question again: “What is Malaysia?”

Indeed, what is Malaysia?

Well, from the standpoint of being in Sabah at the moment, I can tell you Sabah IS Malaysia, for starters. So many things have happened to this country of ours, so many events, some of them unprecedented, some unanticipated, some unpredicted, some unwelcomed.

But time and again Malaysia has survived them and Malaysia — as an entity, as an idea — continues to exist. Why? Because Malaysia is not simply an empty signifier that is polysemic and diachronic, but it is also an idea whose meaning is shared by a community of believers.

People like you and me who are Malaysian believe in Malaysia, and who keep Malaysia alive. WE are Malaysia, and not the trees or rivers or malls or skyscrapers we see around us. It is we — Malaysians — who are the inheritors, depositories, purveyors and transmitters of the Malaysian idea.

Malaysia is a small-to-medium-sized country with no hegemonic ambitions; we know we are not among the world’s giants. But even as a country of our stature, we too demand respect from others, as we ought to demand respect for and of ourselves.

It has been said that this election has been the dirtiest of our nation’s history. I would not doubt that, but I’ve also seen much, much worse in elections elsewhere.

But what touched me this time round were the manifold instances when I encountered good politicians from different parties who still injected the Malaysian idea in their work and their campaign. I was touched to see and hear Dr Dzulkefly Ahmad of PAS and Saifuddin Abdullah of Umno, both of whom are my friends, speak well of their opponents; and to insist on keeping their campaigns clean and fair.

It is upon their shoulders — and yours and mine — that I pin my hope that the Malaysian spirit will continue to thrive long after I’ve kicked the bucket. (Which may be sooner than later at the rate I’m smoking.)

Whatever the result of the elections will be — and here I have to emphasise that I honestly cannot, for the life of me, predict the outcome of the vote on May 5 as this has been the closest and most confusing election I’ve ever covered — and whoever wins the election this time round, change has already happened.

We have already seen how the high have been brought low, how trust has now got to be earned and not demanded, how fear has been overcome, and how the old school of politics of patronising drivel has been superseded by the politics of statistics, data, argumentation and debate.

Change happens all the time and in the same way that none of us can ever imagine Malaysia regressing to an age where women are not allowed access to education, we cannot ever imagine going back to a politics that is simplistic, patronising, top-down and unchallenged.

Even the former opposition parties have learned, over the past five years, what it is really like to be in power and having to be accountable to NGOs and public opinion. It’s been a learning experience for all of us, and I believe we have grown a little wiser too.

I just want to end with a reminder to myself, to you and crucially to our future public representatives who we will be voting into office tomorrow. Remember that in our national language there are two words that share a common etymological root. They are “Warganegara” and “Keluarga” (Citizenship and Family).

The etymological link is lost in English, but it is clear in Bahasa Malaysia, for the two words share the same root — “warga”, “to be a member of”. To be a citizen (warganegara) and a family member (keluarga) mean that we are all members of the same national family, the Malaysian family. I would like us to remember that, and our politicians ought to do so in particular.

Like some of you, I have grown tired of the bile and venom that our representatives have been spewing out to each other, in the form of taunts, insults, slander and abuse. It demeans them, but it demeans us too, for they represent us.

And as a Malaysian academic teaching in Europe and other parts of Asia, I am embarrassed when I hear people snigger about Malaysia’s political antics and when people say “That’s Malaysian politics for you”. No, that is not how Malaysian politics ought to be, and there are plenty of Malaysian politicians I know who would not stoop to that.

And we, Malaysians, should not stoop to that either. Our politicians have to remember (and be reminded) that the opponent who sits across the floor from him or her is a fellow Malaysian, a warganegara, who belongs to the same Malaysian family/keluarga as he/she does. That is not your enemy, but a fellow citizen who has been elected by your other fellow Malaysian citizens to represent them, as you have.

It is upon this simple, foundational idea — of universal citizenship — that all our dreams of a better Malaysia can be built on, for all Malaysians.

The answer to the question that I ask my students — “What is Malaysia?” — is a simple and complex one at the same time. It is an idea that is carried in the hearts of 29 million human beings who wish to live in a society that is civil, civilised, upright, honourable and where each citizen is accorded his or her rightful portion of dignity and respect.

Our dreams are many, and they are confounding. Our dreams may differ, and even be at odds with one another. But all of us couch our dreams in the framework of a Malaysia that we wish to see grow and prosper; and in that future prosperity we seek, we see that it is also a prosperity that is shared with others.

And our Malaysia has changed, and has changed for hundreds of years, and will continue to do so in the future. We have been blighted by colonialism, imperialism, two imperial wars not of our own making, an insurgency, a confrontation, a Cold War not of our own choosing, and numerous disasters. And yet Malaysia lives on.

Come May 6, whatever the outcome of the election results, we have to remember this: that despite our faults and weaknesses, our squabbles and differences, we remain that complex family whose destiny is bound together.

That is the meaning of Malaysia, if it is to have any.

  1. #1 by boh-liao on Saturday, 4 May 2013 - 10:53 am

    Can we really feel like dis abt Malaysia after 505!?
    Wish “all my dreams at last will come true”

  2. #2 by boh-liao on Saturday, 4 May 2013 - 11:59 am

    Yes, dis is Y we hv 2 vote 4 PR n KICK out UmnoB/BN n Perkosa 2 regain d honor n respect of warganegara n keluarga

    Right now, in many nonMalay families, members of keluarga r dispersed all over d world, thanks 2 UmnoB/BN’s racist n corrupt policy

  3. #3 by omeqiu on Saturday, 4 May 2013 - 12:42 pm

    You write well, i.e. for the learned. I always admired your discourse in Kit’s blog. I hope the less educated will also benefit from what you have written in this article.

You must be logged in to post a comment.