The fix is in. The people have been sold down the river.
It’s an open betrayal of the public’s faith. The thieves’ cabal is back and
everyone seems helpless to stop it. Even the ultimate constitutional protector
has taken sides. We’ve been shanked by the very people we threw out, with a
little help from the king.
Given the public reaction to the events of the last three weeks it’s a good bet that these and other similar thoughts are running through the minds of many Malaysians who had banded together in 2018 to defeat the kleptocrats of the Barisan Nasional (BN) government led by Najib Tun Razak in a stunning rout of Southeast Asia’s longest running government.
The new Pakatan Harapan (Coalition of Hope, PH) government led by the nonagenarian Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, however, lasted just under two years, ripped by the internal contradictions of the alliance and the vaulting ambitions of Mahathir, his Bersatu party’s president Tan Sri Muhiyiddin Yasin and others fearful of their waning influence in a racially mixed coalition. Mahathir, who had seemd ambivalent about making way for Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim of the largest party, PKR, and the designated successor after two years, is the major transgressor but not the only one. He was eventually overtaken by his own chosen man, Muhiyiddin.
As a result, essentially the same people who were shown out the front door by voters are in through the back door. You can almost hear them caressing the upholstery as they take in the familiar surroundings and murmuring, “daddy’s back baby”. No wonder The Guardian called it a “royal coup”. The new Prime Minister was administered the oath of office without showing he enjoys the confidence of Parliament even as Mahathir, endorsed once again by Pakatan, hung around in the hope that the king would call on him to form a new PH government.
It seems a bit unreal even now, with the ministries announced, priorities being set and governance continuing, but no certainty what happens when Parliament meets, as it must, sooner rather than later. The mathematics seems to be impossible for this new government as informal counts give PH 123 seats in a lower house of 222. This number is, of course, highly speculative but it reflects the uncertainty that surrounds this government. Weirdly, though, everyone around it is behaving as if it’s the new order. To the uninitiated, it’s more like driving through a dense fog.
Rosmah made greed a god to be admired by everyone around her. She made pink diamonds a must-have item after she bought a US$24 million ring from a New York jeweller.
As for Mahathir himself, the great manipulator seems to have met his match, finally. The biter has been bit, the spider caught in a steel web. Too clever by half is sometimes not enough, or perhaps he’s lost his sense of timing and judgment. All those fans who were celebrating his sphinx-like inscrutability must feel cheated that he’s caught in a mess of his own making. So he’s finally experiencing the joys of irrelevance, a space to which he sent so many of his old enemies. He’s likely to find plenty of company, then. Whether he enjoys it is another matter altogether.
If someone at the beginning of Chinese New year (January
25-26) had suggested today’s scenario they would have been met with rude
laughter. The Year of the Metal Rat is projected to be one of great change, but
seriously, this? There’s always been noise around the PH government, associated
mostly with bickering bigwigs. So people had developed a turn-off button for
the political intrigue that surrounded it—especially as they were willing to
cut everyone a lot of slack. After all, there’s just so much the layman can
take, bogged down by the rising costs, troublesome teenagers and even water
cuts every three months or so.
So when Rosmah Mansor, wife of former PM Najib arrives at court for her corruption trial with an ambulance trailing—it’s a bizarre up-yours by her and a way of leavening tensions at home. Now, even that may be gone as people will be wondering if she will ever pay for her crimes. Who knows how many amnesties will be handed out under this new government full of so many old BN sinners? Speculation is rising about that and other matters, especially after the resignation of attorney-general Tommy Thomas, a much respected figure, when Mahathir stepped down. Thomas was the first Christian (Marthoma Syrian Christian to be exact) and non-Malay to hold this post after the formation of Malaysia in 1963. He is also the first practising barrister to be appointed from the Malaysian Bar.
Rosmah, an Imelda Marcos-like figure for the decade her husband sat in the highest seat in Malaysia’s government, made greed a god to be admired by everyone around her. For the most part they merely wanted to get on with life a little more easily. That includes the sycophants and bottom feeders. Sans trauma, tantrums and bomoh (black magic) nonsense. She made pink diamonds a must-have item after the news that she had bought a US$24 million ring from a New York jeweller, just hours before the people were to take to the streets of Kuala Lumpur under Bersih 2.0, demanding free and fair elections.
(The original Bersih (clean), a coalition of civil society activists, led the first historic charge in the March 8, 2008, general election which destabilised the Umno-led multi-racial Barisan Nasional coalition that ran Malaysia uninterrupted since independence by destroying the BN’s Indian and Chinese voter base. That process ultimately led to the 2018 rout of the Najib government.)
Her husband, former prime minister and then finance minister, is facing at least 42 charges in five separate criminal trials over the 1Malaysia Development Berhad scandal (1MDB, as it is called, is an insolvent government-owned strategic investment company under investigation for massive fraud allegedly orchestrated by the former PM and his coterie) that led to investigations in the US, Switzerland, Singapore and elsewhere.
US investigators say at least US$4.5 billion was stolen from 1MDB by Najib’s associates and laundered through layers of bank accounts in the US and other countries to finance Hollywood films including The Wolf of Wall Street, and to buy hotels, a fabulous yacht, artwork, jewellery and other luxury goods.
More than US$700 million from the fund allegedly found it way into Najib’s bank account. To quote Mahatma Gandhi: “The world has enough for everyone’s need, but not enough for everyone’s greed.”
The May 9 general election of 2018 (also GE14) was the
decisive sledgehammer on the couple’s fortunes and it brought a change in the
government of the day. The old order was decisively toppled in a display of
voter power without precedent. For the first time ever, the opposition Pakatan
Harapan formed the government. The federal administrative capital of Putrajaya
was no longer sneered at as Putrakaya (rich son). The easy affluence for the
elites which bought silence, and enhanced the image of the Barisan Nasional
government as being benevolent is dimmed.
Under PH, a motley collection of political parties including Pakatan Keadilan Rakyat (People’s Justice Party) led by a jailed Anwar Ibrahim and the Democratic Action Party (DAP), change was felt by Everyman. But a major part of the old order was present in the person of the 94-year-old fox, Dr Mahathir, a key figure in the racial divide that was formalised after 1969.
But Malaysians are so patriotic that, old fox or jailed guy, we gave what we could to ease the national debt of RM1 trillion left from the Najib era—a legacy of the indiscriminate handouts to voters, public works contracts awarded to mainly Chinese firms and the 1MDB shenanigans. So we gave to Tabung Harapan Malaysia, a trust fund set up on May 30, 2018, and when it closed on January 14, 2019, it had RM202 million, used to pay off 1MDB debts. This donation or grant gave the donors a special stake in PH’s success.
Details about the fund were given by the newly-minted finance minister, Lim Guan Eng, arrested under Dr M’s first tenure under the Internal Security Act (ISA). That was in October 1987, and Lim of the DAP was caught in a sweeping crackdown on dissent called Operation Lalang (Operation Weed) along with 109 to 120 politicians and social activists.
Operation Lalang was only the second time in the country’s history when the ISA was used by the Royal Malaysian Police force. The first was during the May 13, 1969, riots that shook the ruling elite to the roots, against alleged Chinese domination of the economy. Over 200 people were killed in the riots across the country. It led to the New Economic Policy, a massive government-funded programme which continues today, to give Malays a fast track to the economic heights. It eventually morphed into an exclusively Bumiputera welfare scheme.
Both in 1969 and 1987 the reason given for using ISA was to ease racial tensions. With Ops Lalang, two newspapers were shut down—The Star and its Chinese language daily, Sin Chew Jit Poh. This crackdown came after protests over the education ministry’s move to send senior assistants and supervisors to Chinese-medium schools who critics said were not Chinese-educated.
The Chinese protested under the banner of the United Chinese School Committees Association of Malaysia (an association of Chinese school teachers and trustees, also known as Dong Jiao Zong). The Malays led by Umno Youth held their own kris-wielding protest attacking their coalition partner, the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA), for allegedly working with the then opposition DAP. The ultra-nationalists—they weren’t called that then—lapped up the drama while Dr Mahathir smiled (metaphorically).
Guan Eng was released in May 1989, with his father and DAP leader Lim Kit Siang, but the current finance minister was jailed for 18 months under the Sedition Act in 1994, after criticising the Mahathir-led government’s failure to bring to trial a statutory rape case against then Malacca chief minister Tan Sri Abdul Rahim Thamby Chik.
Indeed the PH government had many ministers who crossed swords with Dr M before he was asked to lead it for the 2018 election. It was Anwar’s daughter, Nurul Izzah, the puteri (princess) of the Reformasi (Reformation) movement—created in 1998 by Anwar after he was sacked by (who else?) Dr M—who flew to London to ask the man who jailed her father after a trial widely deemed to be fatally flawed, to take the reins. In London, far from prying eyes and ears to doors or phones.
Why ask this old fox, whom many still remember for his Machiavellian ways when he was Prime Minister No. 4? Insiders say it was because he was the only “opposition” candidate who could safely enter Malay-majority and Umno-supporting areas like those under the Federal Land Development Authority (Felda). They’re now paying the price for that invitation, in spades.
Mahathir’s influence over the Felda settlers, however, cannot be denied. He called on them to “bangkitlah, bangunlah kamu” (arise and wake up), and stop taking cash handouts from Najib and Umno. In the 2013 general election, the opposition led by Anwar—released from his first sodomy conviction—won only six Felda seats, three of which were won by PAS, which has since left the opposition pact.
It’s fun time for many as the leash is off after so many years, but many marginalised groups like LGBT, Shia and liberal Muslims, and even non-Muslims are at the receiving end of dogma, especially on human rights.
Under Najib’s tenure, Felda Global Ventures Holdings Bhd
(FGV) was created in 2012 and listed on the stock exchange. Felda settlers took
out loans of more than RM3,600 to pay for 800 units of FGV shares in 2012. Each
month, RM50 was deducted to pay for the loan. But FGV’s shares sank from RM4.80
to a current RM1.24, leaving these farmers with untenable debts—albeit nowhere
in neighbourhood of 1MDB.
That’s a lot of shenanigans that can make for a spellbinding
movie. An opposition leader gets a black eye for sodomy not once but twice in
his lifetime—and is given a royal pardon by a king who gave up his throne for a
Russian beauty—who then had to ask the man who threw him out of office to lead
the very movement born of his jailing. Into this mix come the 284 Hermes
and Birkin handbags and 72 bags of cash in ringgit and US dollars unearthed by
police on a raid on the Najib-Rosmah mansion, 1MBD largesse.
Everything is changing, to quote Heraclitus. While the dreaded Sedition Act of 1948, a British colonial legacy, still remains, one real difference after 2018 felt by all and sundry is far greater democratic space. Until now, you couldn’t trash the 3Rs—race, religion and royalty—not even the right-wingers. Thomas as A-G told the LAWASIA Constitutional & Rule of Law Conference 2019 in October that far more space had been given to individuals and critics of the government.
“Malaysia has never had this much democracy from Merdeka days. There is a thriving social media which has spent time physically attacking me… and yet no one has been prosecuted. So that is the best proof of the space you have.”
That space increased when the short-lived Anti-Fake News Act criminalising “fake news”, introduced just before GE 14, was scrapped last December. Pro-opposition websites like Malaysia Chronicles can now be accessed without a VPN and cybertroopers for mainly Umno are still active, on Facebook, Twitter, and WhatsApp. The old regime was far more insecure about dissenting voices.
The ultranationalists, a group who link nationhood to race and religion aka right-wing, have little trouble finding space in the media along with the Indian preacher wanted by his country’s police, Zakir Naik.
It’s fun time for many as the leash is off after so many years, but many marginalised groups like LGBT, Shia and liberal Muslims, and even non-Muslims are at the receiving end of tunnel vision and dogma, especially on human rights. The protection they enjoyed under the controlled media has vanished in the time of free speech. The pressure can be intense if the action is online.
A case in point was the demand for the removal of Chinese New Year decorations at a school. For the ultras, any challenge to Malayness aka Islamic, should be shot down. That Malayness agenda was aided by the education minister, who has since stepped down, when he introduced khat and Jawi in all schools. Khat is a form of calligraphy in Malaysia that uses Quranic verses and Islamic phrases as design while Jawi is the old script for Malay.
The Malays didn’t have a written script and used Pali and Sanskrit until Islamisation came. In the 14th century, the Malay spoken language was placed on a modified Arabic script and Jawi became the common written form of communication, modified again by the Romanised version. In modern times, it is used in the states of Pahang (wherein sits the parliamentary seat for Najib), Kelantan and Terengganu, bastions of PAS.
So, getting school kids to learn Jawi and khat—even in the vernacular schools—is proving to some political circles how Malay, aka Malaysian, you ought to be. That keg of dissension almost caught fire when Dong Jiao Zong got vocal about rights, and the dear doctor tried the threat of racial riots and Sedition Act. Again? But the times have changed and those old tricks didn’t work too well this time.
However, the right-wingers are eyeing an expansion of their
base by looking at Sabah and Sarawak, whose people are also called Bumiputera
but are Christian. Bumiputera is a Malay word which comes from the Sanskrit
word Bhumiputra and is read to mean “son of the soil”. But in Sabah and
Sarawak, or East Malaysia, Bumiputeras are not buying the ultra version of what
constitutes Malaysia and would rather it be confined to the peninsula.
The myopic view of political Islam in Malaysia has undeniably polarised citizens of all faiths. Critics say Malaysians now live in race cocoons, helped by a voter delineation exercise just months before GE14.
That right-wing nonsense has destroyed long-standing Malay
traditions and art forms like wayang kulit, dikir barat,
and main puteri—all found, ironically, in Pas-held states. Why?
They are deemed un-Islamic.
This racially-inspired right-wing is dominant in the civil service—come on, you’re with us or against us is the deal here—and so we have the reading of Islamic prayers (bacaan doa) before events, meetings, and even school assemblies. There is a feeling now that non-Muslims need not be present for such readings, and can walk in after that. What a waste of time. Surely, government is not set up for the purpose of worship, but to manage and build a nation into a successful state.
Young political observers Jeli and Ali say business people just want stability. Jeli: “As long as the ruling coalition can provide stability, those in the permanent establishment will support it. In a way, they are apolitical.
“However, the public sector is not used to change and there are rumours of non-cooperation with the new government. They do not want any change to their workflow and arrangements.
“This desire for things as they were, however, hides a terrible graft problem in the public sector. Another problem is a general mutual distrust between public servants and PH appointees. Lack of communication between ministries and departments has caused problems in the implementation of programmes.”
The myopic view of political Islam in Malaysia has undeniably polarised citizens of all faiths. Critics say Malaysians now live in race cocoons, helped by a voter delineation exercise by the BN government just months before GE14 that created compact Malay-majority seats to favour BN and sprawling mixed race constituencies to make life difficult for PH.
According to Jeli, “Issues related to Malay privilege are still being debated by political parties and civil society. Those who believe in protecting Malay privilege consist of at least two factions. The first believes Malays are still economically weak compared to the Chinese. One of the main reasons is that a majority of top public listed companies belong to non-Bumiputera.
“Another reason is that even though plenty of Malays hold top positions in top companies, their salaries are minuscule compared with their Chinese counterparts.
“Meanwhile, the other faction believes that because the Malays were the ‘first’ to create civilisation on the peninsula, they have superior rights in comparison with the latecomers as well as those who belong to less ‘cultured communities’ (Orang Asli, the indigenous people).
“This group believes Malays deserve greater rights to show others that they are masters of the country and their destiny and that the others should not interfere in these rights. Some even believe the other communities here are guests who don’t have the right to such privileges as the Malays.” As these conversations took place before the present crisis exploded, they might sound dated but the sentiment expressed is sincere.
The chief officer and publisher of Edge Media Group (which brings out The Edge Malaysia, a weekly financial magazine and The Edge Financial Daily, among others) Datuk Ho Kay Tat feels PAS will always pursue its Islamic agenda. “It is up to those who want a secular Malaysia to stop that from happening in whatever way they can. I don’t think every Muslim agrees to PAS’ version of Islam.” He says the race card is a factor for all races, to be fair. “Not just Malays, but also Chinese, Indians.
“There is also the regional card—Sabahans want Sabah for themselves, Sarawakians want Sarawak for Sarawakians. Everyone is pushing their own agenda. That’s the sad part. Project Malaysia is at risk of falling apart as a result.”
Ali, from the PAS-held state of Kelantan, counters that Pas is more moderate (relatively) than it used to be. “With the highly Islamised Malay society now, it seems the Islamic agenda is playing out very well. It will most likely push other Malay leaders to cater to the Islamic conservative segment more. And yes, with politicians playing up how Malays are losing dominance and power, the race card is a factor.”
Jeli feels PAS’ efforts Islamisation drive has caused a split in the Malay electorate. “This move favours Umno’s current policy to seek more support from Malays who fear their faith is threatened by liberal Muslims and non-Muslims. This split is more apparent among youth exposed to propaganda via social media. This in turn is creating an even bigger social rift in the Malaysian community. Pas will continue with its efforts as its members believe it is their obligation to set people on the path of the righteous.”
Old ways, new eyes? I found it rejuvenating that the
National Art Gallery restored four works it removed from artist Ahmad Fuad
Osman’s exhibition after artists, politicians, the public and the ministry of
tourism, arts and culture, spoke up in news outlets and social media. The
minister, Datuk Mohamaddin Ketapi, said he would hold a discussion with the
relevant people on action to be taken. Fuad, a prominent figure in Malaysia’s
visual arts scene, said his exhibition titled “At The End Of The Day Even Art
Is Not Important”, was meant to be a mid-career survey exhibition. It began in
October 2019, and ended Feb 28. The artworks removed include an untitled
two-part 2002 work featuring “Missing” poster paintings of Datuk Seri Anwar
Ibrahim, and an installation, “Mak Bapak Borek, Anak Cucu Cicit Pun Rintik”
It’s obvious that art is in the eye of the beholder, and the censoring of art has not stopped, old or new government. Political cartoonist Zulkiflee S.M. Anwar Ulhaque, popularly known as Zunar said organisers or donors felt they could dictate the art of the artists they fund.
“This has led to the stifling of creativity due to pressure from donors. The National Art Gallery, as an institution in the New Malaysian government, should stop this practice. Malaysia is lagging behind in the provocative art that discusses current issues compared to other countries,” said the artist whose works were seized time and again under the BN regime. He received the 2016 Cartooning For Peace Award from the Swiss Foundation Cartooning for Peace for his political cartoons.
The old BN government’s attitude towards controversial work or art forms deemed animistic is part of the reason for PH’s failure to ratify the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD). Right-wingers are finding more support as they live in townships of one race, where Malays have not tasted diversity, until working in a multiracial company.
It also comes from years of not celebrating Deepavali, Chinese New Year, Christmas together, and thinking that’s the norm. But Malaysians are coming back to those early days, post-independence, of shared delight, though slowly. In my personal experience, 40-year-olds in hijab are enjoying the Chinese/Cantonese yee sang dish (the Prosperity Toss tradition indispensable to Chinese new year celebrations) at a non-halal restaurant for the past two years.
Politics and religion make for an incendiary combination. This idea of what makes Malaysia is just a defence mechanism against change, and that’s what people have been dealing with every day since GE14. For 61 years, we’ve been used to doing business a certain corrupt way, with under-the-counter bribes to get things done. It’s a way of life, even. We closed our eyes and ears to many malpractices that shocked the western conglomerates confronted with it.
Do you do your job like, say, garbage removal and septic tank cleaning, and take money on the side to do it after office hours? Since it’s your job, you can delay the formal request by the consumer, and earn extra on your own time. There is little recourse even today against such malpractice, but we are working on changing the mindset.
First, we have to come to terms that the PH reforms promised in its little booklet can happen only with political will and the people’s strenuous voices, as in the civil society Bersih’s drive for a clean election.
Of course, most political parties are part of the problem, as their focus is on power, rather than national aspirations or even fair democracy. Critics say the PH reform agenda comes second to racial diversions and even internal PKR squabbles. That might turn out to be positively prophetic in the present situation.
The “cash is king” motto of Najib is still so prevalent—from tender manipulation, award of contracts, bribery—that civil servants, Immigration, the Road Transport Department and maybe the police think that’s the way to do business.
The ultranationalists, from Najib’s kris-wielding (Malay martial machismo display) days, have made Malaysians anxious even about entities that don’t exist. Like the defunct Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), or the threat of communism, aided by the disappearance of Christian preachers like Pastor Koh and Amri Che Mat. The Inspector-General of Police cannot seem to find a father who converted to Islam and disappeared with his youngest daughter 10 years ago. The top cop is being sued by the girl’s mum, as he has said he knows where dad is hiding in the country.
As for the alleged LTTE support, a month before Deepavali 2019, 12 former opposition members were detained under the Security Offences (Special Measures) Act (Sosma) for alleged links to the militant organisation that tried to create an independent Tamil state in Sri Lanka. They denied involvement, stating that the flags, posters and pictures found in their possession meant they only sympathised with the Tamil minority in Sri Lanka. . Each had on his mobile phone or Facebook account photos of Velupillai Prabhakaran and other LTTE leaders slain during the civil war in Sri Lanka.
The attorney-general decided to drop the charges in February as “millions of people across the globe admire Lenin, Stalin, Mao Tse Tung or Che Guevara, and the like. Having their photos and other representations in one’s mobile phone or on a Facebook account does not transform one to a terrorist. Just because these leaders used terror or violence to achieve their political goals does not mean that an ardent supporter online should be regarded as a terrorist or as planning a terrorist act.”
The arrest, insiders claim, is one way of rattling a stable component party in PH. DAP members are mainly non-Muslim and non-Malay, with half of the membership women.
News is news, especially if it sells. And the voices braying
for the rights of the majority to be upheld—such an irony—are abetted by what
seems to be the snail’s pace of Najib and Rosmah’s criminal cases.
Says Ho: “Critics have asked why the Najib and Rosmah trials are taking so long. Well, that is the rule of law—an accused must be given every chance to defend himself or herself.
“Sure, there have been delaying tactics by the defence but that’s par for the course. The judges have given a lot of leeway to the defence. If they don’t, critics will say it’s a kangaroo court.”
But Muthu feels the trials could be sped up. “They are being delayed too much, often for health reasons. But another reason is that prosecutors need to study the case properly and find the right evidence for the cases so that they won’t encounter any stumbling blocks.”
Ali feels the judges are lenient in their treatment of Najib and Rosmah. “They’re treated better than other accused not from the ruling class. Rosmah was allowed to adjourn the trials twice now. I don’t imagine regular people will be able to do that.”
Ho feels that one of the promises PH has kept is on stronger rule of law, media freedoms and fairer elections since it came to power. “There is no doubt about that.”
PH points to Najib’s trial as an example of how serious they are about beating corruption, with deputy minister Hannah Yeoh (DAP) tweeting: “Despite all the criticism and complaints we hear about the new government, no one can deny that the government today fights corruption more seriously.”
Muthu agrees that the situation in Malaysia regarding the judiciary, and rule of law has improved compared to the BN administration. “The rule of law has been well administered. Opposition had hardly any real objections to the judicial appointments, and the conduct in by-elections unlike under the BN government, of election papers missing, etc.”
Says Jeli: “However, certain elements, such as political interference, continue to play major roles on the manner news is reported. The country needs to have a news outlet that is truly neutral. Unfortunately, both sides of the political divide are not making much effort on this. Currently, I believe RTM, Bernama (both government agencies) and Malaysian Insight (an independent news portal) have news that are leaning more on the neutral side.”
Ali feels the public is now more politically aware since GE14, but the government of the day needs some help. “The Election Commission and in the way by-elections are held, it seems like the same old same old. PH still uses government machinery when campaigning for by-elections, and the EC, aside from commenting on violations of election rules, does not seem to enforce election rules that strictly. It is a slight improvement (EC used to pretend everything is fair and in order), but definitely there are vast room for improvement.”
Being politically aware can be a good thing as the voting age is now 18 years.
This means more people will take part in GE15, and the youth will need to know
some aspects of governance. The campaign for local government elections is
needed as well as Citizen Development Committees (LPPKN) elections.
Ali thinks such city council elections would see a redistribution of power, instead of consolidation at the federal level. “This is a good idea. How it will be done practically remains to be seen.”
Local government elections in Malaysia were suspended in 1964 following the ‘Konfrontasi’ between Malaysia and Indonesia. The suspension was made permanent through the Local Government Act 1976. The Konfrontasi was a conflict over Borneo between Indonesia and Malaysia from 1963-66 that stemmed from Indonesia’s opposition to the creation of Malaysia.
Jeli thinks it is important to expose youth to politics from the lowest level and gradually make their way up. “Although those who get elected may be inexperienced in handling certain issues, it is a step in the right direction. I believe those higher up are too busy to take notice of so-called minor issues affecting smaller areas. Proper training as well as a comprehensive support system are needed to ensure that those elected can conduct their duties efficiently and effectively.”
Ho doesn’t think Malaysia is ready for local elections. “In fact it will only heighten race politics and racial tension. There is enough of that at the national level already!”
Local government can be a check-and-balance against the power of state and federal governments rather than a subservient extension. It is also an incubator of future political leaders, and the country is always in need of this valuable resource. Looking at the BN administration, there have been times during the appointment of ministers when the prime minister seemed to be scraping the bottom of the barrel to find suitable talent. Today, the wealth of talent is bigger and more diverse.
Local elections are part of the PH manifesto and form a component of the democratisation of government. Critics say repressive twists to Islam perpetuated by the Umnocrats, autocrats and the rich elite as well as the myth of the royal houses being for the Malays are muddying any clear perception of a democratic Malaysia.
After so long being told not to say things that would rattle the Malays, not to talk about this and that for fear of causing racial tensions, or disappearing in the dead of the night—taken from your bed to god knows where, even ending up in an oil drum—all for some truth and clarity, we’re all still living in a psychic prison.
It’s just a variation on that old British style used in colonial times to divide and rule the natives and plunder their wealth for the few. Reformasi, which started with Anwar’s jailing in 1998 and swelled into the multiracial political party it is today with a growing membership, cannot just be about a Bumi agenda. The brilliant Oxford and homegrown educated minds in the ranks of the new government must work harder to create critical consciousness, which can challenge and dissipate the myths fed to us to make sure we stayed in our own prisons of intolerance and racism.
The truth is not only the institutionalised version put
forth by the elite seeking to cling to power. The gall of a prime minister to
tell the people to eat kang kong (poor man’s vegetable) while
he has quinoa has left such a bitter taste that many want Najib to be jailed
now, hang the facts of the case.
PKR might have thought they needed Dr Mahathir to win GE14, but the commonsense behind the PH manifesto starting with needs-based reforms to handle poverty, and not race-based shoot-from-the-hip solutions to win minds and hearts. It’s a Malaysian strategy that can win the day for a political coalition of like-minded people.
Will Anwar be prime minister one day, as agreed upon before GE14? It's no longer possible to answer this question categorically but this crisis has yet to reach its peak. If the present government falls because it can't command a majority in Parliament, he could, as the new agreement reached with Mahathir clearly says he will leave after the Apec summit at year's end. So his attempt to keep Anwar out may be doomed but it's hard to be certain about the old doctor.
The Indians have shown the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC) that they have grown up since 1957, and graduated from its race-based politics, judging from the last few by-elections, while the MCA is trying to reinvent itself. Says Ho: “I hope MIC is dead. I hope MCA is dead as well, as UMNO, PAS, etc, dead politically. Malaysia cannot move forward and be 1 Malaysia or Malaysia for All as long as race-based parties are allowed, as that means elections are contested on championing race rights. But that is unlikely to happen.”
The shocks delivered to the system in the last week of February are a categorical reminder of the old ways being re-asserted by the Malay power brokers. The intention is essentially to scupper the mixed-race PH style and return to the old divisions that ensured Malay control. Whether or not this strike from the ancient regime succeeds it has certainly shown there is a long way to go for a race-free society.
Such a quandary politics causes among people who just want a decent living. When the new minimum wage of RM1,200 is less than the entertainment allowance of a young minister (RM2,500), I think of the late K.S. Maniam, author and associate professor of English at the University of Malaya, as he reflected on his community and Malaysians, really, as “a straining towards achievement that does not end in fulfilment.”
May we eventually prove him wrong, as we did pundits before the landmark of 2018.
(This story has been updated to reflect the changed situation in Malaysia.)