Thinking the Unthinkable:
A Malaysia Not Governed by the BN?

In this cover story PHILIP KHOO reviews the events of the past eight to nine months. He discusses the events leading up to Anwar's dismissal, the court proceedings and their implications and reflects on their linkages to the past and to the future. The awakening of ordinary Malaysians, the formation of a multi-ethnic opposition and the arrival of bangsa Malaysia are highlighted. He comments on the dangers, but especially the opportunities ahead. He challenges Malaysians to exorcise the 'ghosts of our past' and to think the unthinkable.

The verdict was hardly unexpected. But what was audibly breath-taking - there were gasps in the courtroom - was the sentence: six years on each charge, to run concurrently from the date of sentencing rather than the more usual date of remand.

A quiet, taciturn 14-year old boy, unable to contain his own anguish any longer, broke down and cried. An awkward age in the best of circumstances, the boy will have to find a rare will and even greater courage to live through the 'ignominy' with more promised in the coming trial for sodomy.

A totally impartial observer, if such a creature should exist, could well accept the technicality of the verdict. Still, such an observer would likely have been a little perplexed by the sentence for the simple reason that the truth of the putative cause of the abuse of power, namely to conceal alleged acts of wrong-doing, had been declared irrelevant and the salacious testimony expunged. This left it open whether the alleged abuse of power was to conceal actual wrong-doing or to stop malicious accusations.

Bordering on the Incredulous

Moreover, such an observer would have been forgiven a sense of wonderment bordering on the incredulous at the proceedings - from their dramatic start on 2nd September 1998, the massive rallies not seen in a generation, to the melodramatic arrest complete with balaclava-clad men equipped with automatics, the now infamous allegedly self-inflicted black eye, the remarkable admission by the Special Branch to the techniques of 'turning over' and of at least one senior officer to the willingness to lie in obedience to authority, to the weeks of very public lessons in sex education and anal examinations, and the somewhat more dubious lessons in DNA finger-printing in which the 'teacher' could not explain the simple but fundamental concept of variance, the daily fashion parade of one star witness and the lapses of another, only to be followed by the amendment of the charges at the end of the prosecution's case and the expungement of weeks of evidence and the erasure of the daily presence of a mattress, further followed by the 'irrelevance' of the various attempts of the defence at their chosen line of defence.

The sense of wonderment and disbelief would have been stretched to the limit with the widely publicised affidavits, the not so publicised ISA detentions and 'confessions', the quick convictions reported in western-style sensationalistic tabloid headlines, and the barely publicised affidavits in denial of those confessions, affidavits containing allegations of serious misuse of police power and physical and mental abuse of a pattern familiar from never publicised statements of forgotten victims of a forgotten event, Operation Lallang, of 1987, and of even more forgotten and unknown victims of earlier ISA detentions.

Equally, the practical, although not openly acknowledged, shift in the grounds of Anwar's removal would have left a bad taste in the mouth. Thus, it was insisted that the removal was for sexual misconduct, pure and simple, nothing to do with politics or economics. Then bit by bit, it came out that it was intolerable that Anwar was challenging Mahathir, not to mention the accusations of Anwar's incompetence in economic policy, or worse, of being an economic 'trojan horse' for 'the west', out to cause a 'Chernobyl'.

Anyone with half a memory would have wondered about the inconsistency of such accusations with previous claims of comradeship – 'do I have to kiss him?' - and that all decisions were of a cabinet collective.

Born Again With No Past

This shift, already registered in 'meet-the-people' sessions as early as October last year, has culminated in remarks to a Los Angeles Times' journalist, David Lamb. In a report published 24 April 1999, Lamb quoted Mahathir on Anwar: 'He tried to overthrow me. He's the one who turned the issue into a political problem'. And again, on 2 May 1999 in Kedah when he said, 'When I found that Anwar did not know how to handle the economy, I did not want to step down', and denied collective cabinet responsibility, attributing it all to an individual. Evidently, collective cabinet responsibility is as much a claim of convenient shelter as so much else in our political life.

The bad taste only got worse when the media and commentators who had previously lionized Anwar did a 180-degree turn and proceeded to vilify him. Could it possibly be the same media and the same people who had previously exalted the man and highlighted his pronouncements, even the most inane platitudes? Was this the same media and the same people who praised the 1997 Budget to the heavens, proceeded to uphold every twist and shift in policy subsequent to that, and then, right on cue, post 2 September 1998, started denigrating previous economic policy and praising the correctness of current policy? Is it believable that every positive economic sign is the result of current policy, even while only a month old, while every negative one is the result of previous policy? Was the country suddenly born again with no past, and no effects from the past, both positive and negative?

Sea Change In Malaysian Politics

What is a poor observer to make of it all? The domestic media does flip-flops like some fashion-conscious people change their clothes, while much-vaunted and highly paid foreign 'analysts' are often little better, having lionised the region right into 1997, only to turn around and denigrate it right through 1998, and then to turn over again and loudly proclaim that 'recovery' is here.

But what would have struck any remotely objective observer as truly remarkable must be the totally unexpected reaction and response of ordinary Malaysians. This reaction took by surprise not only the ruling circle but, indeed, Anwar himself; a reaction that has since deepened such that it is probably fair to suggest that we are witnessing the undercurrents of a sea-change in Malaysian politics, even if the Barisan Nasional were to comfortably win the coming elections.

By mid-1998, if not earlier, the conflict and contest between Mahathir and Anwar was, despite their denials, common enough knowledge. Indeed, many had expected that one or the other would have to go and anticipated a period of factional in-fighting.

Ordinary Citizens Awaken

Malaysians are cynical enough about politicians and factional in-fighting within political parties. We are usually placid and not known for making our sen_ti_ments known in a public way. Happy enough to enjoy a political ceramah, we are nevertheless quite content to focus on the business of our everyday lives and easily enough persuaded of the need for stability and to let government bother about the business of government.

Yet, when it happened, and Anwar was removed, the unexpected occured. There was no overt split within UMNO and the leadership apparently closed ranks against their former deputy president. Most of those who had previously been identified with Anwar were seen scrambling to cover their 'behinds', declaring their loyalty to the party and its present leadership.

Instead, it was ordinary citizens, many previously not a little cynical about Anwar himself, who beat a path to his home in a show of sympathy and support. Even more surprising, this escalated with the publication of affidavits and, especially, with the conviction of Sukma and Munawar Anees for involuntary sodomy.

A society not given to open talk about homosexuality was galvanised. Faced with the accusations of sodomy, ordinary Malaysians, rather than turning their backs on the man, ended up standing behind him, metaphorically and physically. Instead of evoking condemnation of Anwar, the manner of the removal and the charges aroused condemnation of the political order and of its most potent symbol, Mahathir himself. The accusations meant to send Anwar into oblivion instead converted him into a symbol of all that was and is wrong with the system. Into what had been done to Anwar was condensed a host of frustrations with the political and social order. Anwar became an icon. What happened?

Violating a Cultural Code

It is clear that if Anwar had been removed for 'disloyalty' to the leader or for 'economic incompetence' nothing much would have happened. A majority of those who now stand behind Anwar the symbol would have shrugged their shoulders and said 'so what? none of my business-lah'.For that majority, Anwar, the man, was not necessarily seen as a paragon of virtue. Many regarded him as one, if more astute, politician amongst others, utilising the instruments available to him to acquire and hold on to power, sharing in the 'money politics' that had emerged in the 1980s and had come to full flower in the 1990s. Right or wrong, true or false, many of us had heard of the distribution of 'pink' forms and the distribution of handphones, of the shenanigans in Sabah leading to the 'jumping over' that led to the demise of the PBS government.

What happened - and it speaks volumes of Malaysians - was that a sense of fair play and common decency had been violated. More, a cultural code had been offended.

It is the supreme irony that those who have been most vociferous in touting Asian values apparently have no real appreciation of them, confining them only to those aspects which favour obeisance to the ruler and authoritarianism. But the fact of the matter is that Asian values encompass more, much more, than that. Among that larger rubric is the implicit regard for honour and the avoidance of shame, often simplified and perverted as 'face'. Foreigners, even Malaysians themselves, may and do see this as a tendency to sweep things under the proverbial carpet. At its worst it was and is that, but it also gave and gives a gentler texture to life, to an approach to confrontation by indirection and what in football might be considered a 'sliding tackle', rather than a more brutal, frontal assault aimed at stripping the opponent of every last vestige of honour and esteem.

Perhaps it was because Malaysians have tolerated much - dismissing much that was unpleasant under the excuse that politics is 'dirty' - that otherwise 'savvy' politicians were lulled into believing that yet another line could be crossed without repercussion.

They were mistaken. Once the brutal, frontal assault was made, the response was to prove equally frontal and, emotionally, brutal.

Social Contract Broken

The Sejarah Melayu contains a passage spelling out the contract between ruler and subjects. The subjects obtained the agreement of the would-be ruler that no matter how badly the subjects behaved, even if to the point of deserving to be put to death, then they should just be killed. But on no condition were they ever to be shamed and humiliated. In turn, the would-be ruler asked that the subjects would never derhaka (rebel). The subjects gave their assent, subject to the condition that if the ruler were to break his side of the bargain, then they, the subjects, would no longer be bound by their side of it. Thus it was that in another famous episode in the same text, the episode of the sultan mangkat dijulang, a man who had been subjected to shame and humiliation was told that if wished to derhaka, now was the time to do so.

And so the genie has now been let out of the bottle, and it is a fair guess that it cannot be coaxed back in, or only with the utmost difficulty. It is as if broad segments of the population have undergone a 'conversion' experience, the scales dropping from their eyes, as if they are seeing the world for the first time and thinking what would previously have been unthinkable.

The fact of the matter is that much of the criticism of the existing order that is now made in the name of reformasi is not particularly novel. It used to be made by many NGOs and by the opposition parties. The novelty is the extent to which it has now penetrated the popular imagination, calling to mind events past and long forgotten and now re-evaluated and seen in a new light, causing a re-discovery of the past within a new framework of thought and perception.

But not even the opposition parties voiced the unthinkable, at least not in the past thirty years, being quite content to argue the need for a strong opposition at the federal level.

Thinking the Unthinkable

The unthinkable, even if not immediately achievable, is of a Malaysia not governed by the BN. To gauge the enormity of this, one need only reflect that no one under the age of 45 has known anything other than BN rule, that only a year ago, such a thought would have bordered on the ludicrous to the vast majority of the people. Yet today, it is being thought by a large number, although whether this will be translated into votes depends upon the hold that fear still has over us and the extent to which we allow the ruling party to play on those fears.

It is easy enough to dismiss all this as the raving of the urban population, especially in the Klang Valley. But that is to ignore the fact that this urban population represents the future. They are generally young, well-educated, likely as not employed in the private or semi-private sector; a segment whose proportion of the total population will continue to increase. This is the Vision 2020 generation; indeed, they are the generation created by the dream of that vision.

Yet, this is also the generation that responded to a dream beyond that of economics, a dream of a civic and civil society, taking its place as an equal in the community of nations, able to absorb the good that others have to offer us, without losing our own distinctive character. For better or for worse, this dream beyond economics, of a civic and civil society, confident enough in itself to undertake a fruitful cultural exchange with the rest of world, was symbolised by Anwar. While many of us admired the pugnacity of Mahathir and his technological ambitions, and shared in his nationalism and in the goals of Vision 2020, many of us were discomfited by the obsession with economics and winced not a little at his outbursts against 'the west'.

There are those who suggest that what ís happening now is nothing new - after all, didn't we see some of the same thing back in 1988-1990, with that split in UMNO and the formation of Semangat 46? But all we need do is to recall that one of Semangat 46's goals was the revival of UMNO. For them, UMNO and the BN was still the fount, the point of reference. It remained very much Malay politics, and Semangat 46 was, and saw itself as another version of UMNO; it sought to replace itself for the new UMNO and had little vision, however vague, of a different society.

Arrival of Bangsa Malaysia

This time around the difference is clear. As events have unfolded, a significant segment of the people have moved progressively towards a stance in which for the first time in a generation life without UMNO and the BN in power is being contemplated. A new multi-ethnic party has come into existence and the extent of on-the-ground cooperation between opposition parties is unprecedented. A willingness to talk across ethnic lines has emerged. Matters once taboo are being addressed in Internet mailing lists.

To be sure, none of this is without hiccups. Much of it remains halting and unsure; suspicions remain. But to expect otherwise would be to ignore the fact of our history.

The fact that it has come this far is itself cause for celebration; a decent and confident ruling party, truly commited to its rhetoric of bangsa Malaysia would have welcomed such a development rather than seeking to cast aspersions on it, to sow distrust by printing false stories, to prevent a coming together.

Who in their right minds can deny that the development of a multi-ethnic opposition is a healthy development and can only bode well for the future of the country, if only by reducing ethnic politicking?

Instead, we have the spectacle of a Minister of Information seeking to deny that Wan Azizah is a Malay, declaring her a Chinese without a Malay soul, and insisting that no Chinese could ever lead Malays.

Surely, if Malays see fit to have a Chinese as a leader, that should be no one ís concern but that of the Malays; indeed, it would truly mark the arrival of bangsa Malaysia where a person becomes a leader not because of the accident of ethnicity but because of her ability to convince others of her fitness to lead. So also, is it not also in our vision that a Chinese could well have a Malay soul, and vice-versa? For that is only a matter of deep inter-cultural understanding and the ability to empathise with another.

Crisis: Danger and Opportunity

Throughout most of 1998, Ling Liong Sik kept repeating like a mantra that in Chinese, 'crisis' implies both 'dan_ger' and 'opportunity'. He turned out to be right, if not quite in the manner he might have imagined. We are living in times that hold out the opportunity to effect a change to the political system and the danger and cost of not doing so.

We now have the opportunity to start fashioning a polity that is more responsive to the needs and demands of an increasingly educated citizenry of a multi-ethnic nation and of a fast-changing world economy and culture. We need to fashion a civic and civil society to temper a society in which the composite index of the KLSE threatens to become the most important index of our state of health or disease. In keeping with our history, one which has always been global, we have the opportunity to begin a process of building a country that can be a model to others seeking to find their way through the pitfalls of globalisation. But we also face the danger that the ghosts of the past will immobilise us into doing nothing, leaving us with a political system which, in today's jargon, is not Y2K compliant.

Exorcising the Ghost of Our Past

Many counsel caution – 'stick to the devil you know' - on the grounds that we do not know the cost of change. But such counsel ignores the fact that there is also a cost to not changing.

Comparisons with Indonesia are vacuous. The past nine months should have finally exorcised the ghost of 1969, the ghost that has always held us back, and proven conclusively that Malaysia is no Indonesia. More, we should not mistake the upheavals in Indonesia as the cost of change so much as the cost of the lack of change, the cost of the obstruction of change by a regime intent on preserving its power.

As a good doctor will tell us, a cancer, treated early, is relatively painless; left to fester, the cancerous cells can spread to all corners of the body and treatment, even if successful, is drastic and painful.

Moreover, such counsel of caution also implicitly assumes that choosing a government is a permanent matter, something commited for life; whereas the fact is our Constitution requires us to choose a government once every five years. In a normal country, it should be the most normal thing in the world that should a government prove unsatisfactory then the people have the option to freely replace it with another without threat.

One of the great paradoxes of this country is that while we think nothing of the country's monarch being replaced once every five years, many of us shudder at the thought that a government should be replaced by another, not even once every five years, but after 40 years. So we have accepted a situation where instead of we, the people, expressing our confidence or loss of confidence in the government, it is the government which expresses its confidence or loss of confidence in us. Rather than the people freely choosing the government, the ruling party in the guise of the government variously cajoles with a sweet now and again; should that not work, it badgers and threatens us with all manner of calamities should we fail to choose them. And so we have obliged, for over 40 years.

Isn't it time to become a normal country?