Malaysia on the Eve of Elections:

Fear Not, Keep Your Wits, Listen to Your Hearts

There has been political ferment in Malaysia over the past eleven months, a ferment that is more widespread than the previous one some 10 years ago. This ferment was sparked by Anwar’s sacking in September 1998 and anxieties related to the economic meltdown which began in mid-1997. There is great expectancy about the future especially so since general elections must soon be called. Yet, there appears to be fear of political change among certain sections of the public. In this five-part article, DR FRANCIS LOH reminds us of the regional march towards democracy and analyses the hegemony of a certain set of political beliefs which is simultaneously the Barisan Nasional’s source of legitimacy and the cause of this fear. By discussing the secret of Malaysia’s success, he hopes to allay those fears. Confronted with this sort of mind games, we should instead listen to the urgings of our hearts, he suggests.

Peaceful protests and demonstrations have been held in various public spaces. The circulation of critical publications has soared. Websites critical of the BN government have been mushroomed and the Internet is infused with much alternative information. Alas, the Barisan Nasional government has chosen to highlight the odd occurrences of disorder and characterised these spontaneous expressions of popular dissent as ‘rioting’. Although numerous important issues - abuse of power, money politics, curtailment of freedom, loss of judicial integrity, unjust treatment of Anwar Ibrahim, selective prosecution of Lim Guan Eng , etc - have been raised in these publications, the Internet and public gatherings, the BN government has chosen to focus on the alleged slander and fitnah. Such rioting and slander they proclaim are not the Malaysian way.

The BN government has also tried to portray the Reformasi movement spreading in Indonesia, as inclined to violence. They have also made numerous references to the violence occurring in Bosnia, Kosovo, Sri Lanka, and even Rwanda, as was done during their campaigns in the run-up to the Sabah elections in March 1999. It appears that the BN’s intention is to highlight the dangers of political change in multiethnic societies and to create fear among Malaysians as we approach the elections. In fact, the dangers arose in Indonesia and elsewhere because of a lack of change, not because of it.

The BN government also challenged the protestors to form a political party and to contest the elections. Parti KeADILan was therefore formed. Critical Malaysians have also joined the existing opposition parties. Preparations for contesting the elections are now underway. A multi-ethnic opposition front is being consolidated. They have held joint ceramahs up and down the country, issued joint statements, are meeting regularly at various levels to reach agreements in connection with the forthcoming elections. A common Manifesto, soon to be released, has been decided upon. They have also agreed to the principle of satu lawan satu, that is they will not contest against one another, thus allowing straight fights with the BN. The emergence of a multi-ethnic opposition front, just like the BN, but which distinguishes itself through a different set of policies and values, augurs well for the country. It reduces ethnic politicking, offers a real choice to voters, and promotes democracy.

The Dirtiest Elections Ever?

Faced with this challenge from the opposition coalition, the Barisan Nasional leaders have increasingly focused their attention on frustrating further consolidation of the opposition parties. They denounce the opposition coalition as a ‘marriage of convenience’ claiming that their ideologies are too diverse and incompatible. ‘They will not succeed’. ‘Before coming to power they are already fighting with one another’. ‘The opposition is all talk, no action’. Claiming that the opposition has resorted to slandering and that opposition leaders were only recently rioting in the streets, Dr Mahathir says that these will be the dirtiest elections ever. Apparently, one of the prime minister’s minions is even in possession of a cassette tape which contains calls for the assassination of the premier, besides other Barisan Nasional leaders.

Dr Mahathir should know whether this will be the ‘dirtiest elections ever’. One of his lieutenants, the former secretary-general of UMNO was blatantly racist when he claimed that KeADILan leader Dr Wan Azizah, not being a Malay, could not be the leader of Malays. The lieutenant further lied about her being brought up in a neighbouring country when in fact she grew up in Kedah. Echoing Dr Mahathir’s accusations in the UMNO General Assembly in June, one BN leader after another have since also alleged that the opposition leaders are ‘agents of foreign powers’ and that a vote for them will result in the recolonisation of Malaysia. UMNO’s team of legal experts, recently formed to threaten court action against those who have allegedly slandered UMNO and its leaders, should perhaps look into the above mentioned lies and slanders instead, rather than clutter the courts with their mega suits against critics, based on hearsay.

Likewise, the Malaysian media should try to redeem themselves and begin serious investigation of these allegations and counter-allegations. Thus far, and true to form, criticisms by the opposition are rarely reported, and, even rarer, investigated. The criticisms of the opposition by the BN leaders are also not investigated but given the widest coverage and airing nonetheless. In fact, comments critical of the opposition leadership made by the most obscure erstwhile opposition members, are even prominently highlighted, often with follow-up reports. The dirtiest elections ever? Is Dr Mahathir foreshadowing how the Barisan Nasional will conduct itself in the elections?

March Towards Democracy

Dr Mahathir did make an important point during the UMNO General Assembly in June about the political ferment that is occurring. It is much larger than the question of Anwar, he declared. When he said this, Dr Mahathir was of course trying to suggest that the larger issue pertained to the nation’s future independence and sovereignty, how some foreign powers are trying to recolonise us, and how the opposition is working with foreigners to topple the duly elected BN government.

Dr M is right that the issue is much much larger than Anwar’s fate. But there is no concrete evidence - and he has yet to provide any - that there is a conspiracy involving foreign powers and the opposition to overthrow the BN government. It’s all hearsay. Like a certain famous judge might say, his claims are ‘irrelevant’.

Instead, the big issue is ‘democratisation’. By this it is meant not merely the holding of regular elections, but the rule of law wherein the people are guaranteed their rights to express their opinions freely, and to organise and assemble peacefully; and if arrested, a fair trial. It further refers to putting into place and having checks and balances by different autonomous government institutions, regular consultation with the people in between elections, transparency in decision making and accountability to the people. This includes the emergence of free and responsible media.

Yes, the time for participatory democracy has arrived in Malaysia, just as it already has in neighbouring Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines, Korea, Taiwan, Fiji and other nations in the South Pacific. In India and Japan, where a greater measure of democracy has already been practised, the process of democracy has been deepened with the replacement of the Congress Party and the Liberal Democratic Party, respectively, by coalitions of erstwhile opposition parties. It is significant that when the ousted parties are eventually returned to power in some of these places, these chastised parties are invariably more sensitive to the peoples’ demands and to the practices of democracy.

It is time to take our rightful and honourable place alongside these neighbours. Our pride of place in the world should not be based on some concrete construction, megaliths though they may be, like the Petronas Twin Towers, the KLIA or Putrajaya. We should be proud that like the rest of Asia we believe fervently in democracy. Indeed, the so-called ‘Asian Values democracy’, which for decades was conveniently used to legitimise Asian regimes that were blatantly authoritarian, is no longer practised in most parts of Asia. Is this why the BN government has been trying to direct our attention away from our own shortcomings and from the changes occurring in the neighbouring Asian countries to incidences of violence and the dangers of change in far-away Africa and in the former Yugoslavia?

Why Democratisation?

Basically, democratisation has been brought about by economic growth and modernisation including urbanisation, industrialisation, and developments in education, transport, communication etc. Globalisation has speeded up this process.

As a result of this economic growth and modernisation, the rakyat have become more aware of their place in society, in the economy, in the world and in politics too. This is especially true of the better-educated middle-classes. These socio-economic developments also require adjustments in the political system. As long as the government continues to centralise power instead of sharing it, to make its decisions behind closed doors and away from public scrutiny, to benefit themselves and their cronies instead of the general public, the rakyat will demand greater democratisation.

From this point of view, even if the Anwar saga had not occurred, democratisation was already on the agenda, though perhaps it would have been slower in coming. From this vantage point, the recent political ferment in Malaysia is part and parcel of a wider trend throughout the region towards democratisation.Yet, it does appear that Malaysia, although more advanced economically, lags behind some of our neighbours in the democratisation process. Why might this be so? This brings us to the question of the Malaysians themselves. What DO they think? There are two things to consider: first, awareness of the issues and second, their political culture/worldview/ideology.

Awareness of the Issues

Malaysians, especially the middle and business classes, are becoming more aware of the issues confronting the country. True, the local mainstream media are biased. But there is now access to critical publications like Harakah, Eksklusif, and other new local periodicals, alternative sources of information on websites, and regional and foreign news via satellite which is generally more even-handed in its reporting of developments in the country.Holding ceramahs and forums also helps to get the message out to the people. Although there is a need to prepare more pamphlets that discuss the issues in simple language and in the vernacular to make them easily accessible to the lower classes, it is not for lack of awareness that Malaysia lags behind in democratisation. Instead, the lag is on account of the Malaysian people’s political culture - for even if more information was made available, the existing political culture would remain intact and the lag would persist.

The BN’s Hegemony

No doubt the BN government has sometimes resorted to repression in order to get its way. It also possesses a wide array of coercive laws. Yet the BN government does not rule by simply resorting to force or instilling fear. Such a government would not have lasted as long as the BN has. Instead, the BN government, like its counterparts elsewhere, tries to instil into the minds of the people a certain set of beliefs or myths about the political system that they live in, about the kinds of leaders needed, and in so doing, facilitates the legitimacy of those in power.

This is sometimes referred to as the ideology or propaganda of the rulers. But the concept of ‘hegemony’ is more useful a term. It refers to a set of political beliefs, or myths, which penetrates beyond the minds into the hearts, to the extent that the ideology of the rulers becomes the views, the beliefs, the culture of the people themselves. For religious people, the concept of hegemony is not difficult to understand. We are talking of a phenomenon very close to the notion of faith. Put another way, the rulers begin to rule with the consent of the people. Now, this makes for lasting domination of the rulers over the ruled without having to resort to the use of force regularly.

Five Central Tenets

There are several central tenets in this belief system about Malaysian politics. First, because we are a multi-ethnic, multi-religious society, and quite naturally rub against another occasionally, we have been made to believe (erroneously) that we cannot co-operate with one another spontaneously. Accordingly, prejudices, discrimination and even demonisation of the other have become widespread. Mutual trust of one another is not fostered. Often, if the other party is noticeably religious, these negative feelings become even stronger.

Second, left to ourselves, we supposedly begin to fight with one another. By definition, there_fore, the multi-ethnic multi-religious Malaysian society is conflict-prone. Accordingly, too much freedom and too much politics can be bad. Curbs on certain freedoms and on politics are considered necessary. For many of us, the ISA, OSA, UUCA, Printing Presses and Publications Act, Societies Act, the Police Act, etc are therefore considered necessary and justified. Indeed, a strong state is justified.

Third, we need a set of leaders who can represent our ethno-religious interests and yet be acceptable to the others, to negotiate with each other on our behalf. The Barisan, a coalition of ethnic-based political parties is therefore the appropriate vehicle. Since they have been in power since 1957, the leaders of the Barisan Nasional appear to be the natural set of leaders required. They are often considered ‘moderates’. In this regard the opposition leaders, often unable to come together, are also viewed as ‘extremists’. This image of the opposition as extremist, and the BN as moderate, persists even when, as now, the opposition parties can readily form an opposition front. Even when the Barisan Nasional leaders have violated the people’s interests and the principles of democracy, many continue to view them as moderates.

Fourth, the 42-years of BN rule has contributed to the belief that it is only when the BN is in power that political stability will prevail and economic growth be guaranteed. The political turbulence and the economic slowdown which occurred in Sabah over the past decade was often mistakenly attributed to PBS rule. In fact, the turbulence was a result of political intrigue and money politics perpetrated by the Barisan. And the economic slowdown in Sabah was a direct result of the denial of federal development funds by the Barisan Nasional in Kuala Lumpur to the legally and democratically elected PBS state government in Kota Kinabalu.

Similarly, the PAS-led Kelantan state government was also denied federal developments as punishment by the Barisan Nasional government.

Identifying the real sources of political instability and economic slowdown in these two cases is extremely important because it exposes the myth that only the BN can promote political stability and economic growth. In fact, the Barisan Nasional, reluctant to share power and public resources with the duly elected PBS and PAS state governments, was the cause of political instability and the economic slowdown in both states. Ignorance and disinformation, as in these cases, perpetuate the belief that political and economic chaos would result if the opposition comes to power.

This set of beliefs penetrated deep into the minds and hearts of many Malaysians especially during the 1990s when Malaysia experienced rapid economic growth. This growth enabled the construction of those icons of growth – the Twin Towers, KLIA, Putrajaya, the MSC and the Light Rail Transit System. No doubt, a majority of Malaysians materially benefited from that growth too. A sense of ‘feel good’ prevailed. And since Dr Mahathir presided over all these achievements, a fifth belief that it was not simply the Barisan Nasional which facilitated Malaysia’s success, but Dr Mahathir himself, began to gain credence. In short there developed a belief that Dr Mahathir was indispensable, that under him Malaysia Boleh, and Malaysia became the envy of all.

Denying our own Humanity

This set of beliefs is absolutely demeaning to the human spirit.

By prejudicing the other and conceding that we cannot co-operate with fellow Malaysians of other ethnic and religious backgrounds, we in fact deny them as well as ourselves our common humanity.

By acceding to the curbs on our fundamental freedom and justifying the existence of a strong state, we hinder and frustrate our attempts to develop ourselves and our society holistically.

The extension of the set of prejudices to the opposition parties and leaders, brushing them off and labelling them as extremists, and denying them the opportunity of introducing good government is not only unfair but a further ridicule of our own humanity. For are not the leaders and supporters of the opposition also members of our Malaysian society and the larger human family? And why such high regard for the Barisan Nasional leaders still when they have already violated the people’s interests and the principles of democracy?

Furthermore, when we prioritise material progress and use indexes like the KLSE Composite Index as a measure of our well being, we undermine our spirituality, which should be the basis of our holistic development. Crass acquisitive materialism encourages us to grab rather than to share; to have rather than to ponder about being; to seek instantaneous gratification rather than to engage with Mystery. We need certain universal values, including perennial political principles like freedom, truth and justice, to guide us in the journey of our lives as individuals and as a society. None of our sages ever encouraged us to prioritise material progress over these principles.

Finally, attributing our nation’s success to the achievements and indispensability of a single person is even more gross and ridicules our humanity. It is tantamount to cultism at best, idolatry at worst. For all human beings are dispensable, even fallible. Cultism of a leader is not new. Many regimes have likewise tried to present their powerful leaders as indispensable. For example, until Suharto’s overthrow, many Indonesians found it virtually impossible to imagine an Indonesia minus Suharto, who had been in power since 1967. It implied chaos – political, economic, social. And yet, Suharto has been removed. Although political turbulence ensued, his removal also unleashed new actors, new ideas and new hopes for the first time in 30 years. There is an amazing range of debates in the Indonesian press and the electronic media, in its universities and organisations, its political parties and movements. He was not indispensable. In fact, he was the stumbling block.

The BN Hegemony Broken

The disinformation contained in the BN’s set of political myths is so apparent that it immediately becomes evident if we only care to reflect in isolation on the propaganda of political leaders and the media they control.

Fortunately, there has been opportunity to reflect during this period on the dual economic and political crises confronting Malaysia. Hence, the hegemony of the set of beliefs has been broken, at least among certain sectors of the population. This is especially true among a large group of Malays: Anwar’s supporters, younger Malays in ABIM and JIM, and those who take their humanity seriously. Of the latter, many are inspired by Islamic teachings. They are able to see through the lies of the hegemonic claims.

Many Malays are making efforts to co-operate with non-Malays and non-Muslims. They want the removal of the coercive laws and an end to a the strong state. Apparently, it is easier for these groups of Malays (and Malays generally) to transit from the Barisan Nasional to the opposition coalition. As Muslims, they are less fearful of the so-called ‘dangers’ of a negara Islam associated with Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS), which some believe (erroneously) dominates the opposition coalition. Perhaps possessing less economic interests at stake, or perhaps because NEP-related Malay privileges remain by and large intact, economic considerations appear less pertinent to them.

Finally, Dr Mahathir is no longer the icon he previously was for them. In fact, by relentlessly pursuing Anwar’s destruction, the prime minister has broken the hukum syarak (the traditional social contract between the ruler and the ruled) that many Malays continue to hold dear, viz. a leader should not humiliate a man and his family the way Anwar and his family have been.

Among a smaller group of non-Malays and non-Muslims, and others not so young but seriously in search of their humanity, that hegemony has also been broken. For the majority though, the hegemony has only been fragmented, not quite broken.

Like the Malays, most non-Malays also seek more freedom and welcome the rule of law. Except for the sycophants and cronies, it is not evident that they particularly regard Dr M as indispensable. But many are fearful of political change. For some 30 years, beginning with the introduction of the NEP, non-Malays have learnt to adjust to a Malay-dominated government that many believe does not care for them. Many have prospered, which they believed was due to their self-help efforts, perhaps also due to the boom conditions which the Barisan Nasional government fostered especially during the 1990s.

They are not enamoured with the Barisan Nasional government and have even voted for the opposition in the past. They understand the issues of the day. Yet they remain ambivalent – afraid that the country’s economic recovery and their individual economic interests will be jeopardised. This concern encourages them to, either avoid politics, or support the status quo unless they can be persuaded otherwise. Partly due to their ignorance and prejudices, many non-Malays are further fearful of the intentions of PAS and fall easy prey to the latter’s propaganda, which the mainstream media dubs as ‘extremist’.

The Secret of Malaysia’s Success

Malaysians must not fear of political change. It must be stressed that this change is merely a removal of the ruling BN elite to be replaced by a new set of opposition leaders. Though there might be some policy changes like the repeal of the obnoxious ISA and amendments to other coercive laws, perhaps also putting a stop to certain privatisation projects which have essentially benefited certain cronies, the political and economic system that is in place will largely remain intact. In fact the reforms will most likely improve the system.

We need to counter this set of BN political beliefs by discussing an alternative explanation of why Malaysia has been so successful for so long. For it is in spite of money politics and nepotism, the resort to communalism and the manipulation of ethno-religious sentiments by political leaders, indeed, in spite of Barisan Nasional rule or Dr Mahathir’s leadership, that economic development has occurred, political stability been maintained, and inter-ethnic harmony sustained. We must therefore understand the secret of Malaysia’s success lest we short-change ourselves.

Decent and Tolerant

Ironically, although the hegemony of this set of beliefs prevails, Malaysians have been ever ready to co-operate and help one another, to tolerate and dialogue with one another, especially in their everyday encounters with others – at work, at play, in schools or in each other’s homes. Why, we even co-celebrate each other’s religious festivals. Indeed, we have compassion for others and abhor conflict and violence.

Such decency and fair-mindedness which is perennial and part of the human spirit, endures, regardless of who our leaders are, no matter which party is in power. It is the secret behind Malaysia’s long-standing inter-ethnic and inter-religious harmony.

Hardworking and Responsible Work Force

Likewise, the fundamental reason for Malaysia’s economic success is our most precious resource: the Malaysian people. The majority of the Malaysian work force is responsible, disciplined, hardworking and productive, a secret which the foreign investors are aware of. This is no doubt true of the workers in the manufacturing sector (be it the electronic and electrical or the footwear or apparel industries), in financial and service sectors, as well as the agricultural. It is even more true when they are paid adequately, treated fairly and allowed to maintain their dignity.

We also have a large number of professionals - lawyers, doctors, engineers, architects, surveyors, computer scientists and educators – who are responsible, knowledgeable and fair-minded. Most business people, bankers, industrialists and developers are also honest, hardworking, capable and sometimes innovative. We even have artists, dancers, actors, playwrights, film-makers, musicians and entertainers who are creative and at times provocative. And of course we have lots of good cooks but perhaps too many good people engaged in department stores and shopping malls selling us goods which we do not really need. All these groups have contributed to Malaysia’s economic well-being and the richness of Malaysia’s life, and will continue to do so regardless of whoever is in power.

The Civil Service

Additionally, our political stability owes much to the presence of a civil service that is generally efficient and hardworking, though perhaps bogged down by too much red-tape. Admittedly, the upper echelon of the civil service has been politicised. Top posts are often filled by individuals who have been promoted not because of proven capabilities nor seniority but rather because of their political connections. They develop into sycophants. There have been unnecessary extravagance and wastage and too much emphasis on the form rather than the substance of things.

Nonetheless, the lower and middle levels continue to be filled by hardworking people who are not paid adequately for the good work they put in. The teachers in our educational service at the primary, secondary and tertiary-levels are a case in point. The surgeons and specialists, medical officers, nurses and technical aides in our general hospitals, district hospitals and rural clinics are another group of dedicated civil servants. The uniformed units (fire and rescue, immigration, military and even the police force especially its traffic, crime and drug enforcement wings) also deserve praise. There are also many heroes at the clerical level, in the pensions department, in the welfare services, in the drainage and irrigation department, etc. They will continue to provide services to the public regardless of who is in power.

Mothers and Wives

Finally, in spite of the hype about bohsia, lepak, youth gangs, drug addiction, etc, we continue to have a very strong familial system irrespective of our different ethnic or religious backgrounds. Mothers and wives continue to perform very important roles at home. They pass on to the young a set of good values that enable them to contribute to society. They also ensure that there’s food on the table for family members.

They continue to perform these fundamental tasks which cement our society together without receiving a wage, without due recognition from society, or enough help from the men-folk. They, too, will continue to contribute to Malaysia’s success and stability irrespective of who is in power.

Approaching the Elections

As we ponder how to vote in the coming elections, keep in mind these considerations of Malaysia’s success and the bankruptcy of the BN’s set of political myths. However, those who are calling for political change, more specifically for the removal of the BN elite, must ensure that they monitor the new government even more closely than they did the BN.

Restoring the rule of law, checks and balances including a meaningful role for the opposition as in any democracy; consultation of the people, and transparency in decision making should be the hallmarks of change. It should also be an opportunity to revoke awards given out to undeserving incompetent people; to provide just rewards for the people who have worked so hard to build the country; and to remove barriers that pit us one against the other just because we belong to different religions or cultures.

If the present Barisan government was willing to address these changes and conduct the necessary reforms, there would have been no reason to call for change. It is precisely because it is not willing to do so, pretending that these injustices and wrong-doings do not exist (what cronyism? what nepotism? the law has taken its course) or blaming others for our shortcomings (George Soros, Al Gore, agents of foreign powers, etc), that there must be political change.

A normal country changes its government regularly. The change of government is usually for five years. Malaysians are now being asked to give the opposition an opportunity to rule for the next five years. Indeed, there will be an opportunity to throw out the opposition if we find them wanting in five years’ time. And that should not be difficult. For if an entrenched government of unbroken rule of 43 years can be dislodged, it would not be a problem to give a walking ticket to a new government that has not lived up to expectations after five years in power.

The Barisan has played mind games with us for too long. They are now telling us that politics is not about idealism but about pragmatism. Beware! This is simply the new code word for the BN’s old set of political beliefs. Politics, we insist, must be based on ideals, however utopian they might be. We must restore politics to its origins, that is, about building a just, free, fair, compassionate society; about realising holistic development and ensuring our human dignity. It is therefore time to follow the urgings of the heart to which our humanity is more closely connected.

Recover the courage of the founding fathers and mothers of Malaysia’s Independence who called for the replacement of the British colonialists! Learn from Aung Sang Suu Kyi, Corazon Aquino and Megawati Sukarnoputri, three recent David-like political neophytes who took on the Goliaths of their countries. Like them let us ride on the tide of democratisation. As you go to vote, keep your wits. But listen to your hearts.