The outcome of the 2022 general election held the promise of a new era for Malaysia.
A quarter of a century of Reformasi struggle culminated in the Anwar Ibrahim-led Pakatan Harapan winning power in alliance with, surprise, surprise, the Umno-led Barisan Nasional and coalitions in Sarawak and Sabah.
It was a mixed outcome with Pakatan Harapan joining forces with establishment coalitions and parties to form a “unity government”
We pay tribute to all those who struggled in those dark years – remembering those arrested, those who paid a heavy price, those who did not live to see the results of the struggle.
But after one year, hopes seem to have faded as new challenges have emerged.
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We have seen precious little in the way of genuine reforms. Perhaps we have to be thankful the political situation has calmed down, and there is no overt racial and religious agitation.
But the 12 August state elections saw what looked like a ‘green wave’ sweeping down from the north of the peninsula. This has left many rattled. This turn to the conservative religious right in the north might threaten the fabric of Malaysian society over the medium term.
The unity government, by its very nature, while providing some stability, makes it harder to pursue real reform. The broad base of its political representation, including members of the ‘old guard’ from Umno, provides space for vested or establishment interests to neutralise civil society’s People’s Agenda.
Repressive laws remain in place and several activists have even been hauled up.
This is happening against a global backdrop of a decline in democracy across every region in the world, according to the Global State of Democracy Report 2023 by International Idea. Last year, 2022, was the sixth consecutive year in which more countries experienced net declines in democratic process than improvements.
The same report also speaks of the importance of “countervailing institutions” (including NGOs, civil society networks, human rights groups) to stem this erosion of democracy.
That’s not all. A recent Ipsos poll showed that only 20% of respondents in Malaysia said they considered politicians to be trustworthy, making the group the least trusted in the country. Government ministers at 26% and journalists at 27% were not far behind.
But before we decide what we can do, we have to figure out what has gone wrong.
Has the global decline in democracy something to do with the hijacking of democracy to serve vested interests, including state capture or corporate interests?
We have seen how ordinary people’s interests have been threatened in many parts of the world. Locally, food security has been threatened in Penang with fisherfolk losing their traditional fishing waters and farmers losing their farmlands in Perak, to cite just two examples. The beneficiaries are likely to be large corporations, who could end up raking huge profits.
It is actions such as these that keep the gap between the rich and the poor wide. This is all part of a top-down development model under neoliberal corporate-led globalisation that often usurps the Commons for profit – at the expense of the people who toil for a living.
Under this development model, there is often resistance to policies that could narrow the gap, such as progressive or wealth taxes that could tax the billionaire class or the top 5% at a much higher rate.
Without such additional tax revenue, the government finds it hard to spend more on welfare policies, such as a universal pension scheme, public healthcare and improved public transport. Why, it is even reluctant to push for a more reasonable minimum wage that would be closer to a living wage.
And so, the working class find themselves even more hard-pressed to keep up with the rising cost of living, with many only having meagre savings in their Employees Provident Fund.
Financially squeezed, they then become easy pickings for groups fanning chauvinistic ethnic and religious sentiment and even xenophobia.
Their voices are then amplified by social media algorithms, which push their posts to a captive, often resentful audience, looking for someone to blame for their sorry predicament. What could be easier than pointing to “the other” like migrants and refugees or ethnic and religious minorities?
Conversely, social justice and civil society groups like Aliran that are pushing for more meaningful reforms find our postings throttled by the algorithms of Big Tech. So this has stymied our efforts to reach out to our social media followers.
To overcome this, Aliran this year expanded its reach using a broader array of social media platforms rather than relying on only a couple of major platforms.
Besides this, we have revived our long dormant chapter of Klang Valley members to reach out directly to the public. Our major activity this year has been organising hybrid talks at the Petaling Jaya office of one of our members to reach out to our members in Klang Valley. This is also beamed on Zoom and Facebook live and later posted on YouTube to reach a larger audience.
From December this year, we will organise similar ‘live’ fraternity talks from the Aliran office in Penang. These talks will target our Penang members and friends, apart from being telecast online to a broader audience.
In this way, we will have two ‘studios’ – one in the Klang Valley and the other in Penang. This will help raise the profile of Aliran in the Klang Valley while increasing the utilisation of our Penang office building as a venue for talks and fraternity gatherings in the northern region.
So, given our constraints, the challenge for Aliran is to find new ways of reaching out to the public using a combination of our website, social media channels, hybrid talks and NGO networking to promote a more inclusive and just society.
We are pleased that two of our Aliran executive committee members are now on the Bersih leadership team, while a third sits on the multi-ethnic Gabungan Bertindak Malaysia committee. Our ordinary members are also actively involved in a host of civil society coalitions and groups in Malaysia.
Ordinary members can also play a role by writing for us, sharing our articles on messaging and social media platforms, attending our talks and fraternity gatherings, and representing Aliran at various events.
Together, we must find new and creative ways of reaching out to a wider audience.
The violence and genocide in the Middle East and elsewhere has taught us we cannot afford to ignore people’s suffering in any part of the world, for we are all interconnected.
To paraphrase the words of Martin Luther King, Jr: Those who love peace and justice must learn to organise as effectively as those who indulge in war, oppression, greed and injustice.
The above was Anil’s presidential address, slightly updated, at the recent Aliran annual general meeting