Can Malaysia reform in time? Farish Noor believes change will happen; whether it comes from within or without. Or perhaps from both ends at the same time.
It has been a rather long time since I have had any reason to be thankful or optimistic about where Malaysia is heading, but today I allowed myself a small helping of optimism (and I hasten to add it was a small helping) as a result of the judgement that was passed (or rather not passed) on Anwar Ibrahim.
Others have already sagely noted that it is too early to jump the gun and proclaim that Malaysia is on the path of genuine institutional reform, though I was pleased to see that the charges against Anwar were thrown out for the best of reasons, namely that there was little that could be used against the man.
Decades from now a movie might be made about the life of Anwar Ibrahim, and though he — and Malaysia — cannot be said to be an individual or country that merits such global attention it has to be conceded that very few individuals have had to go through what he has been through, along with his long-suffering family.
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If on that basis alone I can say that I truly sympathise with Anwar for what he has been put through since 1998. The movie, if it is ever made, is bound to a spectacular tear-jerker with moments of tension and drama aplenty; and indeed one can say that few people have had to be the centre of drama for so long; and so unflattering terms.
However, I digress. My optimism lies in the fact that one can perhaps read today’s events as a case of regime maintenance 101, when the embattled powers-that-be face an uncertain future and are forced to accept the simple fact that the society they have governed for so long has wised up and matured, and no longer believe in ghosts or bogeymen of the past.
Cynics may scoff at today’s court decision and claim that it was an instance of a regime trying to defend itself against the rising tide of public criticism; but never mind. Even if that were the case, it only drives home the simple fact that regimes the world over now have to accept the necessity of reform or run the risk of perishing.
This is, by now, an old story and the structuralist in me cannot help but see patterns that have been repeated time and again across the postcolonial world. Of course since last year the global media was abuzz with talk of the Arab spring and how it may impact beyond the shores of the Arab world, reaching Asia.
Do give it a rest, for surely anyone with a memory that extends back at least a decade will tell you that long before the Arab spring there was the fall of Suharto in May-June 1998; and a decade before the equally graceless fall of Ferdinand Marcos and his designer shoe-loving wife Imelda.
In all these cases we see structural similarities at work: Postcolonial elites in Asia, North Africa, Africa and the Arab world come to power in the 1950s as decolonisation spreads across the globe, and immediately assume the mantle of the new saviours of the new-born nation.
But then what happens? Look at the corruption and excesses of the nationalists of Algeria, who almost immediately took to corruption and abuse of power like ducks to water. Look at the megalomania and cult of leadership among the Arab and South Asian leaders, with men like Zulfikar Ali Bhutto talking about democracy on the one hand and sponsoring his private army on the other.
Look at the downright crass and vulgar consumerism of the elites of Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines, who robbed their people blind while extolling the virtues of the free market and development, and along the way collecting enough handbags and shoes to fill a score of department stores. And now that the scourge of the OKB complex — Orang Kaya Baru, as they call it in Indonesia — has come to Malaysia as well, we now have our own lurid tales of handbags galore to excite our jaded imagination.
What all these regimes did was common in many respects: They personalised power and centralised it in the hands of an increasingly smaller oligarchy; they kept power in the hands of a few families and cronies; and they lorded it over the masses who could not have and could not afford what they had.
The creed of postcolonial authoritarian states has always been uncontrolled capitalism and the rush for more wealth; with the attendant power and economic cleavages in tow. Imelda Marcos did not end as a woman whom others admired for her handbags; she was loathed for them by people who could not afford rice. The same applies to the Suharto family and all the other corrupt ruling elites of the postcolonial world.
In the process of enriching and empowering themselves, it was they — and not the masses — who first introduced, and later expanded — the gulf between the rich and the poor; pushing the already poor masses to the extreme of being more and more disempowered and disconnected from the system.
The end result is a growing pyramid of inequality where the gradient grows steeper, to the point where those outside the system of networks and privileges feel that they — literally — have nothing left to lose. I recall seeing how students in Jakarta were throwing bricks and sticks at every Mercedes-Benz or BMW that drove past, as these were symbols of their relative want and poverty.
Yet it seems to have become a norm that so many elites in the postcolonial world cannot see this happening around them until it is too late, because they cannot look beyond their credit cards and the next purchase in front of their noses.
Our political culture across the postcolonial world remains a hybrid entity, made up by the misappropriated tools of modernity held in the clutches of a feudalism that cannot and will not die. Every cheap, low-grade tin-pot dictator wants a yacht for himself, a private jet, a luxury home and some babes in tow (Or tucked away in some apartment block in Orchard road). Their wives are often just as bad, exhibiting a gluttony for shopping that borders on the pathological, even during times of economic hardship.
Ultimately the disconnected masses who have nothing to lose (as they have for so long been denied a stake in anything) will say enough is enough, and this brings us one step closer to social change whether we like it or not.
Can Malaysia reform in time? I don’t know as I am not a fortune teller (if I was I wouldn’t be earning the salary of a teacher I can tell you), but change will happen; whether it comes from within or without. Or perhaps from both ends at the same time.
One thing is clear though, and it is that the old institutions of power are beginning to adjust to the new realities on the ground. The fact that they even realise this is happening is already a miracle for someone like me who is jaded beyond description and with a failing heart to boot.
Whatever happens in the weeks and months to come, things — or at least something — will move. And movement, and change, are always positive indicators that there is life in the nation yet.
Dr Farish A Noor, an Aliran member, is a senior fellow at the Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.